How to Embroider a Leaf

I am often asked how to embroider a leaf, and there isn't really a quick answer. Leaves come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and colours. No one method will work for them all.

So let's look at how we could tackle leaves in your future needlework projects. 

Before you pick up your needle and choose your thread, take a moment to decide how your finished embroidery leaves should look.

  • Outlined or filled in?
  • Realistic or cartoon-like?
  • Textured or smooth?
  • One flat colour or softly shaded?

Already you can begin to see that leaves can be a challenge. When you add to this all the many stitches that you could pick, it is easy to see why you might ask for help.

How to embroider leaves and stems

Detached chain stitch leafletsSplit stitch stem and detached chain stitch with tails for the leaflets

Learning how to embroider a leaf was one of the first needlework techniques my grandmother taught me when I was small. Granted, they were just tiny ovals made with detached chain stitches (or lazy daisy stitches as they are also known). But if you only want tiny leaves, to go with tiny flowers, they serve the purpose.

Keep in mind that if your stitches are small, they look best worked in a fine thread.

Although simple, the detached chain stitch is adaptable. I give basic instructions on this page. Also check out my strawberry project which, believe it or not, uses the same stitch!

As well as varying the length of the chain, you can also make the tie down stitch longer to create a spiky leaf as in the photograph. If your leaf requires a stalk, you can use any of the line stitches, such as stem, split, or backstitch.


Detached chain leaflets on a stem stitch stemStem stitch stalks with detached chain stitch leaves

Fly stitch leaf

Leaf stitched with fly stitchFly stitch leaf

For a slightly larger leaf, consider the fly stitch. You could use a single, Y shaped, fly stitch for a generic piece of greenery in a floral design. But group them together and you can achieve a more realistic looking motif. 

You can watch me work fly stitch in a short video here.

The trick here is not to try to place every element perfectly, but to allow some randomness to creep in. After all, in a real leaf, the veins are not all equidistant from each other, and the outside edge is not totally symmetrical and smooth.

In the example photograph here, I used DMC Perle cotton number 8 which is a non-divisible twisted thread. This is thicker than stranded cotton and covers more fabric with each stitch. It might be too chunky for tiny leaves, in which case you might like to try the thinner number 12 version.


Insect eating leaves?

Leaves stitched using buttonhole stitchButtonhole stitch with backstitch outline

Buttonhole stitch might not be the first thing that comes to your mind when you are and thinking about how to embroider a leaf. However, for some plants it can work well, as it gives a corded edge which could represent the centre vein. 

Before stitching the leaves in this photograph, I had been watching a nature program about the Sundew, an insect-eating plant. Their leaves close up around flies so they can be ingested. Pretty gruesome, eh?

For some reason, I could immediately see a folded leaf shape worked in buttonhole stitches. If I tried this again, I might use a second coloured thread and work a second row of stitches back to back.

If you space the buttonhole stitches farther apart, you get what is known as blanket stitch, but the method of working is otherwise the same.

In this example I used a medium-weight rayon thread for the buttonhole stitches and then a finer firm cotton for the backstitch along the other side of the leaf. 

I also used buttonhole stitch for the ferns below. Here I worked two rows, back-to-back, and whipped the corded edges together afterwards.

Ferns stitched with barb stitch

How to embroider a leaf with Satin stitch

Leaves worked in satin stitch using crewel woolSatin stitch worked in crewel wool

I would hazard a guess that along with lazy daisy, this is a stitch that many will turn to when embroidering leaves. Although popular, satin stitch does have its drawbacks. 

If you work right across a medium to large leaf shape, from one side to the other, the stitches can end up quite long. These long stitches can snag and pull during regular laundering or daily use. 

There are ways around this. For the ivy leaves in the photograph, I came from one side of the leaf into the centre as I worked my way around. This creates a suggestion of a central vein as well as keeping the stitches shorter. I used crewel wool for this project which was worked from a kit many moons ago. The design featured many plant pots on the rungs of a wooden ladder. 

Here's a tip you might like to use when working satin stitch. First, outline the leaf with backstitch or split stitch, then work over this framework. This produces a smoother outer edge. You can take this further and work over a piece of felt or interfacing, to create padded satin stitch which is raised off the surface of your background fabric. 


Fishbone stitch leaves

A floral embroidery which uses Fishbone stitch for the leavesFishbone stitch leaves

If you want a more deliberate vein down the centre of your leaf, then you might like to try fishbone stitch. This works just as well as a counted stitch on evenweave fabrics as it does in surface embroidery.

It is your choice whether to leave gaps between the stitches or to place them close together.

In the floral piece in the photograph, I used the raised fishbone variation for all the leaves. For the spikey stems, I used thorn stitch. I used DMC stranded cotton for all of this design.


Split stitch leaves

Tulips worked in split stitchSplit stitch tulip leaves

You might have used split stitch only to form lines in a design, but it is equally as useful when you work those lines close together to fill an area.

It works best with longer leaves like those in the tulip floral photographed here. I stitched all the leaves in this project using split stitch, including the outlined one. Again, stranded cotton was my thread of choice here.


I hope these examples have given you some ideas for how to embroider a leaf.  You will find more by clicking on the links below...

If you liked this page, and would like more like it, feel free to comment below.


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