Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Stem Stitch analysis of concave and convex corners

What a scary title hey !!  Don’t worry, this post is about the most addictive stitch of all…

Broad Stem Stitch

Broad Stem Stitch G

Recently I was having a discussion with an internet chum about the most addictive embroidery stitch on the planet?  For my part it has to be Stem Stitch! 

When you study historical embroidery, the thing that repeatedly strikes you is, how well they understood their stem stitching and of course, 16th Century Redwork is comprised mainly of Stem Stitch.

Then, when you look at later vintage embroideries from say, 1920s and 30s, you can still see fantastic virtuosity with this stitch.

Its a very elegant stitch that works with the direction of ‘S’ twist thread and shows it off well.  Its formation is essentially a spiral and has a lot in common with Satin Stitch.  The main difference between the two is something that enables it to be stitched much more quickly and directly, without the need for outlining or under-tramming, and that is the very clever, concealed exit.  That means the needle will always emerge from inside and beneath the last stitch formed.  Not to be confused with Outline Stitch, which conversely unravels the ‘S’ twist and produces a completely different effect.  

Personally, I also think that Stem Stitch forms the basis of understanding a lot of other embroidery stitches. 

As we all know, there are 3 ways to work Stem Stitch:

a.  Lined up along a line, with no gaps

b.  Along a line with small scoops of thread, leaving largish gaps

c.  Broad stitching, which looks a lot like Stem Stitch for canvas work but with one fundamental difference (explained further on). 

Changing direction, you will find however, is a bit of a controversial topic.  A lot of stitchers believe that to get out of ‘difficult situations’, you should switch to Outline stitch.  Personally I don’t agree, because Outline Stitch is completely different.

I like Stem Stitch for two main reasons:

1.  Its very fast and easy, hence totally addictive.

2.  Its basically a diagonal spiral, like Satin Stitch, but because of the cleverly concealed exit hole, its much more forgiving and hence, easier to work.

You don’t have to under-tram or outline it first, but you do have to remember that it looks best if the stitches remain diagonal e.g. the entry point of the needle must always be lower than the exit hole, which on a straight line, translates as a back stitch action.  

For left handed stitchers you stitch from right to left, holding the thread above the work.  For right handed stitchers, you do the opposite. 

When it comes to working vertically, the same rules apply, except that for left handed stitchers, you work from top to bottom. 

Any deviation in the way you hold the thread, means you will produce Outline Stitch, (which in my view is wrong).  So then the big question is, how do you change direction?

Well, I found that because the stitch is so graceful, you really need to get in there with your magnifier and study exactly what is happening in those corners as you turn, because concave and convex curves behave differently.

I’ve spent quite a long time (well it was raining!!) analysing what on earth is going on down there and here are my conclusions:

First of all, to stitch a vertical line of stem stitch, then change the direction to horizontal, working from left to right, the effect you need to create is that the spiralling stitches emerge from behind the previous stitches.

In contrast, when working in the opposite direction e.g. from right to left, the spiralling stitches curve naturally the opposite way, and appear to cross over the front of the previous stitches. 

So to put it simply: one side of the work looks like its coming out from behind, the other other side looks as if its emerging from the front.  (Stitching a letter ‘S’ shows this off very clearly.)   

However, (big however) because the thread only twists in one direction, you need to compensate for ‘wrong-way’ turns.

I’ve managed to distil this process down to needing a kind of 3-point-turn within that angle.  Simplified by this diagram:

Stem Stitch Corner-  Diagram 1

or to put it another way..

Stem Stitch Changing direction

Now I could go on for a long time (!) but instead, I decided to put it all together into another of my YouTube videos:


Goodness me, I’ve have been quite busy lately, haven’t I?  


  1. Boy oh boy did i miss out on tons of fun. My fault rally. I have been drooling over your videos on YouTube for over a year. Somehow I missed the blog address at the end! Shame on me :/. To help other bumbling video watchers along to your wonderful informative blog,could you maybe add it into the info description?

  2. Hi Lycoris, what a great idea and I'm going to do that right now, especially as its raining (yet again) and my hamstrings are totally!