| |

Learn the Stem Stitch – This Tutorial Will Make You An Expert!

The stem stitch is a basic embroidery stitch that everyone should master. This stitch is commonly used as an outlining stitch because it forms a rope-like line. But there are actually countless ways you can use it – outline shapes, create stems and vines, embroider letters…you can even use it for filling in areas!

Like many embroidery techniques, this stitch has been around for a very long time. According to RSN’s Book of Embroidery, the stem stitch “was heavily used during the Arts and Crafts period, when it became known as South Kensington stitch”. (56)

It took me awhile to fully figure out the stem stitch when I first learned it; it’s not super complicated once you get the hang of it but there are a few things to keep in mind to make it lay neatly, especially along curves.

This tutorial will show you how to embroider straight lines, curves, and shapes. At the end, I’ll also share a few fun variations to give you even more ideas of how you can use it in your next project. You’ll be a pro!

If you find this tutorial helpful, check out even more embroidery stitch tutorials.

the stem stitch and it's many variations

How To Do The Stem Stitch

For this example, I will be working the stitch along a vertical line top-down. The working thread should be held to the left side when the stem stitch is worked in this direction.

When this stitch is worked properly, the stitches will lay at a slight diagonal to one another like a rope. The top of the stitch will lay slightly to the right and the bottom of the stitch directly to the left of the stitch below it. Kind of like a backslash! (“/”)

stem stitch tutorial step 1
  1. Come up through the fabric with needle and thread.
stem stitch tutorial step 2

2. The first stitch is a little bit different than how you will work the rest of the stitches. Make your first stitch along the line twice as long as you plan for each stitch to be.

stem stitch tutorial step 3

3. Pull the thread until a small loop forms on the surface of the fabric. Keep the working thread to the left side and come up with your needle in the middle of the loop along the line.

stem stitch tutorial step 4

4. Pull the thread through and skip a stitch length down the line, going back down through the fabric.

stem stitch tutorial step 5

5. Pull the thread through until another loop forms. This time, come up with your needle at the base of the last stitch. Repeat steps 4 and 5 until you have stitched the entire line.

ending the stitch

6. To end the stitch neatly, go back down slightly to the left of the last stitch you made.

Outline Stitch Vs Stem Stitch

When I first learned this stitch, I didn’t realize it had different names depending on which way you held the working thread.

The outline stitch is worked with the thread to the right.
Stem stitch (left), outline stitch (right).

For the stem stitch:

  • If you work top-down, the working thread should be held on the left side.
  • Working from left to right – hold the working thread below the line.
  • Working from right to left – hold the working thread above the line.

When you work this stitch with the thread to the right, it is referred to as an outline stitch. This looks pretty much the exact same as the stem stitch; the only difference between the two is which direction the stitches lay.

So which one should you use?

It depends on what you’re stitching and it also comes down to personal preference. I typically stick with the stem stitch, but sometimes I will use the outline stitch along curves.

The biggest thing to keep in mind is that once you have picked a particular direction for the working thread to lay, you should keep it to that side only. If you alternate, the stitch won’t lay neatly.

Stitching Along Curves

The stem stitch is notorious for being a bit tricky for beginners because it can get a little jagged looking along curves. Here are a few tips for smoother lines.

  • It’s easier to stitch smoother curves when the working thread is along the outside of curves. This hides the little “legs” of each stitch that can sometimes show through, which will help the line appear more smooth.
  • Another thing that really helps to keep especially tight curves smooth is to shorten the length of your stitches.
  • Finally, pay close attention to where you are starting and ending each stitch. It should be directly along the line and not off to one side.

What if the line curves in both directions?

There is no right or wrong way to do this, but one option is to switch between stem and outline stitch. I am breaking the “rule” I mentioned about switching the working thread by doing this! But here’s the thing: as long as you aren’t repeatedly switching the side of the working thread, the change shouldn’t be super obvious.

For the top of the curve, I kept the working thread to the outside of the curve. (stem stitch)

At the base of the top curve, I switched the thread so that the working thread is to the right. (outline stitch)

How To Embroider Plant Stems

I prefer to work stems from top to bottom, but you can work bottom to top if that feels most natural to you.

Stitch along the main stem first.

Then start from the tops of each branch of the stem and stitch along the line, ending slightly under the stitch that intersects along the main stem.

3. Repeat for all of the branches.

4. Then you can stitch little flowers using French knots or another one of your favorite stitches to use for flowers.


Whipped Stem Stitch

The whipped stem stitch works great for borders. Choose a contrasting color to make it fun.

  1. Come up directly to the top of the line of stem stitches. Place your needle through the right side of the area where the first and second stitch meet.

2. Pull the thread through and place the needle under the area where the second and third stitch meet. Repeat all the way down the line.

3. To end, place your needle down at the base of the last stem stitch.

Filling In Areas

The nickname for the stem stitch when it is used as a fill stitch is “crewel stitch”. You may not think to use the stem stitch as a filling stitch, but it creates a lovely texture when rows of them are worked side by side.

Make sure that you work each line in the same direction (i.e. left – right or top – bottom), keeping the working thread along the same side so that the stitches will lay nicely.

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial! These are just a few ideas to get you started. Another fun variation I think you’ll love is the raised stem stitch.

Want to learn even more embroidery stitches?

This workbook is NOT your usual stitch encyclopedia. Most embroidery books don’t actually show you how you can use each embroidery stitch and they also don’t come with many tips. This workbook is packed full of helpful information to make you a better, more confident stitcher.

It comes with:

  • embroidery stitch tutorials
  • helpful tips for each stitch that will maximize your learning and improve the way your embroidery looks
  • fun, modern embroidery patterns you can use to learn the stitches with ease

Similar Posts