Embroidery Basics: Split, Back, and Stem Stitch

I find hand sewing and hand embroidery to be relaxing. I dislike sewing machines; I have a tendency to break needles. By hand, I can sew or embroider while watching television.

I’m self-taught when it comes to embroidery and still very much a beginner. If you are interested in teaching yourself, I highly recommend Sublime Stitching. Jenny Hart provides some excellent tutorials.

I’m going to show you three basic stitches used in medieval and modern embroidery, split stitch, back stitch, and stem stitch.

All three are used for outlining, but each produces a slightly different look.

First, gather your materials: design, fabric, hoop, scissors, floss, and needles. Halla design provided by Halla and Hart.

A picture of various embroidery supplies.
Embroidery supplies: needles, floss, design, hoop, scissors, fabric

The black floss is silk and the brown is cotton. Cotton floss is quite inexpensive; I prefer the look of the silk and use it when I can.

Alas, I can’t afford silk fabric, so I’m using cotton. I encourage you to use natural fabrics and fibers whenever you can. They have a nicer look and feel.

I have a very basic method for transferring my design — I put the fabric on top and trace it in pencil. This limits me to see-through fabrics, though. Other methods include using iron-on transfers or using a pinwheel to prick the design into the fabric.

A picture of an embroidery design traced onto the fabric
The design traced onto the fabric

Once the design is on the fabric, affix the hoop. You do not have to use a hoop — I usually don’t for very small stitches. But the hoop keeps the fabric and stitches tight. Tighter stitches means a more beautiful design. They don’t cost much to begin with, but you can often find cheap ones at thrift stores.

A picture of fabric in an embroidery hoop with floss and a needle.
Fabric in hoop. Make sure the fabric is flat across the hoop.

Typically, one does not knot embroidery thread. You weave the loose end under the stitches. Generally the back of the embroidery will be covered anyway. But you can make a knot if you wish.

From the underside of the fabric pull the needle through, leaving a small tail. Move the needle forward a small distance (generally, the smaller the stitch, the nicer it looks), then pull it back through the fabric.

A picture of fingers holding an in-progress embroidery piece.
Beginning to stitch

The underside (or “wrong” or “back”) side of the fabric will look like this:

A picture of the underside of an embroidery piece.
Fabric underside

For a split stitch, take the needle backwards through the middle of the previous stitch.

A picture of split stitch.
Split stitch
Split stitch
Split stitch

Repeat these steps, following the line of your design.

A row of split stitch.
Repeat! Split stitch front.

Here is what the back looks like:

A picture of the underside of split stitch.
Split stitch back

Next, a back stitch. Start the same way — pull the needle through the wrong side of the fabric, move forward a bit, and then back through the fabric.

For the second stitch, move forwards while on the underside of the fabric (instead of backwards to the middle of the previous stitch):

Back stitch
Back stitch

On the “right” or “top” side of the fabric, move backwards, to the previous stitch.

Back stitch from the side.
Back stitch
A row of back stitch.
Back stitch

Keep following these steps to finishing following the design.

Here is a picture comparing the stitches and threads. Back stitch is on the top, split stitch on the bottom.

Comparison between different embroidery stitches.
Comparison. Back stitch is on the top, split stitch on the bottom.

Finally, a stem stitch. Begin the same way as the other two. Pull the thread next to the middle of the previous stitch — not through the middle, as you did with a split stitch, but next to it.

A picture of stem stitch.
Stem stitch
A close up of stem stitch.
Stem stitch

 

The back looks like this:

A picture of the underside of stem stitch.
Stem stitch back

 

An embroidered outline.
Embroidered halla. Stem stitch antlers, back stitch outline and eye, satin stitch nose and ear.

Happy stitching!

This post originally appeared in slightly different form on Mirous Worlds.

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Natasha

History. Hindi cinema. Hugging cats.

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