Slowly but surely, some completed summer embroidery class projects are still rolling in – this one is the kitchen towel with the flowers along the edge. In preparing a photo or two of the embroidery on the towel, I realized it presented a good opportunity to point out some tips on using the stem stitch.
I want to make it Really Clear that I’m not “picking on” the embroidery on this towel. Who could deny that, whether for a semi-beginner (this is done by one of the girls who has taken embroidery class before) or one who’s been stitching a lot longer, this towel is really well done? The stitching is very nice, the color choices are great, and I like the way she alternated the colors on the flowers in pairs.
I should have taken a photo of the back of this towel, because it was really impressive – very neat, no straggling threads, very tight lines that kept the threads from showing from the front.
I think she did a great job on the towel! Still, in looking at it, I found a “teaching point” to demonstrate something about the stem stitch. If you ask the embroiderer what stitch she used to embellish the towel, she would tell you “stem stitch.” But between you and me… she didn’t! She used a combination of the stem stitch and the outline stitch!
And here’s the teaching point: stem stitch and outline stitch are not the same stitch – but they’re easy to get confused, especially when you’re working around curves, or changing directions on your lines.
Take a look at the embroidery a little closer – I wish I had a better shot, but this’ll do to make the point!
The red arrows point to the stem stitched lines in this piece. Notice how they retain the visibility of the separate threads, while creating that rope-like overlap of the stitches? That’s the signature of stem stitch. Just about all the other lines and curves you see in the towel in that photo are outline stitch. The individual “S’s” are not clear – the line is a bit more “solid” looking as far as the thread goes.
So, how do you achieve the “signature” stem stitch – what is required to produce that look? Here are some tips:
Assuming you’re working with S-twisted thread (that’s just about any standard cotton floss, and most twisted silks)…
1. If you are moving from left to right along your path, always keep your working thread below your needle.
2. If you are moving from right to left along your path, always keep your working thread above your needle.
3. Turn your hoop as you stitch, to keep the direction consistent, so you don’t get confused on the whole left-to-right, right-to-left thing. If you turn your work, you can pretty much always work from left to right (for right-handers) and right to left (for left handers).
4. When you take curves, it doesn’t matter so much if the working thread is on the inside of the curve or the outside – what matters is the direction in which you’re stitching and where your working thread is, in relation to where your needle comes up. So make sure you’re applying the rules above – and, if you’re worried about the stitch moving into the curve because you don’t have the working thread to hold it back (because you’re coming up above your stitch), take smaller stitches, and you’ll be able to take the curve fine.
So othere are a few quick pointers on stem stitch. The stitcher who worked the towel above just confused the “above the working thread” or “below the working thread” thing as she changed directions stitching. It’s funny how such a small difference in placement can change the finished look of a stitch, isn’t it? … well, that all goes back to thread twists (S-twist vs. Z-twist)…. but we’ll save that for another day!
To see the stem stitch worked out, check out the Stem Stitch Video Tutorial in my Video Library of Stitches, where you’ll now find a whopping 50 stitches to learn!
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