Stumpwork embroidery - a free guide

Stumpwork Today

Let's explore the rich and creative world of stumpwork embroidery, an art form that truly brings textiles to life.

Steeped in history, dating back to the 17th century, it still offers boundless modern-day applications and personalization.

Traditional flat embroidery lays a beautiful foundation, but when you incorporate stumpwork, you give your design layers of depth and tactile interest.

Also known as raised embroidery, this art form showcases the ingenuity and expertise of needleworkers across the ages.

A stumpwork project featuring a reindeer's headFig 1 - This stumpwork reindeer uses the techniques of padding and needlelace

A Brief History of Stumpwork Embroidery

Stumpwork embroidery is a fascinating and intricate form of needlework that dates back to 17th century England.

Once a historical technique reserved for religious attire and sacred items, it has grown into a beloved artistry. This three-dimensional embroidery, characterized by its raised and textured details, brings designs to life that flat stitches cannot.

The National Trust at Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire, holds an example of a stumpwork box, embroidered by Hannah Trapham and dated 1671, in its collection. 

The embroidery displays animals such as a leopard, flowers, and fruit, as well as elements that depict the biblical story of Jacob's Ladder (from Genesis 28:10–19).

Teachers often instructed children in the craft of stumpwork embroidery to improve their fine motor skills and creativity. Many of the stumpwork treasures found in museums, such as the V&A in London, include the child's age as evidence of their work.

This technique required precision and attention to detail, which would have helped to cultivate patience and perseverance in young learners.

Artisans often used the finished products as decorative pieces in homes and churches, which made mastering stumpwork embroidery a valuable skill for both personal and professional purposes.

Simple Stumpwork Embroidery Techniques

In learning stumpwork, you'll be using different techniques, each of which adds its own unique texture and dimension to the design.

But before you start, make sure you have a solid grounding in basic embroidery stitches

You will also need some basic equipment:

  • an embroidery hoop,
  • fabrics
  • felt
  • needles
  • threads
  • and wire for shaping three-dimensional elements

One of the most common techniques used is padding. They layer threads or felt underneath the stitches to create a raised effect and mould the padding to create a variety of different shapes.

You can add embroidered shapes that have wire edges to your stumpwork project. These shapes can stand on their own and be used to make things like wings, leaves, or clothes.

Use raised stitches to make designs that stand out on the fabric. These stitches give your work a 3D effect, making it more interesting. 

By combining these stumpwork embroidery techniques with traditional embroidery methods, it's possible to create truly unique and beautiful pieces of needlework.

Let's look at some of these in more detail. 

Padding With Thread

To make a soft foundation for a design, sew several layers of stitches going back and forth. This gives your design a raised, cushioned look. The picture shows this method done with cream thread, where half of the design has three added layers in the middle for extra thickness.

I then used a green hand-dyed thread to work satin stitch over the padding.

By not padding the entire section, I avoided creating a dome-like shape, similar to a halved sphere. My approach aimed to mimic the look of a hill that gently slopes down towards a river.

Padding with soft cotton thread to create a raised shape in the designFig 2 - Padding worked in DMC Soft Cotton
Working stitches over the thread paddingFig 3 - Satin stitch over the padding


Padding With Felt

For a three-dimensional effect, use felt beneath your stitches.

Trace your shape onto paper, cut it out of the felt, and then create two progressively smaller pieces. Select felt in a color that coordinates with your embroidery floss to prevent it from peeking through your stitches.

Padding a basket shape with three layers of feltFig 4 - Felt padding for basket and head
The finished stumpwork embroidery projectFig 5 - Finished project

Attach the felt shapes to your project by sewing small stitches along the edges, starting with the smallest shape for a dimensional center.

Embroider atop the felt as shown in the stumpwork tutorial's bunny head and basket (Figures 4 and 5).

Raised Stitches

The names of embroidery stitches often provide clues about their texture, appearance, or common usage, making them easier to remember and understand for your projects.

Looking at the names such as raised fishbone, raised buttonhole flowers, or velvet stitch, you can infer some of their distinctive properties and potential applications.

