Mary Corbet

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I learned to embroider when I was a kid, when everyone was really into cross stitch (remember the '80s?). Eventually, I migrated to surface embroidery, teaching myself with whatever I could get my hands on...read more

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Basic Embroidery Stitches: Line Stitches


A simple outlined pattern on a household item is a perfect way to personalize an embroidered gift – whether its a gift to mom, a friend, or even to yourself! Personalized touches can be added simply and relatively quickly using different line stitches. Line stitches are used in most embroidery techniques, so whether you’re going for something simple, or you’re trying to make a cutwork or needlelace table cloth, chances are you are going to employ some line stitches. So here are the basic ones… Experiment with them! They aren’t just for lines – they can also be used for fillings. If you have any additional uses for any of these stitches, feel free to share! And if you have any questions or corrections, post a comment – I’m all ears!

Running stitch: This is perhaps the most basic “sewing” stitch, and it can be used well for decorative effects in embroidery. This is the first stitch I teach in my embroidery classes, and even though it seems really basic, it makes for a good exercise in judging stitch length and spacing. To look “nice,” running stitches need to be evenly spaced and of even length – though the space between the stitches does not always have to equal the length of the stitch! You can create different effects by using longer stitches, with smaller spaces between them. You can create a light fill with running stitch, by alternating the spacing in parallel lines, forming a kind of “brick” effect. The running stitch, when worked very small and very close together in fine thread on fine fabric, can be used for delicate vines and lines. It can also be “whipped” (explained below) to make a solid line with a rope-like effect.
Direction: For right-handers, work from right to left or top to bottom. For left-handers, work from left to right, or top to bottom. Bring the needle to the front of the fabric at A, and pull the thread through. Now, for the rest of your stitches, you can work them more quickly if you “run” them on the top of the fabric, without taking your hand to the back. Go down at B, and, using your fingers on your non-dominant hand (the one that’s not holding the needle!) behind the fabric, encourage the needle to come up again at C. Pull the thread through. Work to the end of the line or curve in this manner, and try to keep your stitches straight and even! The more you practice, the easier it gets!

Whipped running stitch: The “whipped” part of this stitch is demonstrated in red. You can “whip” a stitch with a contrasting color, with the same color, or with a shade of the same color, all of which will give a different effect. The weight of the thread also determines the effect. If you are using one fine strand of floss or thread, your stitch will be very delicate. In this case, you should stitch a row of tiny, close running stitches.
Direction: Bring the needle up at the point where you began your running stitches. Take your needle down through each running stitch, passing between the stitch and the fabric, without picking up any fabric. When you reach the end of the running stitch foundation, take the needle to the back of the fabric at the same point where you ended your running stitches. Secure the thread in the usual way (by running it under the backs of your stitches) and snip. And there you have it!

Back Stitch: This is another easy outline stitch which can be used to good effect on delicate or heavy lines. This stitch is commonly used in counted cross stitch. The back stitch can be further decorated by whipping it, just like the running stitch above. The key to good looking back stitches – just like running stitches – is even stitches.
Direction: Left-handers: you’re going to work left to right. Right-handers: work right to left, bringing your thread up at A, determining the length of your stitch between A and the starting point of your line. Take your needle back to B, insert and encourage it up at C (using a finger of your other hand under your work). Pull the thread through. Continue working in a backwards-forewards motion until you have completed the line. At the end of the line, take the needle down at the end of the second to the last stitch, thus forming your final stitch. On the underside of your fabric, whip the needle and working thread in and out of the stitches formed to secure it.

