Stem stitch and variations

Stem stitch is one of the basic embroidery stitches that my grandmother taught me when I was a child. She knew it as crewel stitch but you might also see it described as stalk stitch or outline stitch. You will often find that embroidery stitches have multiple names.

I recommend you add stem stitch to your own stitch library as you will find you use it in many hand embroidery techniques. I covered it in passing on my Redwork embroidery page, but I felt it deserved a full stem stitch tutorial, where I can go into more depth.

You can work stem stitches on a variety of embroidery fabrics but tightly woven materials (with more threads to the inch) allow you to place the stitches more accurately. From one strand of silk thread or embroidery floss up to heavy pearl cottons - all will work depending on your requirements. 

There are several variations to the basic stitch. These include Portuguese Knotted Stem StitchRaised Stem and Trailing Stitch. These are all textured and sit above the surface of the fabric making them ideal for Stumpwork embroidery patterns.

The floral embroidery pattern in the photograph uses detached chain (also known as lazy daisy stitch), star stitch and straight stitch besides the three types of stem stitch covered on this page.

If you would like to work this as a project, you can download the pattern here.

Stem Stitch video guide

In the video below, I introduce you to stem stitch and show it being worked in an embroidery hoop

If you are right-handed work from left to right and keep the working thread below the row. Reverse this if you are left-handed.

Bring the needle up from the back on the line you are about to stitch. Take it down again one stitch length along.

If you are working without a hoop you can insert the needle and bring it back through the fabric in a single movement in what is known as the sewing method. Be extra careful with your tension to avoid puckering the work. 

If you are working in a hoop, don't pull the thread all the way through, just hold it to the side while you insert the needle halfway between the entry and exit points. Draw the needle through and gently pull the thread so the stitch sits neatly on the surface.

Insert the needle again, further along the row, half a stitch length from the end of the previous stitch. Bring it back to the surface where the previous stitch ended and then repeat. 


What thread should I use?

You can vary the thread used for stem stitch to give different effects. 

A single strand of embroidery floss or silk will produce a delicate fine line. Move up to a size 12 pearl cotton, such as used in the top row in the photograph, to add a little more body.

For a narrow row of Stem Stitch keep all your stitches on the same line. However, to make it wider you can bring the needle out above the line, making the stitch more diagonal. I illustrate this in the second row in the photo.  

If you want your row of stitches to be more bold, pick a thicker thread such as a size 8 pearl cotton or use multiple strands of floss. 


How can I stitch a curve or fill a shape?

Shorten your stitches as you work around curves and lengthen them slightly on the straight sections to navigate all the twists and turns of your design lines.

These lines can be used for flower stems, animal whiskers, leaf veins, butterfly antenna, lettering and much more. 

Also, don't rule it out for filling solid areas of a hand embroidery pattern. Placing rows of stem stitch side-by-side, perhaps changing colour as you progress, can create attractive leaves or flower petals. 

Raised Stem Stitch

When working stem stitch over a framework of straight stitches placed at right angles to the row, this basic embroidery stitch becomes more dimensional. 

Start by laying stitches across the shape to be filled equidistant from each other. Do not put tension on these, but let them lay comfortably on the surface. If, as in the example in these photographs, you are filling a leaf, start as near to the point as you can. 

Bring the needle through to the front of the work at the tip of the leaf. We will work the stem stitches through the framework and not through the fabric. 

When working stem stitch over a framework of straight stitches placed at right angles to the row, this basic embroidery stitch becomes more dimensional. 

Start by laying stitches across the shape to be filled equidistant from each other. Do not put tension on these, but let them lay comfortably on the surface. If, as in the example in these photographs, you are filling a leaf, start as near to the point as you can. 

Bring the needle through to the front of the work at the tip of the leaf. We will work the stem stitches through the framework and not through the fabric. 

Continue in the same manner, working your way across the width of the leaf. When your first straight stitch is full, and you need to travel further up the side of the leaf, just miss it out. As you progress, you will ignore more of the straight stitches, only working over those that are in your path. 

The completed raised stem stitch leaves will appear padded or lifted slightly off the fabric. 

We often find this variation of the basic stitch in crewel work designs. 

Portuguese Knotted Stem Stitch

If you want a raised appearance for a single line, but do not want to use a thicker thread, you can another variation of stem stitch.

Perhaps better called a wrapped stitch rather than knotted, Portuguese Knotted Stem involves a simple extra step. After working each stitch, you need to slip the needle under both the stitch you have just made and the previous one, twice.

Trust me, it is easier to do than it sounds. Check out the video. 

I do hope you will give these variations of stem stitch a try. Contact me if you have questions. 


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