How To: Five Handy Embroidery Stitches

comments (15) September 2nd, 2008     

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erika_kern Erika Kern, contributor
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These five embroidery stitches are a great place to start. From top to bottom: blanket stitch, split stitch, stem stitch, back stitch, chain stitch.
Start your split stitch by coming up through the middle of your first stitch, splitting it in half.
Make the rest of your stitches the same length as your first to get a nice, even line.
These five embroidery stitches are a great place to start. From top to bottom: blanket stitch, split stitch, stem stitch, back stitch, chain stitch.

These five embroidery stitches are a great place to start. From top to bottom: blanket stitch, split stitch, stem stitch, back stitch, chain stitch.

Photo: Erika Kern
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I have a confession to make . . . hand embroidery is super easy. I know I shouldn't say that; it's in my best interest to keep the mystery of the stitches to myself so that others hire me to stitch for them, but frankly . . . it's just coloring with thread. There, now I've done it. I'm sure I'll be hearing from the Stitcher's League of America where they'll revoke my stitching privileges. That's not to say that it can't be difficult and challenging, just that it doesn't have to be. The learning curve is a lot more friendly.

I'm amazed when other, more accomplished crafters talk about how hard it seems. These are people who sew clothing and knit and make jewelery! Their crafts require math and counting and dangerous tools! Trust me, if I can figure this stuff out, anyone can.

Here are five stitches that I can't live without. (French knots are also on my list, but why do another tutorial when the lovely Jennifer Stern rocked an awesome one out a few weeks back? Check it out! French knots are super cool!)

embroidery Get more embroidery information:

• How to Embroider a Greeting Card
• Embroidery Term of the Week: Topping
The Last Stitch: How to Finish Your Hand-Embroidery
How to Turn Photos into Embroidered Portraits

Split Stitch: The split stitch is great for everything. Outlines? Yep! Letters? You betcha! Fills? Heck, yea! It's the perfect stitch to use on clothing or accessories or anything that's going to get a lot of action since each stitch locks the stitch before it down. I like to use shorter stitches for outlines and letters because they give you more control on curves and such, and a longer stitch on fills so that I'm not stitching until the next Olympics.


Start your split stitch by coming up through the middle of your first stitch, splitting it in half.

That's why it's called a split stitch!


Make the rest of your stitches the same length as your first to get a nice, even line.

Start your stitches in the middle of the stitch before. Use the end of the stitch two stitches before as a guide.

The back of your split stitch should look like the front of the back stitch. That's how you know you're doing it right!

Stem Stitch: I LOVE the stem stitch! Once you get it down, it's the easiest outlining stitch in town. It also has a cool ropey look about it that makes it great for lettering. Like the split stitch, use shorter stitches when you're working anything with curves.


The first stitch of your stem stitch should be half the length of the rest of your stitches. Start your second stitch alongside your first stitch.

Start each stitch at the end of the stitch two stitches before, so the start of the third stitch should be at the end of the first.

This stitch is great to work "from the front," which means you can poke the needle through and out of the fabric without switching your hand from back to front. This makes stitching go much faster and makes the whole process easier on your hands.


Make sure all your stitches start on the same side of your stitch line.

Just like with your split stitch, the back of your stem stitch should look like a back stitch.

Back Stitch: The back stitch is a great outline, especially if you want a homespun effect to your work. It's also great when using a few strands of floss to get thin, almost pen-and-ink-style line for backgrounds and fills. I've used it several times when doing black and white embroidery to add lowlights and textures. As a fill, it makes for great texture. Make the stitches in a bricklike fashion, and you've got a pretty long/short style fill (I used to call this a running stitch until I was corrected by a lovely commenter, normasews.  A running stitch actually looks like a broken line! Thanks normasews!)


Start your back stitch as you would any other line stitch. Start the second stitch on the other side of your stitch.

Since you can't start the second stitch at the end of the first without pulling the first stitch out, you need to start the stitch on the away side of the stitch.


Start the third stitch at the end of the second stitch.

The back stitch line should look like a perforated line in paper.


Make sure all your stitches are the same length.

The back of the back stitch will not look like the back stitch! It should look like a running stitch when done correctly.

Chain Stitch: I love the chain stitch as much as I love the stem stitch. Ask me which one I love better and I couldn't choose—it'd be like picking a favorite child. Don't make me do it! Big and loopy, it makes a great accent stitch, while tighter it makes a great old-timey-looking outline for patterns and letters. I've also used it as a fill and find that the openness of the chain makes for great texture when stitching hair or fur.


The first stitch of your chain stitch is a loop. It should start and stop in the same place. Start the second stitch at the top of the loop.

All your loop stitches will be made in the same way. Use your free hand to add a bit of tension to the previous loop.

This is another great stitch to work from the front and goes like rockets once you get it down.


The bigger your loops, the more chainlike your stitches will look.

Like the split stitch and the stem stitch before it, the back of the chain stitch will also look like our friend the back stitch.

Blanket Stitch: The blanket stitch is my go-to joining stitch. If you look in my shop, you will see it over and over and over. I love the old world of this stitch and like to use it to add a handcrafted look to mundane, everyday items. This stitch looks hard, but it's so very easy once you get it down.  The stitch is worked right to left, like the pictures below.  The pictures may look strange or flipped but that's just because I was stitching upside down for the camera, the stitches are still going the right direction.