Outline Stitch: This stitch is a lot like the stem stitch in technique, but the outcome looks slightly different. In stem stitch (below), the individual stitches remain quite distinct, while in outline stitch, the stitches twist together, forming a solid line without clear distinction in the stitches. They kind of “twist together” and make a smoother looking “rope.” I prefer the stem stitch (below) to the outline stitch, especially if I’m using it as a filling. You can use both of them as filling, by working rows close to each other, and you can achieve a nice shaded effect by switching to lighter shades as you go along. But for some reason, the stem stitch seems to work better for that than the outline stitch does. The outline stitch is great for nice, tight-looking, fine outlines. It takes curves well, so it’s great for curly-q’s.
Direction: For left-handed stitchers, you will stitch in the opposite direction, and keep the thread below the needle. For right-handed stitchers: outline stitch is worked from left to right, by bringing the needle up into the fabric at the beginning of the line to be covered. Put the needle into the fabric at the point that determines the length of the stitch. Without pulling through, pointing the needle back towards the beginning of the line and keeping the thread ABOVE the needle, push the tip of your needle through the fabric about halfway down the length of the stitch. Pull through. Continue in this “back and forth” manner, going forward, but always pointing the needle back towards the beginning of your work, and, for subsequent stitches, bring the needle up where you finished the last stitch. User the fingers on your non-stitching hand to encourage the needle back into the fabric. This way, you can avoid taking your hand to the back of the fabric. Try to keep your stitches even.

Stem Stitch: Like the outline stitch, stem stitch can be used to outline delicate lines, curves, and curly-q’s. Unlike the outline stitch, the stem stitch produces a line of more defined invidual stitches. Like the running stitch, the stem stitch can be whipped. Stem stitch makes great stems (of course!) on leaves and flowers, as well as simple outlines on any design. Stem stitch can also be used as a thick filler, by working rows next to each other. You can add shading to your filling by changing the shade of the thread.
Direction: For left-handers, work this stitch right to left, keeping the thread above the needle (opposite of the diagram). Right-handers: Bring the needle and the thread through the fabric at your starting point (A). Take your needle down at B (which will determine the length of the rest of your stitches). Encourage the needle back up about halfway back along the stitch line, and pull the thread through. You can work directly on your stitch line, and just nudge your thread over as you come up. As you take the second stitch, the emerging
point of the needle (C) will be at the end of the previous stitch. You can reduce this distance, and only go back half the space (or even less), and elongate your stitches. You can also stitch on more of an angle (as shown in the diagram) to achieve a wider line.

Couching: another great way to achieve a neat line, as well as to fill an area. Couching is basically the stitching down of a thicker thread that is laid on the fabric, using usually a finer thread. It is an essential technique in most goldwork. But it doesn’t have to be used only for goldwork! I teach my 10 – 14 year olds couching by having them fill in an area between two parallel lines with #3 or #5 perle cotton – usually in a nice, bright color – which is couched down with a contrasting bright color in a brick pattern (that is, alternating the placement of the couching thread in each line). They love the effect! Couching is used in the technique “Or Nue” (a goldwork technique) in such a way that the placement of the couching stitches determines the shading of the figure being embroidered. I have some links to examples of Or Nue on this page.
Direction: Lay your thicker thread (the thread to be couched) on your design. In some cases, you can thread a larger needle with your thicker thread and bring it up through your fabric. In other cases, you take the couched thread ends to the back of the fabric later, or not at all. Thread your needle with a fine thread. Use a contrasting color if you want your stitches to be seen; use a similar color if you do not want your stitches to be seen. If you are couching down gold or other metalics, you will want to wax your thread first. Take small stitches over the laid thread, perpendicular to it, and evenly spaced. Catch the fabric in the back at each stitch. When you fill a pattern, you usually alternate the placement of your stitches, so that, even if the couching thread is a similar color to the laid thread, you still get a kind of pleasing pattern.



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(33) Comments

  1. Thanks so much for the help. Your site was the only one that actually made sense (for me anyway). Could not have done the outline/stem stiches without you.

    Thanks again,

  2. Hi, Kathy! Thanks for the comment. I’m glad the stitch instructions came in handy! (Sometimes I think I go overboard on the text…)

    I’ll have the rest of the basic stitches (filling and detached) up this week.

  3. I’ve not done much “needlework” since my early 20’s preferring knitting needles instead. But I’m now involved in The Mother’s Day Project and needed to know how to stitch my soldier’s name well and proudly. Thank you for your help.

  4. I understand the stitches and everything, but I don’t know how to actually start (on an actual piece). How do I switch colors? How do I end my section?

