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embroidery basics: stem and split stitches

Last time, I showed you two of my favorite stitches, and this week, we have two of my least favorites. There's nothing really wrong with them, but everyone has their own tastes, right? My problem with the stem stitch is that it alluded me for so long that I still avoid it, and the split stitch? It always feels messy. Still, they are basic, must learn stitches, and you may love them! Hey, I may even love them after this!

Get your hoop ready, and let's get started! For the stem stitch, I'm using three strands, but you can use what you like. This stitch is basically a series of stitches that overlap each other a little. It makes for lovely curves when you do it right.
As someone who likes the stabbing method (see this previous lesson), I'm tempted to take a single stitch, come up from the back just behind the end of my first stitch, and continue on. This doesn't work so well.
Instead, use the sewing method with the fabric a little loose in the hoop. Come up from the back. Push the needle through to the back and then back up to the front, all in one stitch. The needle comes up on the line, just a bit behind where you inserted the needle.
Pull the floss through (not too tight!), and take another stitch as you did the first.
Continue along the line, and it looks like this! No joke, this may be the best stem stitching I've ever done using this method.

For a long time, I thought I would never learn how to do this. It just didn't work, and I gave up. But then I learned another way, and it saved my stem stitch. (Thank you, Amy! You're my stem stitch hero!)
This way is more like doing the back stitch, and I love that! Start out with a back stitch.
Come up again about a stitch length from your first stitch, then insert the needle just behind the end of the first stitch. It should go underneath the floss from the first stitch.
Again, come up like you're back stitching, and go back down behind the previous stitch.
When you keep on like this, you'll have a neat little row of stem stitch. I find this way works so much better for me.

One thing that I've also learned is that it looks a lot more smooth if you take smaller stitches. There are times when longer works, but I like the look of shorter stitches for this.

Now, how about splitting up your stitches? More strands are good for this, but try different numbers to see what you like. Even numbers are a good thing though, and you'll see why.
Take a single stitch, moving forward. Come up from the back with the needle splitting apart the first stitch.
Go back down so the total length of the stitch is around 1/4" (counting the part that overlaps with the previous stitch).
Come up again, splitting the previous stitch.
That's all there is to this! The split stitch is a classic, but as I said, it feels messy to me. Maybe because it reminds me of the back side of my back stitch. Regardless, it makes a good solid line, and that's a nice thing to have.

I didn't get a chance to stitch up a for real pattern this week, but I did make a pattern for you to practice on! It's a swirl of leaves that has some nice curves to stitch. It fits just right in a 5" hoop.

Download the pattern PDF.

Download this lesson + the pattern.

Next time around, we'll tackle the chain stitch!


  1. I agree with you about the split stitch, I can't recall ever using it, it's so strange to sew into the thread you just put down, but I might need to practice it a bit to see how it works better.

    Thanks for another great part in this series!

  2. You want to know what is funny, I do my split stitch differently ... rather than coming up through the stitch to split it, I go down through the stitch just made to split it ... sort of like doing a back-stitch ... know what I mean? Wonder if I have been doing my split stitch wrong all these years, LOL!

  3. Oh! You know what Mollie, I guess maybe I do come up through the center of my split stitch like you ... it is weird not having a needle and thread here, I am trying to visualize myself stitching imagining which way I go .... I guess I do my stitch the same as you. You want to know what I have found helps to make the split stitches neater though? I use the rough side of velcro to brush my floss first, and it seems like it helps to evenly distribute the strands better .... hmmm... I gotta go stitch now. :)

  4. I'm a rookie when it comes to embroidery (as in, the backstitch is the only stitch I've ever done) so THANK YOU for this post! I'll be bookmarking for sure!

  5. I love this series!! You make starting embroidery so much fun!!

  6. I love your tutorials!! And I totally agree on the stem stitch, never really liked it...I use it sometimes, but really don't like it!

  7. Anonymous5:59 PM

    Very neat explanations! Thanks! I used to shy away from these stitches when I started, but now we are friends :-). I agree with you on making stem stitches shorter rather than longer. However on the split stitch... I like better splitting from the front of the stitch towards the back than from front to back :-).

  8. Anonymous10:13 PM

    (oopsy... at the end I meant to say): ...."than from the back to the front" :-)

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Ooo, thanks for the tips... it's amazing how a slight change makes allt he difference!

  11. My question as a beginner and learning these stitches is when I get to practice the leaves and other patterns, how do I know when to use what stitch? Is it personal preference? Obviously curves equeals some stitches and straight lines equal other stitches. But how do I know what to use?? (I know, this is fear talking, right?)

  12. I am having an epiphany moment thanks to your tutorial! Thank you so much for writing it so I can make this make sense in my head. I love to embroider but I end up only using a backstitch because the other stitches aren't logical to me. Now these two make sense! I can't wait for your next embroidery tutorials.

  13. Thanks for all of the great feedback! I'm so happy that this is making sense, because there are times when I think, "am I explaining this right?"

    Nancy: It really is a matter of taste. I think that different stitches can create different moods, which you may see in other people's work. Take a look through the Embroidery Flickr group (http://www.flickr.com/groups/embroideredstuff/) and you'll see how folks use the stitches and that should give you a good idea too.

  14. So fantastic! I have always had such trouble with the stem stitch and this totally looks like it will help. Thanks much.

  15. Hello and Thank you for this lesson and pattern...

  16. What a fantastic series- I love the helpful little olive. =) Thanks tons for all of the hard work that went into this wonderfully detailed series. I'll be spreading the word.

  17. Anonymous2:06 AM

    thanks for this -- i have all the supplies to start embroidery work, but just haven't done ANY. your photos are so easy to follow and i aim to start ASAP.

  18. This post is so helpful! I can now do stem stitch, it had never quite come out right doing it the top way but I love the second way.

    I actually really like split stitch, perhaps just because it is one of the first I learnt.But I know what you mean about it looking like the reverse side!

  19. Anonymous7:50 AM

    love your work but are there directions for us lefties????

  20. Gracias por compartir el tutorial de las puntadas

  21. No plans for lefty directions right now. Sorry! Maybe if I can get my left-handed sister to give me a hand (or two!), that will come about someday.

  22. Thank you thank you thank you for this series. I am learning to embroider from books, blogs, and patterns and it is incredibly helpful.

  23. Thanks for this tutorial! The stem stitch is also very difficult to me, each time I do it, the result is different... I will follow your instructions :)

  24. The backwards stem stitch is AMAZING. Thank you!

  25. Thankyou so much for these clear instructions and pictures! I have recently needed to do some hand embroidery and was struggling with getting the stem stitch under control. Since reading your tutorial, especially with doing the stem stitch as if back stitching it is now perfect! Thankyou!


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