The first stitch of the blanket stitch is a three-point stitch. Starting on the bottom fabric, insert your needle diagonally into the top fabric. Bring the needle down in line with the first stitch over your floss.

 


The second stitch starts on the top fabric. Bring your needle down into the bottom fabric as you did on the first stitch.

This stitch is also great to join edges or as a decorative border on blankets, quilts, home accessories, and clothing.


This stitch gets its name because it's often used to edge blankets. The more even your stitches are, the more polished your finished work will look.

If you're using the blanket stitch on an edge, the front and back should look the same. If you're using it to join two flat pieces, then the back will look like evenly spaced vertical lines.

Now stop worrying and start stitching! There are tons of patterns out there from Jenny Hart to vintage-looking Aunt Martha to Etsy finds, or you can even make your own (which I'll be covering in the weeks to come)!

Happy stitching!

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posted in: embroidery, stitches

Comments (15)

MDJim writes: In surgery the blanket stitch is a lock stitch. I learned to embroider by using stitches I learned in Med School and branched out from there. My favorite embroidery experience was while traveling slowly through Islamic countries on my way to Kathmandu from Ireland.I embroidered mosques and Arab numbers 0-10 on my wife's denim shirt. We still have it!
Posted: 3:57 pm on December 25th
MDJim writes: In surgery the blanket stitch is a lock stitch. I learned to embroider by using stitches I learned in Med School and branched out from there. My favorite embroidery experience was while traveling slowly through Islamic countries on my way to Kathmandu from Ireland.I embroidered mosques and Arab numbers 0-10 on my wife's denim shirt. We still have it!
Posted: 3:56 pm on December 25th
lalitha26 writes: Thanks for sharing the stitches with us. I do alot of cross stitching and such. So it's always good to learn new stitches.

Posted: 9:21 pm on January 24th
katrinehomeblog writes: These are sooo helpful, thank you. i am teaching embroidery to kids, and this is a great illustration. we are embroidering tea towels for their first project. and they are hooked!
Posted: 8:29 am on January 25th
CyndyG writes: I really like your site! My grandmothers and my mother are traditional seamstresses, crafters, and quilters, so I appreciate your info. Question about quilting stitches: I'd like to substitute one of your five handy embroidery stitches on my next quilt. Again, which one(s) give(s) the appearance of the separated stitch on the underside of the fabric? (Like this: - - - - -, etc.)? I like the idea of "switching it up" on the front, but being "traditional" on the back.

Thanks!
CyndyG:)
Posted: 10:22 am on January 22nd
aprilleigh1974 writes: Great! Thanks for the info and the great pics. I already knew three different stitches, I just didn't KNOW they were considered embroidery. Not bad :) Tonight I learned the chain stitch and I like it! :) thanks!
Posted: 11:04 pm on September 16th
Oroilore writes: Good timing! I had a coworker ask me, "How do you do this stich?" Then she proceed to draw it on a piece of paper. What she was drawing was the blanket stick. I told her, "I know what she want and I know where to find the instructions". I sent her the link to this post and now I'm a hero.
Posted: 12:00 am on September 17th
Jen1964 writes: If you can find that 1/8 inch yellow gingham, I highly recommend an embroidery project that you design yourself. Samplers were popular forever, and I learned on one. The center is where you put the simplified "home" you live in. With those stitches you showed, you can do so much. Each link in the chain stitch can be a petal or a leaf. Simple "x" stitches can add a nice touch for making large alphabets or borders. But any combination of stitches that you like can make a border that's both intriguing and fun. A message of favorite quote helps round out the piece. You get to pick out your emboidery floss colors, and make it so you love it. The main point is to have fun (and learn). Great way to help young girls (and some boys with patience) to learn to sew. -Jen
Posted: 10:00 am on September 16th
erika_kern writes: Fixed! Thanks normasews, you're a lifesaver!
Posted: 8:05 pm on September 15th
erika_kern writes: I stand corrected! Sorry about that, I've always know that as a running stitch. . . makes sense though, since you have to go back to do the stitch. Duh, Erika! Thanks for the info, I'll go back and fix it!
Posted: 7:54 pm on September 15th
normasews writes: What you are describing as a running stitch is actually a modified back stitch! A running stitch has spaces between the stitches on the front of the embroidery.
Posted: 9:04 am on September 15th
evany writes: Yay! I can't wait to give all these a try! Thanks for taking the time to write a fun, teachy tutorial, you're the greatest!
Posted: 9:30 am on September 5th
erika_kern writes: Thanks! Yeah, the chain stitch is the bomb! I always admire the cross stitcher. . . especially the counted cross stitcher. . . I always miscount and then have to rip it out and stitch it all over again!
Posted: 6:51 pm on September 3rd
nascargurl writes: Thanks for sharing the stitches with us. I do alot of cross stitching and such. So it's always good to learn new stitches.

Jamie (nascargurl)
Posted: 8:46 pm on September 2nd
LindaPermann writes: these are great erika! I don't do that much embroidery but when I do, it's good to know that I can do more than the chain stitch. :)
Posted: 1:33 pm on September 2nd
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