Raised Stem Band

When creating a raised stem band, it's essential to ensure your foundation is strong and even. Begin by taking straight stitches across the width of your design shape. These stitches should be neat and parallel to each other to form a secure base for the next layer.

Once you have completed this, it's time to rotate your fabric 90 degrees. This rotation is crucial for creating a grid that will support the stem stitches you're about to sew.

Now, start working rows of stem stitch over this grid. As you sew, slide your needle underneath each of the foundation stitches. Don't pierce the fabric; you want to 'catch' the foundation thread with your needle. This technique will help lift your stitches, giving them a pronounced texture and dimension.

If you're aiming for a more three-dimensional effect or additional height in your stitching, consider using padding threads. Place these threads under the horizontal foundation stitches before commencing with the stem stitch. This padding will provide extra lift and volume to your embroidery work.

For a more comprehensive understanding and additional techniques on how to perfect the stem stitch, explore my full stem stitch tutorial.

There, you will find a wealth of information to enhance your embroidery skills and bring your projects to life with this versatile stitch.

Remember, practice is key, so take your time, be patient with yourself, and enjoy mastering this beautiful embroidery technique.

Laying the foundation for a raised stem bandFig 6 - working raised stem band
A completed example of a raised stem bandFig 7 - Raised stem band complete

Detached Stitches

Detached stitches are versatile and can create a lovely texture that really makes your embroidery stand out. One of these is the picot.

I have a step-by-step guide to crafting the needlewoven picot which you can find in my stumpwork bunny tutorial mentioned above. 

Attaching Fabric Slips

You can work your embroidery on a slip—a separate fabric or canvas that provides a foundation for your work. 

French knots are an excellent choice for this project, as they naturally create a subtle raised texture.

Once you've completed your design, trim around the embroidered shape, allowing a small margin of fabric to remain for handling.

Carefully fold these raw edges to the underside of the shape to ensure a neat appearance when you transfer your embroidery onto the main fabric.

For an added touch of volume, consider slipping a strand of soft cotton thread beneath the slip before securing it in place. This creates a lovely, slightly three-dimensional effect that makes your embroidery stand out with sophistication.

French knots worked on a "slip" of spare fabricFig 8 - Stitched french knots slip
The slip with excess fabric cut offFig 9 - Slip cut out
The slip after it is attached to the stumpwork projectFig 10 - Slip attached to project

Wired Shapes

A wire edged leaf in the process of being embroideredFig 11 - Wired leaf in progress

To achieve the desired contour and stability in your stumpwork embroidery, you may need to lay wire along the edge of an element.

Carefully place couching stitches over the wire to secure it. Once attached, fill the interior space with your selected embroidery stitch.

In the example provided (see Fig 11), I've shown the use of the long and short stitch to fill the area, resulting in a smooth, shaded effect.

After you've completed the embroidery over the wired edge, it's time to trim away the excess fabric. Use sharp scissors to cut close to the wired edge, being careful not to snip the stitches or the wire itself. This creates a neat edge, perfect for adding dimension to your design.

Stumpwork embroidery often features dimensional elements like flower petals and leaves, which use wire to create structure and realism. For leaves in particular, you might add a wire vein for an extra touch of detail—this can mirror the natural veining of a real leaf, enhancing the lifelike quality of your work.

Planning Your Embroidered Piece

When planning your stumpwork piece, begin with the background elements.

Complete any flat embroidery first, as this creates a solid foundation for your design.

Subsequently, attach the raised and freestanding elements layer by layer.

Always start from the elements that appear furthest away in the design and work toward those that should be closest to the viewer. By adding the most prominent features last, you ensure they lay on top of others, effectively creating depth and a convincing three-dimensional appearance.

Remember, the beauty of stumpwork lies in its texture and dimension, so take your time with each step to craft a piece that truly pops. Enjoy the process and experiment with different techniques to bring your creative vision to life.

Avoid cutting any wire with your expensive embroidery scissors!
A pair of wire cutters are better for this.

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