Couching stitch - how to embroider with beautiful textured threads

Couching stitch saved my marriage!

Ok, that is a dramatic statement, but it certainly resolved an issue. I was enjoying my embroidery and the company of my husband one evening when I realized he was muttering under his breath.

Before long he asked, "Why do you have to be so noisy?" Huh?

Embroidery is not generally thought of as a noisy occupation and I had been intent on my stitching, not chatting.

"Your thread is making too much noise!" he grumbled.

I looked up in surprise and then paid attention to my project. Each time I inserted my needle into the drum-tight hooped fabric it first made a loud pop and then a long scraping sound as I dragged the yarn through the fabric.

I had been unaware of the friction between the chunky yarn and closely woven fabric. That was certainly not a marriage made in heaven!

I hastily rethought my plans. Was there a quieter way of stitching? One that would also reduce wear on the fabric and thread?

Couching stitch to the rescue!

It enabled me to use the gorgeous threads I had picked out by laying them on top of the fabric and securing them with finer threads. No noise, no friction!

Fibers you can couch down

Remember those threads you fell in love with at the last stitching show? The ones that were too chunky to go through your fabric, so you set them to one side? This collection could include...

  • Boucle or bobbly yarns
  • Flat and tubular ribbons
  • Braids
  • Cords
  • Beaded or sequined threads
  • Faux fur
  • Artic Rays - chainette
  • Estaz - this looks like Christmas tinsel
  • Chunky metallic threads
couching threadsSome of my personal collection of speciality threads suitable for couching

Get them out of storage! They can all add flair and dimension to your work if you enlist the couching stitch to help you.

Color choices make a difference

You can achieve different effects depending on your color choices.

If you want your couching stitches to show, you can pick a contrasting color for both the couched and couching threads.

For example, a red cord with fine white floss couching could resemble a Christmas candy cane.

If you are trying to keep the stitches hidden, you will need to pick a thread color that blends in well with the thicker fiber and your background fabric. Your couched thread will then appear to be laying loose on the surface.

Designing your pattern

Samples of freeform couching stitchA couched braid and a yarn with thick and thin areas - both couched

You can either doodle a line on the fabric with a disappearing ink pen, or just lay the thread where you fancy, with no line to guide you, as I did with the leaves in the photograph above.

The fancy thread can meander across the background in swirls or curves, or it can lay straight. It is your decision.

I created the letter S on the piece above from a burgundy braid sold for miniature doll's clothing, stitched in place with a matching strand of floss.

You are not limited to lines. Couching is also ideal for filling shapes. You can work. lines side by side, spiral around or even cross over previous lines to form a chequered pattern. 

A simple couching stitch

Couching in a brickwork formationCouching in a brickwork formation

In this photo, I use a dark blue ribbon, folding it back like a hairpin bend at the end of each row.

I used light blue floss to catch down the ribbon, placing small straight stitches across the ribbon in a brickwork-like arrangement

We also use this form of couching stitch in goldwork, where we lay the gold threads side by side on the surface and catch them down in an all-over diaper pattern with silk.


Raised cording - simple couching

You may not want the couched thread to be visible at all.

Its only purpose could be to form a raised line on your fabric. Also known as trailing, this is ideal when you want to add branches, twigs or even bird's feet to your design.

Raised cording used to depict a birds footRaised cording resembling a bird foot

This technique can look really effective when worked over the top of other stitching, for example, as a vine twisted around a log.

Here I used a white matt cotton and stitched over it in two strands of floss.

I tucked my couching stitches as close to the cotton as possible on either side. Each stitch lay right next to the previous, covering the white inner thread. It seems I could have done a better job at the end of the toes. However, do keep in mind the photo is enlarged (that is my story and I'm sticking to it!).

Using other stitches to couch a ribbon

Cretan stitch used to couch down a ribbon

You don't have to stick with a straight stitch when couching.

This photograph shows where I used two rows of cretan stitch to attach a length of ribbon to a crazy quilt block. You could use Herringbone stitch for the same purpose. 

You could even use a chain stitch along the center of the length of ribbon to couch it in place. There are no rules. Experiment!

The couching stitch in needlelace

Needlelace daffodil used couching as part of the process

Another technique that makes use of couching is needlelace.

For this, we draw a pattern on paper, which is laid onto a folded scrap of fabric, then covered with a smooth sticky-backed plastic (or architects linen). Lay a doubled thread over the outline and couch it in place with tiny stitches that go through all layers (fabric backing, paper and plastic).

After completing the lace, remove the couching stitches, freeing the piece of lace from its backing. If this appeals you could try my pretty daffodil in my starting needlepoint lace section of the site.


Stumpwork bunny inside a couched basket

Stumpwork, or raised embroidery projects can also incorporate the couching stitch.

For my stumpwork bunny I used Bokhara Couching for the basket that he is sitting in. For this, I used just one thread and alternated between laying a long horizontal stitch across the basket and then working tiny stitches to hold it in place on my way back across.

As Bokhara Couching resembles a woven textile, it was really effective in representing the basketwork in this design.

Tips for couching

This is a simple and fun technique, and the only thing that can cause problems is securing the end of the fancy thread or braid.

Securing the end

If it will go through the fabric without damage to either the thread or fabric, then tie a knot in the end and bring it up where you want to start work. Easy!

If this isn't possible, then you will need to leave the end of the braid, ribbon, or whatever on the surface. You may choose to turn the end under and stitch through it to hold it in place, if it isn't too heavy.

If all else fails, try to cover the end by other embroidery, or maybe a button, so it is less obvious.

After you have finished

Couching is more suited to decorative pieces of embroidery rather than practical items that will need washing often. The long threads can snag and the couching threads can break if handled roughly.

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