    1. I recently purchased Lace edge pillowcases
      MARE & COLT. I have not emboidered for years and the directions aren’t specific re: what type of stitch t use to bring out the beauty of the Mare & Colt. Any suggestions?

  5. Mary, I’m doing a pattern that requires a stitch for writing a phrase. http://www.trinityquilts.com/item.php?item_id=2753&category;_id=470
    I’m not sure you can see the part I’m doing on this link. Which stitch is best for this? I’m currently doing what looks like the running stitch. I’m not liking the pointyness (if that is even a word) of some of the stitches on my letters, it doesn’t look smooth. I wished I could post a pic so you could see what I’m talking about. Can you help?

  6. Hi, Mandy –

    If you want to e-mail me a photo at mary [at] needlenthread.com, I’d be happy to look at it.

    I think the whipped backstitch is great for thin-lined text. You might want to try that one. I used it on some of the text on my pillow cases – the first photo, on the “Shhhh” on the top left side of the pillow case.


  7. heay mary,

    thanks more making hand embroidery easy. i wanted to know if there are any particular type of threads that u recomment so that my works look good on tops & dresses.are silk threads worth working …

  8. It depends – if you will be washing them in the regular laundry, I think I’d stick with cotton. But silks are really beautiful – they just take special care.

  9. hello 🙂 I just wanted to say thanks for the stitching instructions…I’m teaching myself how to embroider and your directions are the easiest to follow! Thank you!

  10. Mary,
    Thank you so much. Your article has been of great help. I’m a novice trying to make a pillow case. I’m going to try out a few stitches from above. I come to the conclusion that even if the design is basic, the stitch makes all the difference….

    Take care,

  11. I have not embroidered for 40 years and have taken on doing some tea towels. Since on a tea towel the back of your work shows – what do you do to keep it neat and hide start and stop knots?

  12. Thanks so much for your instructions! I’ve taken up an embroidery project, and your website has been incredibly helpful.

  13. Hi Mary,
    This site is so wonderful! I have taken up embroidery after many many years …. thanks to my first expected grandbaby ….. your site has helped me so mmuch with vintage patterns and embroidery stitches and tips ….. I also fell in love with the beautiful monogramme lettering with which you have taken so much time and effort to clean and put up on your site …. the letters were just begging me to stitch them …. so I’ve already done the letter ‘K’ on a pillowcase for my daughter Kiran ….. planning on doing more in the near future …. thank you so so much!!!!

  14. Thanks for the great info on a skill I have always wanted to learn, but you have made it really easy to understand….thanks for taking the time to explain the stitches and show the diagrams!

  15. thanx a lot, Miss Corbet. this is the only site from which i learnt something for my crafts class.
    Just a suggestion – you could add ‘Kantha’ stitch
    to your site. it is a very easy type of Indian embroidery my mother taught me, and it is very useful for all beginners.

  16. Thank you very much for your detailed explanations of all the stitches. It is very useful for beginners like me. God bless your effort and give you more ideas.
    With regards,

  17. I am a quilter and am now sewing a pillow with flowers and leaves. I would like to embroider the veins on my leaves but am unfamiliar with embroidery stitches. Can you suggest a few stitches I might try. I will then go back onto your website and learn how to do them.

    Thank you for your help.

    1. Hi, Joanne! Definitely the stem stitch! It’s perfect for vines, stems, lines, you name it! I have a video under the how-to videos linked in the top menu. It’s definitely one of the easier stitches, and is beautiful to boot!

  18. I have made a baby blanket with a cartoon figure on the front. I want to go around the figure with embroidery floss. The edges of the figure are outlined in black, so I am doing a black basic running stitch around the edge. It really does nothing for it.

    Should I be using the same color as the edge or a different stitch? I am using 3 strands of floss. Thanks.

  19. Hi Mary- I just love your site!!! You make everything so nice and fun. I do have a question, though. In today’s mail 6/9/14, one of the respondents talks about a scallop stitch. It is just what I need for my bird, but in exploring your site could not find directions. Can you help me find it? Thanks so much, Roxane

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