Embroidery Shading Basics

This post will go over embroidery shading basics, which is what will help you achieve more dimension in your work and even embroider more realistically.

embroidery shading of a leaf

Supplies You’ll Need

Adding shading to your embroidery is easiest to do with stranded embroidery floss. This kind of floss commonly comes in 6 strands and cotton is the most common material.

It’s also great to have a thread card on hand so that you can easily pick out different shades of colors you want to use.

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links, which means I may earn a small commission if you choose to purchase an item.

Here’s a list of some of my favorites I like to use:

  • John James Embroidery Needles –Amazon
  • DMC Thread Card – Amazon
  • DMC 6 strand cotton floss – Amazon


The long and short stitch is the best stitch to use to add shading that is subtle and somewhat blended together. This stitch is most frequently used in thread painting.

If you’re interested in learning the basics first, check out this post that goes over the thread painting basics and this one for blending colors smoothly together.

Shading A Leaf

It’s important to have a good reference photo to go off of so you can see where any shadows and highlights are.

Make sure to keep in mind where the light source is hitting the object. The shadows will be darker shades of colors and the highlights will be lighter shades of colors.

shading a leaf

The leaf is folded over in one area. In order to portray this correctly, you’ll want to plan this with different colors and sometimes even different stitch directions than the other parts of the leaf. This will help this part of the leaf to stand out. If you embroider this part of the leaf with the same color and or stitch direction, it will blend in with the rest of the leaf.

I’ll be stitching this part slightly lighter since the undersides of leaves can sometimes be lighter, the light source in the reference photo is hitting this part of the leaf, and because it’s closer to the viewer.

In order to add clear division between the area that is folded over, I split stitched the outline and then made the stitches in the opposite direction of the rest of the leaf.

For the area directly to the left of the folded over part of the leaf, I exaggerated the shading a bit in order to add enough contrast. This is so that there is a clear division between the folded over part of the leaf and the rest of the leaf and also because there is a shadow in the reference photo. I also made these stitches at a slight diagonal.

I then used a slightly lighter shade of green towards the center line of the leaf.

On the left side of the leaf, I used a medium green and blended it out into a lighter green.

The center of the leaf naturally has a vein or center “seam”, so I made sure that my stitches met in the middle but didn’t overlap.

The stitches on this side are running at an opposite diagonal of the right side of the leaf. It looks the most natural to stitch leaves this way because it follows the pattern of the natural veins and lines you can see in them.

To define the center line more, I added a line of stem stitches using a slightly lighter color.

Then I filled in the stem with a darker shade of green at the bottom and blended it into a slightly lighter shade towards the base of the leaf.

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Tips For Adding Subtle Shading

Color Selection

In order to add subtle shading, you’ll want to select colors that are close together in value (how light or dark a color is). Generally, you’ll want to select 3-5 different values of a single color if you want them to seamlessly blend together.

This is where the DMC thread card comes in handy, because lots of colors are grouped together with their corresponding shades and tints. (There are many other combinations of colors you can use, but this is a good starting place to look.)

Stitch Direction

Plan to make the stitches in the direction that you want the colors to change. If you are wanting to blend colors from dark to light, the stitches should point in the direction of where the color is going to change.

Tips For Adding Dramatic Shading

Choose Contrasting Colors

As you can see in the demo of the leaf, the folded over part of the leaf required colors that were very obviously lighter and darker from one another. This is the easiest way to create good contrast.

Create Natural Divisions

Another thing that you can do it to create a seamline between the lighter part of the subject and the darker part of the subject like we did by split stitching the outline of the turned over part of the leaf.

Be sure to create a neat edge of stitches along the line you want to create the natural division. Try not to let the stitches overlap into one another.

Split Stitch With A Dark Color

You can also add in shadows using a very dark color. This can usually be added after you have filled in the shape. You can stitch over top of the existing stitches. A small line of split stitches along an area you want to define more makes a big difference!

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