Among my myriad stitchery books, Betty Barndon’s Embroidery Stitch Bible (Krause Publishing, 2003) ranks as the most popular and most used. The first book I dove into as a beginner, it remains relevant now even though I am familiar with many stitches and styles. It has been beaten hard and traveled all over the planet with with me. Its spiral binding is tucked inside of a book binding, so I can throw it in my project bag and don’t have to worry about the wire catching my threads.
Thorough and concise, Brandon organizes the stitches into uses then explores each stitch, it’s variations, uses and alternative names. Each stitch is photographed in different sizes and with different threads and accompanied by a clear illustration and instructions. She includes beginner stitches like cross stitch, and then moves onto more complicated ones like couching and smocking. This is more than chain stitch and french knots, but goes on to explore drawn thread, counted thread, Bargello, needlepoint, and canvaswork.
There is a separate section on freestyle embroidery techniques, applique, quilting, etc, as well as heaps of other inspiration, including a section on how to practice. I love that there are no patterns here, just information and more information.
I have a lot of embroidery books, but if I had to narrow it down to one, this would be my reference book of choice. Even though it has a cover price of $29.99, you can do a quick internet search and find it for as low as $18.