Fishbone Stitch - ideal for embroidered leaves

On this page I am going to introduce you to fishbone stitch, both flat and raised.  I often use it when stitching leaves to create a "vein" down the centre, where the thread changes direction. 

Do you know how your mind goes off on a tangent sometimes? I was just thinking that there seems to be a connection between fish and stitching.

There is the herringbone stitch named from it's resemblance to the fish skeleton and I recently learned that the Victorians even used real fish scales in their embroidery! I think I will stick to the modern day sequin.

Anyway, back to the subject at hand.

Although I used embroidery floss for my samples, you could choose to stitch with crewel wool if you want a matt effect.

Floral embroidery with raised fishbone leaves and flowersfig 1 - raised fishbone leaves in a floral design
The design I stitched here came from J. Marsha Michler's book Motifs for Crazy Quilting. It is just an outline drawing, leaving you to make your choice of stitches and colors.

How to work flat fishbone stitch

To get started, thread your needle with a fairly long length of thread, as this stitch can use more than you first expect. 

  • Bring your needle to the front in the middle of the leaf (A) and work a straight stitch up to the tip (B). 
  • Bring your needle up at point C on the diagram, which is just below, and to the left, of point B. Take it down close to the center, on the right-hand side (D).
  • Come back up at point E, to the right of the central straight stitch and level with point C. Go down at point F, just to the left of the center.
  • Come back up at point G, to the left and a little lower than point C. Go down at point H, below point D.
Digram for working fishbonefig 2 - fishbone stitch diagram

Continue to follow the outside shape, working stitches on alternate sides until you have filled the shape. You can either place the stitches close to each other or spaced out a little, for different effects.

Try to keep the stitches that go down in the center lined up as best you can. This results in a nice smooth vein line. 

If you leave a small gap between your stitches, you will achieve an open fishbone leaf, as in fig 3, with a plaited effect down the center.

You can also see an example of this on my filling stitches page. 

Photo of an open fishbone leaffig 3 - open fishbone leaf


What's the difference between the two versions?

So what is the difference between the two forms of fishbone stitch?

  • For the basic version take each stitch through the fabric close to the center of the leaf.
  • When working raised fishbone you take the stitch across the entire width of the shape each time, forming a double layer of stitches which creates a more padded effect.

Raised fishbone stitch instructions

You can see the depth this gives in fig 4, as the leaf is causing a shadow on the fabric. A flatter leaf would not do this.

I have split the stitch diagram (fig 5) in to 3 stages to make it easier to see what is happening.

Start with a vertical stitch, which is around 1/3rd to 1/2 the length of the leaf. 

Then bring the needle out to the right of point 2, at point 3, on the outside edge of your shape. 

Take the needle back to the top and down through the fabric right next to point 1, and up at 5. This forms a short horizontal stitch on the back of the work.

Take the needle back down at 6, on the same invisible line as point 3.

This time, taking a slightly sloping horizontal stitch on the back between points 6 and 7, bring the needle back to the front of the work. 

Take the thread across the worked area and insert the needle at point 8 on the outside edge. 

Bring it back up at point 9, again forming a horizontal stitch on the back. Continue in this manner, forming diagonal stitches on the front and horizontal stitches on the back to fill the area.

Photo of raised fishbone leaffig 4 - raised fishbone stitch
Raised fishbone stitch diagramfig 5 - raised fishbone diagram

 You could use both variations of this stitch in the same design, to create more interest in the leaves. I do hope you will give one or both variations a try.

Check my how to embroider a leaf page for more stitches you can use for this purpose. 

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