The Creative Corner · Vintage Needlework

Embroidery Lesson: Outline Stitches

Welcome to the second lesson in our series. This time we concentrate on an embroidery lesson for outline stitches. In this first installment I’ll introduce the outline stitches. A second post will give you some simple patterns you can use for practice. If you missed the first lesson you can find Part 1 here.

This was the article that changed my attitude towards outlining in embroidery. For years I’d used the simple stem stitch. It worked for stems, curves, straight lines, basically anything I needed to outline. However, it does get boring after awhile. You look at this thing you want to outline, and think… Again? Four colors, all lines. It goes fast, but it’s kind of boring. No? It was just me? Maybe I need to get out more.

During the Twenties through the Forties, many designs were embroidered by covering the outline only. In fact, unless you followed a pattern with cross stitches, the term embroidery often meant outline stitch. This meant that lots of beautiful line patterns were produced during this time period that still look very effective today.

Perhaps because of this, Needlecraft Magazine produced an embroidery lesson specifically for outline stitches. This introduces the general outline stitch but takes you beyond that so you can be as creative as you like.

The Outline Stitch

When we think of following a line in embroidery, we usually think of the stem stitch, also called the outline stitch. An illustration of the outline stitch appears below.

You always work this stitch from left to right, and you keep the needle pointed to the left. Start the embroidery without making a knot in your thread. Hold the end of the thread behind the fabric and take three or four short running stitches along the design line. Make the stitches in the direction of your beginning embroidery point. These stitches will be covered by the embroidery, and you can clip any hanging end later.

Looking at the illustration, place your needle along the dotted line a short way and take a stitch. Usually an outline stitch measures between 1/4 and 1/2 inch long. Bring your needle up close to the end of the first stitch, staying on the line. Now the outline stitch really begins.

The needle goes down on the dotted line, your design line. It comes back up, still on the line, at the end of the last stitch. Keep your thread always to the left of your work so that it will make a nice, even outline. If your thread falls to the right for a stitch you will instantly know; something looks off as you look at your finished work.

Changing the effect and turning corners

If you want the effect of your thread always on the right side rather than the left, you can do that. It will look a bit more twisted if you embroider that way, and it’s a perfectly acceptable effect. Whichever way you use, stay consistent within one piece or it will “look” wrong.

When you turn a corner or a sharp curve, you shorten your stitches accordingly. Sometimes they will need to be very short in order to follow a line. Otherwise, the outline stitch uses the same length of stitch all the way through a project.

The length of your stitches ultimately depends on your working materials. Embroidery with wool on burlap requires much larger stitches than using one strand of embroidery floss on fine linen. If you make the stitches too small, the delightful detail of the embroidery gets lost.

The Snailtrail

This outline stitch can be called the snailtrail, the beading stitch, or the knotted outline. It looks a bit like a couching stitch and is very effective in a thread like perle cotton. It gives you little beads along the thread. Very nice.

While the outline stitch is worked from left to right, this stitch is the opposite. Always work the snailtrail stitch from right to left.

Hold the thread on the line with your left thumb and take a short slanted stitch underneath it. The illustration above shows how. Make the slanted stitch from top to bottom. This makes the thread coil around in a loop –– perfect. Gently pull the thread up and you should get a knot around your working thread. Leave it somewhat loose. That’s part of its beauty.

You notice that the needle goes in further above the thread (which we assume is held along the embroidery design line) than it comes out below it. This helps to get the nice round beads but at the same time you don’t stray too far from the outline’s path.

A few practice stitches will show you where to place the needle. Draw a line on some spare fabric and make a few snailtrail beads. You’ll quickly see the best way for you to make the stitch.

The Running Stitch

This stitch is used in plain hand sewing, in crafting with felt, and in quilting. The running stitch is a good general stitch to master. This might be the easiest stitch in this embroidery lesson for outline stitches.

This stitch looks very nice as a companion to heavier stitches. It also provides an ethereal look to clouds and a nice broken look to grass. It’s nice to use when you want a light effect.

The running stitch is worked from right to left, and its beauty depends on the evenness of the stitches. They should all be the same size with the same distance between. The stitches are a little longer than the space between them. If you want to be creative, placing the stitches in a long – short – long – short pattern could be beautiful. Keep the same distance between all the stitches, though, to accent your creativity.

As you can see in the illustration, you can make several running stitches at a time. In fact, this helps to keep the stitches and spaces even.

The Back Stitch

The back stitch appears similar to the running stitch, but with no fabric showing between the stitches.

This uses more thread than the running stitch because it covers each stitch length twice. This is important if you have limited access to threads. Working with vintage threads that you can’t replace once you run out, or an out-of-production thread that you love, may dictate embroidering with a stitch that uses less thread.

The back stitch produces a nice straight outline, whether you’re following a curve or a line. It’s also a sturdy stitch. Unlike stem stitch or the chain stitch mentioned later, this stitch does not move once you place it unless your stitches are very long.

To make this stitch, bring your needle up on the dotted line (the design line on your fabric). Return the needle to the fabric 1/8 – 1/4 inch to the right, as shown above. Bring the needle back out 1/8 – 1/4 inch to the left of where your thread comes out. Then place your needle back into the fabric to the right, almost touching the first stitch. (In counted cross stitch, your back stitches do touch one another when done on a fabric like Aida. In Twenties-style fabric embroidery, the stitches almost touch, with a strand or two of the fabric between stitches.)

Follow the design line from right to left. A full 2/3 of your thread will lie under the fabric surface. A back stitch is often used in place of an outline/stem stitch. It gives nice variety to your embroidery.

The Chain Stitch

When you want the effect of a heavy line, the chain stitch can work very well.

The endless loops of the chain stitch make an interesting outline. As you can see in the illustration, the needle always points towards you. The chain appears link by link, drawing closer to you as it covers the design line.

To make the chain stitch, bring your needle up on the dotted line. Hold the thread down with your thumb, and insert the needle again where it came out of the fabric. Pass the needle under the fabric for a short space and bring the needle point back up. At this point your needle should pass over the thread your thumb holds down. You can see what that looks like in the illustration.

Draw the thread through the hole. Be careful to leave it a bit loose so that it forms a nice chain link. You are now in the position to hold the thread down again while you put the needle back into the fabric where it came out. Continue creating your chain.

I hope you found this embroidery lesson on outline stitches useful. Next time I’ll give you the project that came with this article: adorable animals and a border for outline stitches.