What Is Stem Stitch

The stem stitch makes for one of the most popular stitches for embroidery projects. It is neat and straightforward, and you can use it in freeform embroidery, surface embroidery, redwork, and white work. Some people say it’s the easiest of all embroidery stitches. It creates a thin line, which makes it suitable for outlining embroidered shapes. It also works well in forming flower and plant stems.

The stitches of the stem stitch blend into each other to make a rope-like line. It takes curves and slanting lines well and creates a seamless thick line. The thickness arises from doing two stitches in the same line.  That makes it preferable to doing designs like the free stem stitch butterfly, which requires thick stitches. The stem stitch goes by other names: the crewel stitch, the South Kensington stitch, and the stalk stitch.

What Is Stem Stitch?

It is an embroidery technique that creates a cable effect along the stitch line of the design. The thread goes typically forward, from the left to the right side on the cloth’s surface, before going inside the fabric. Also, it covers a short distance before coming back up and making the second stitch. You should always keep the thread below or on the right side of the needle.

How to Sew a Stem Stitch?

Making a stem stitch requires that you have specific tools. These include-

  • Fabric – Any fabric will do; there are no restrictions on the stem stitch.
  • Embroidery hoop – Get a 15cm diameter or a bigger one for a larger design.
  • Tapestry needle – Or any blunt needle
  • Embroidery thread – Get one of a suitable thickness and preferred appearance. Depending on your design, you can also vary the number of strands on your embroidery thread.

Now that you have access to all the essential materials, let’s get down to sewing.

Step 1: Firstly, thread your needle with the select embroidery thread. Wetting the end and squishing it flat between your thumb and index finger makes this process easier. Knot the other end of the thread.

Step 2: Secondly, pierce through your fabric from the back, bringing up the thread and anchoring the knot at the back. It makes the start of your stitch, which we’ll call point 1.

Step 3: After that, insert the needle at point 2 to make the first stitch. Then, bring it back up in between points one and two. It is point 3, and hence point four will be halfway after point 2. The needle should be above the line, with the thread being on the needle’s left side.

Step 4: Lastly, repeat the stitches, making sure you make them on the stitching line. Moreover, always bring the needle back up on the right side of your previous stitch.

There is an alternative way of making the stem stitch. It is the stabbing method. To do this, you only pull the first stitch after bringing up the needle for the second stitch. However, always keep the working thread below the stitching line.

If you want a thinner line, work directly on the stitch line. Don’t go below or above it.

Some people prefer to work the stem stitch similarly to the backstitch. Thus, try this method if you find yourself struggling with the stem stitch. Bring the needle up at point two instead of one and make the stitch, going down at point one. Bring the needle up again at point 4 and make another stitch going down at point 3. While working directly on the stitch line, this becomes very easy.

You can make the stem stitches lose or even tight, as per your project requirements or personal choice. Make small stitches when making a curve or a very smooth line. On the other hand, if you wish for a relaxed or rustic look, make longer stitches.

The appearance of your stitch will vary depending on the extent of stitch overlapping. A considerable overlap will result in the ends of the stitches touching each other. The middle stitch will cover this so it won’t be visible on the front side. Likewise, a small overlap will result in gaps between the stitches. It also won’t be visible on the front side as the middle stitch will cover it. To see this clearly, look at the wrong side of the fabric.

Considerations to Make While Sewing a Stem Stitch

The stem stitch looks fantastic when done correctly.

  1. Ensure to keep the stitches small and uniform. Moreover, they should be of the same length.
  2. Maintain the thread down and on the left side of the needle.
  3. Maintain the same tension throughout your stitches
  4. Your thread should lay to one side as you make all the stitches.
  5. As you come up through the fabric, ensure you pass your needle through your previous stitch’s same hole.
  6. When making a curve, ensure the thread is on the outside of the turn to give a neat edge.
  7. Start all your rows from the same side to give a uniform direction of stitches.
  8. While inserting the needle, pull the thread on the other side of the stitch.

The finished stitch looks like a straight line on the front side and like a backstitch on the fabric’s wrong side.

The stem stitch works for almost anything from quilts to cushion covers to frocks to dresses and handbags. Thus, try your designs with the stem stitch.

Variations of a Stem Stitch

They say good things often come in twos, so it is a celebration when they come in threes. The variations of the stem stitch are;

1. Portuguese-Knotted Stem Stitch

When stitched with thick embroidery thread, this stem stitch looks like a rope. Moreover, it is mostly used as an outlining stitch as it gives beautiful thick outlines.

It has knot-like projections that thicken the regular stem stitch. So, if you want to get a thick line of stitch, take small stitches. You could also use a thicker embroidery thread.

Here is how you make the Portuguese knotted stem stitch;

Step 1: Start by stitching one stem stitch line upwards.

Step 2: Do two whipping stitches over the stem stitch line. They will appear as small knots. Besides, take care not to go through the fabric as you make the whipping stitches.

Step 3: Make some more stem stitch lines, and now do the whipping stitch over two stitches. After the first stitch, all the rest will be on two stem stitch lines.

2. Whipped Stem Stitch

When you need a very thick line, this is your best bet! Like the Portuguese knotted stem stitch, the whipped stem stitch is also used in making outlines. Moreover, it results in much thicker contours. Therefore, you could make your stitch more exciting and capturing by doing the whipped stitches with a thread of contrasting color.

Here is how you make a whipped stem stitch:

Step 1: Make one stem stitch line.

Step 2: You’ll need a blunt needle for this, preferably a tapestry needle. Then, thread it with the same thread as your fabric color or a different color as per your preference.

Step 3: Do whipping stitches over the regular stem stitch, ensuring you go over and under it.

Take care not to pierce the fabric as you do the whipping stitches. Make whip stitches above the stem stitching line.

3. Cable Stitch

A cable stitch combines both the stem stitch and the outline stitch. It also goes by the name double stem stitch. You alternate the two stitches while working on the design. However, just ensure that the stitches don’t deviate from the marked line to achieve a neat outcome.

How Many Thread Strands Should I Use?

The number is not fixed. That’s because the stem stitch goes with many strands depending on the fabric you are sewing and how you’d want the final project to look. Moreover, note that the stitch weight changes with the number of strands you use. One strand will give a fine line, whereas six will provide a thick heavy line.

What’s the Main Difference Between an Outline Stitch and a Stem Stitch?

It is understandable to confuse the stem stitch and the outline stitch as they are quite similar in their appearance. However, the variation is that while working the stem stitch, the working thread will always be below the stitching line as it overlaps in a z-direction. With the outline stitch, the working thread is still above the stitching line as it overlaps in an s direction.


Hello, I am Jessica Flores, and you are welcome to my website. I am a professional fashion designer and a seamstress. I always carried a passion for craftwork. My love for craft grew along with time. I have spent years researching and practicing in this field to gather colossal experience.

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