Hand embroidery basics: stem stitch

Stem stitch is my absolute favorite in hand embroidery. It can be applied to a huge variety of purposes within the ground fabric: lines, shapes outlining, lettering, filling the shapes. And as you may guess from the name of this stitch, it is commonly used for embroidering flower stems. I truly believe that this stitch is one of the pillars of hand embroidery, it is just so handy.

So, how to stitch a stem stitch? It is quite simple, actually. First what you need to do is making a straight stitch – which means bringing the thread through the fabric in the starting point of a line (point A in the picture) and bringing it back to the underside in a small distance from the start (point B).

Next, bring the needle back up, piercing the fabric right in the middle of the previous stitch (point C). Now, we repeat these steps over and over, until we have a stitched line.

There is a peculiar feature in this stitch one should be aware of – it can change its looks depending on the side where the thread is brought up through the fabric.

You can see the difference for yourself in the picture below. The first horizontal row is stitched with the needle coming from the below the previous stitches. The second row is stitched with the needle coming from above the previous stitches.

As you may notice, the upper row has a more “rope” looking appearance, while the lower one seems more solid. The vertical lines are also stitched with the needle coming from different sides.

Some differentiate these as two different stitches: stem stitch is the one where needle is brought up from below the thread and an outline stitch is the one where needle is brought up from above the thread.

For me, however, this distinction is a bit confusing, so I prefer to think of it as a stem stitch with different faces.

There are also other faces of this stitch. The look will depend on many aspects: the amount of fabric you pick up with each stitch, the number of strands you are using, the point at which you bring the needle up (right under the previous stitch or slightly aside) and other. But it's probably a topic of a separate post.

Are you stem-stitch – friendly? What do you think the main difficulties are while using it in embroidery?

1 comment

  1. Hi Amina,
    Never gave a thought to the way the needle is brought up in stem stitch. So indeed there are several variations to the stem stitch, thank you for the insight, it made me look at stem stitch in a new way.


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