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when stitches mess with your head (and what you can do about it)

Stem stitching

I did my first stitching when I was very young, picked it up at various times through my life, and really started seriously stitching about seven years ago. That's a lot of embroidery and a lot of practice, but of course, I hope to have many, many years of stitching and practice ahead of me.

And I could use the practice, because no matter how much you work and try, I think there will always be stitches that mess with your head. For example, I know that French knots commonly plague people and I've had many discussions on why it's so difficult to remember how to start a blanket stitch. But for me, it's stem/outline stitch.

Stem stitch has always been the one I avoid, but recently I've spent more time practicing. The practice has gone so well that I felt confident in mentally outlining a post with tips on the stitch. But pride goeth before a fall, because when I went to stitch for the pictures, my work looked horrible.

The stitches were messing with my head.

It's not the first time this has happened to me, and I'm sure it won't be the last. So I've come up with some DOs and DON'Ts for if (or more likely, when) this happens to you (and me too).

Do practice. Choose a pattern to stitch "for fun" and use your trouble stitch as much as possible on the pattern.

Don't fret. As much as it may bug you that you aren't getting it, embrace the imperfections, knowing that this is a process.

Do evaluate. Look at the stitches closely to see what doesn't look right and compare it to work that you admire.

Don't frustrate yourself. When you reach that point where you are ready to throw your hoop, you've gone too far. Take a break and use your favorite stitch for a while.

Do ask for help. Finding someone to talk with in person can be a great help, but online stitchers are a good place to start. Trust me, there are so many folks who are happy to help!

And know that I'm one of those people who loves to help. Just don't ask me to help you with your stem stitch!


  1. What fabric do you like to use most to work on? For example what fabric are you using in this picture that has the even weave but has a few flaws in it. I want to work on all of the different stitches in a sampler, but I think I want to work it in a quilt so cotton would make the most sense. In a sampler aida would make the most sense to practice, and linen would probably be very expensive, although I haven't priced it.

    1. This fabric is a linen blend. If you visit your local fabric store, go to the linen section and start feeling and examining the fabrics for one you like. With a sale or coupon, it's not too bad, especially considering how much embroidery fits on a yard!

  2. Mollie,

    It is always the simple things that are the most upsetting. Your brain understands but not always your fingers. This is something a piano teacher told me when I was taking lessons in college. She said that little kids learn two or three cords and they think they have mastered the piano. An adult however, looks at the same accomplishment and realizes just how far they still have to go.
    Sewing is a lot like that. And where as a piano may not have a mind of it's own, floss and fabric sure do! :)
    Hang in there; you'll get it!


  3. Hi, Mollie!

    For outline stitch, I think your stitches look terrific!

    The cause of disappointment might stem from the fact that they aren't stem stitch - they're outline stitch, so you're getting a different look. Often, especially in older books, outline and stem stitch are listed together as the same thing, but they aren't actually the same stitch.

    Two things will affect the look of a stem stitch:

    1. Where you hold your working thread when you take each stitch. With stem stitch, if you are right handed working from left to right, the working thread is always below the needle. If you are left handed, working from right to left, the working thread must be above the needle.

    2. The thread you use. If you are using a z-twisted as opposed to s-twisted thread, then the directions (in #1 above) are actually reversed.

    Most embroidery threads (esp. cottons and wools) are s-twisted, so #2 isn't that much of a consideration. But there are certain silks and all rayons that are z-twisted, so the stitch has to change, in order to achieve that beautiful ropey look that comes with stem stitch.

    If you look at your stitch lines in the photo above, you can see that each new stitch is beginning below the previous stitch (if you worked from left to right). If you want stem stitch, each new stitch must begin above the previous stitch when working left to right with the thread you're using.

    Try it! You'll see what I mean, once you play with it a bit!

    Best of luck!

    1. Thanks, Mary! I have a feeling my big problem is not thinking through this, and therefore, changing how I do it each time. That would explain my mixed results! I tend to be a fast, but not always careful, stitcher. It works for me most of the time, but clearly not for this! Onward with more practice!

  4. Anonymous12:54 PM

    Why does there have to be that one stitch that is annoyingly difficult? For me it's the satin stitch. I can never get it to look even, it's always wonky. I avoid it as much as I can, but that isn't going to help me concur it, so I try to so at least a little bit of satin stitching in each embroidery I do.

  5. Stem stitch is one that I used to actively avoid using. I have since adopted a strategy similar to one you wrote about - Accepting the imperfections as part of the charm and beauty of handmade objects. Reading your own struggles with the stitch inspired me to try using the stem stitch on a piece I just started embroidering. Low and behold, yes the first few stitches were awkward. However, the more I used the stitch, the better it became. (Perhaps I just got used to the imperfections!) Thank you for the timely reminder that struggling is okay.

  6. The stem stitch was the first embroidery stitch my mother taught me. That was 50 years ago. I don't like doing back stitch. I can do stem stitch 3x faster. I think it just comes down to what you learn and do most often.

    1. I think you're absolutely right! Do you use a stab or sew method when you stem stitch? I'm a stabber, so I know that can slow me down...

  7. lol My stem stitch always looks as if it or I, are drunk!

  8. You are so right with how to start a blanket stitch, I thought that only happens to me.
    My stem stitch is not perfect, but is handmade so I think is pretty anyway¡¡¡

  9. How do you start a blanket stitch?!! Thanks for your words of wisdom and encouragement! My stem stitch seems to be ok it's french knots I get in a pickle with! Am determined to master them though!

    1. Future Girl has an excellent blanket stitch tutorial: http://www.futuregirl.com/craft_blog/2007/9/tutorial-hand-sew-felt.aspx

      And have you ever tried colonial knots? They look similar to french knots, but I find that they come out more consistent: http://wildolive.blogspot.com/2012/11/k-is-for-knots.html


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