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Stem stitch icon
Stem stitch

  • Crewel stitch
  • South Kensington stitch
  • Arrow stitch
  • Rope stitch
  • Stalk stitch
  • Outline stitch
Stem stitch main image

Stem stitch uses repeated straight stitches with each stitch coming up beside the previous stitch to form a rope-like line, curved or straight.

Evidence of Stem stitch has been found in both Egyptian and Peruvian grave artefacts from 14th century BC and between 600 and 200BC, respectively.  Later excavations at Kellis in Egypt (1st-5th centuries AD) and Mammen in Denmark (970AD) also show the use of Stem stitch.  From a slightly later period in Peru, Chancay open weave darning used a long Stem stitch to embellish an open weave gauze fabric.

It was used in the Bayeux Tapestry (11th century), in Icelandic ecclesiastical works from approximately the 15th century and in 17th century English Jacobean work.  In the 18th century it was being used in China on Mandarin squares, in the USA as one of the main stitches in Candlewick embroidery, and within shadow work.  By the following century it was being used in whitework (for muslin embroidery at the start of the century and then later for Broderie Anglaise), by William Morris in his re-creation of 17th century embroidery, and in Kashmir to outline motifs.  More generally it was used in Chinai (on the coast of India), and in Meknes, Morocco.

Stem stitch is generously sponsored by Gwyneth Kay

Method

When using stem stitch on tight curves, shorten the length of each stitch to ensure a smooth curved appearance of the stitch line.

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1

Push the needle up through the fabric at the base of your stitching area. Pull the thread through to the surface.

2

Decide on the stitch length and take the needle down through the fabric at that point.

3

Pull the thread through the fabric leaving a loop on the surface of the fabric.

4

Hold the loop out of the way to the right as you bring the needle up to the surface halfway between the stitch length

5

Leave the needle in the fabric while you tighten the slack on the loop against your needle.

6

Pull the needle up through the fabric and make another looped stitch, equal in length to the first.

7

Repeat step four, bringing the needle up halfway again between the stitch length

8

Again, leave the needle in the fabric while you tighten the slack on the loop against your needle.

9

Repeat to the end of the line, each stitch should be equal in length and begin halfway along the previous stitch.

Stem stitch

Structure of stitch

Stem stitch is similar to split stitch but instead of splitting the previous stitch, the stitch comes up beside it and continues in this way to form a continuous curved or straight line, giving a rope-like effect.

Common uses

Stem stitch is used for fine straight or curved lines and, as the name suggests, it is often used for foliage and stems.

Embroidery Techniques

When stem stitch is used in crewelwork it is often used for stems of flowers and foliage.

Variant Stitches

Identifying Stem stitch

During the working, the thread must be kept to the same side of the needle to produce the characteristic twist of the stem, either to the left or to the right as suits the purpose. Each twist of the Stem stitch should lie in the direction of bottom left to top right for Stem Stitch or bottom right to top left if working Outline stitch.

References

Examples of Stem stitch from the RSN Collection

Folding Crewelwork Screen, RSN Collection No. 1287