This guide to beginner’s embroidery stitches is an extract from The Hand-Stitched Home by Caroline Zoob, photography by Caroline Arber, £20, published by Jacqui Small. The book is full of projects and inspiration for creating embroidered textiles for the home.
I would like to open with a caveat: my book is not a book about embroidery per se but about using embroidery to decorate your home. My repertoire of stitches is tiny and self-taught, and I have no doubt that there will be many readers who can stitch better than I. I think of stitching as simply drawing with a needle. So we have divided the stitch illustrations into outlines and fills. Some, such as stem stitch and split stitch, can do both. Think about the look and texture of what you are trying to capture in embroidery, and choose your stitches accordingly.
There are hundreds of embroidery stitches displayed in stitch bibles both on and off line. I have listed a couple of sources which you may find useful. Do not feel though that you have to master lots of complicated stitches in order to get started. Just think of something you want to embroider, choose your colours and fabric, pick up your needle and start.
Running stitch/Back stitch
Make a stitch of the length you want your stitches to be, then slip the needle back under the fabric and up again, possibly two or three stitches at a time, keeping the stitches and gaps even. Be creative with it . . . make the stitches tiny and close together for a broken outline, or change the direction of the line to create paths or running stitch waves. To create an unbroken line use back stitch, working backwards into the same hole as the previous stitch.
The simplest stitch, which can be short or long. It can be used in so many ways: to make the simplest cartwheel daisy head, or to stitch blades of grass as in the bookend project. Fix your thread at the back of the piece, bring the needle through the fabric at one end of the stitch and take it back down through the fabric wherever you want it to be. If you look at the cherries in the picture on the bottom of page 55 you can see how straight stitch has been used within the outline of the cherries to give them a bit more definition and suggestion of roundness.
Traditionally used to decorate the edges of blankets, this is a curiously pleasing and versatile stitch that can also be used for appliqué by hand, as in the Daisy blanket cushion on pages 84–87. Bring your thread to the front of the fabric and then go back into the fabric about 5mm to the right on the diagonal and, without pulling through, bring the needle in line with where you went in on the left. Pull through, looping the thread under the needle, and repeat. Each new stitch secures and holds the loop of the previous stitch. Try to make the stitches firm but not pulled, and keep them as even as you can. You can vary the length of the vertical stitch, alternating it perhaps.
Split stitch was used a great deal as a fill in early medieval embroidery, working it in close rows to create subtle shading. Bring the thread up through the fabric and make a stitch. Bring the thread back up through the middle of that previous stitch, splitting it just before the end. It takes some practice but it is a lovely stitch. If you have the patience you can use single-strand split stitch in very close rows to create incredibly fine textured fill. It can look like a very fine, elongated chain stitch.
If you are right handed you work stem stitch from left to right, keeping the working thread (i.e. the thread in the needle not yet used up in stitching) to the left of the needle or below the line of stitching at all times. This is reversed for left-handers. Strange though it may seem, if you keep the working thread to the right of the needle, you end up with outline stitch which looks subtly different – a bit more like twisted rope.
Start off with a couple of tiny stab stitches on top of each other which you will cover up with the first stem stitch. Stem stitch is useful for creating elegantly smooth outlines around curves. You could use it for delicate edges, such as those of the leaves in the Rosebud mirror frame project (pages 62–66), or in rows to create a textured fill. Like all stitches, varying the thickness of the thread will affect the look of the stitch. I use it with single strands to create some of the little birds in the nautical pictures.
Bring the thread up at the start of the line and put it back through the fabric immediately adjacent to where it came out, but do not pull the thread all the way through. Holding it down with your non-sewing thumb is helpful. Bring the needle up through the fabric a little further on and slip it under the loop, pulling it back up the line. Keep your working thread below the needle.
Lazy Daisy stitch
Effectively chain stitch but detached and can be used for flower petals and leaves to great and varied effect.
Fill In Stitches
In some ways this is the most difficult stitch to master. It sounds so easy. Essentially it is straight stitch worked very closely to cover a shape. The trick is to create a very clean outline to work over, either by marking it with a sharp marking pen, or sew the outline first in delicate stem stitch. In both cases you work the straight stitches so that they cover the outline. If you have stitched the outline you get a slightly more definite edge because the stitches underneath give a slightly raised effect. Do not pull the stitches too tight and remember that ironing can work wonders! If you are making leaves, it is quite effective to do a very tight row of stab stitches down the centre to create the vein of the leaf.
I confess I cannot make sense out of all those pictures of French knots. So I had to invent my own sort of knot. I make two or three little stitches on top of each other to form a neat, smooth little mound and then go back down through the middle. It looks like a knot – although I admit that proper French knots do look wonderful and one day I will master them!
This stitch may have a proper name but I have not found it. I just wanted to make my sheep look woolly without using knots. Take the thread up through the fabric and put it back through immediately adjacent, leaving a loop on the surface about 3mm long. Repeat and every 3 to 4 stitches do a little slip stitch at the back. Repeat until the area is covered. You do not need to make them all the same length – this is not about embroidering with a correct stitch but about using needle and thread to create a woolly sheep. When you press your work something magical always happens to this stitch in particular and, frankly, I prefer it for sheep.
I suppose this is a form of couching, but instead of laying threads out and casting over them, you are simply rolling the needle over and over the line of stitching beneath to create a raised line. It is incredibly effective for adding texture to tree bark, masts and poles of boats, and even to even out the odd bit of awkward stitching here and there, particularly on stems where your stem stitch might have slipped into a less-thanlovely back stitch.
Stab stitch essentially involves drawing your needle through the fabric from the front to the back for each individual stitch. It’s a useful method for making very small fixing stitches, and I use it on very tiny areas of appliqué or vintage fabrics that are too delicate for machine work. I also use this stitch for securing my fabric roses.
Once you’ve mastered the stitches Caroline’s book, The Hand-Stitched Home offers you a great selection of projects to help you incorporate embroidery into your home. Below is a collage of some of the projects you’ll find in the book they include book ends, an embroidered mirror frame, cushions, a headboard, shelf edging, table runner, a quilt, curtains and more.