Demonstrations>Trims and Embellishment>Five
Cross Cultural Embroidery Stitches
Stitches that Work for Every Culture
Embroidery and most other fiber and needlework arts are believed
to originate in Asia and the Middle East. Embroidery and the
embellishment of clothing is certainly a time consuming practice
which necessitates that there be actual time to do it. For
groups of humans living in marginal areas, subsistence would
take precedence over leisure activities. For humans living
in areas in which subsistence was much easier, there was time
to develop the art. Initially, it may have all started as
a way to enhance and, at the same time strengthen seams.
In 1964, a Cro-Magnon hunter's fossilized remains were found
at a dig in Sungir near Vladimir, Russia, dating to 30,000
B.C. His fur clothing, boots and hat were heavily decorated
with hand stitched horizontal rows of ivory beads. This example
would seem to indicate that the idea of couching; whether
it was bits of something or a cord of some type, has been
around for at least as long as embroidery itself.
Chinese bead embroidery in Siberia, dating from between 5000
and 6000 B.C., include elaborately drilled shells stitched
with decorative designs onto animal hides. Mosaics of Byzantium,
500 A.D., depict embroidery of clothing with silk thread,
precious stones and pearls. It is possible the Chinese thread
embroidery from 3500 B.C. was the origin of thread embroidery,
as we know it today. Historical documents record the use of
embroidery in China as early as 2255 B.C.
Recorded history, sculptures, paintings and vases depicting
inhabitants of various ancient civilizations wearing thread
embroidered clothing date back over 3,000 years including
those found in Greece 400 B.C., and Babylon and Syria, 700
A.D. Archeological excavations in Ur, 1544, revealed high
standards of thread embroidery from ancient times such as
a pure gold thread embroidered and woven shroud in the tomb
of Empress Honorius dating 400 A.D. The gold threads were
melted down and weighed 36 pounds in pure metal. By 1500 A.D.,
embroideries had become more lavish in Europe, as well as
other areas of the world. From this period through the 1700's,
elaborate thread and bead embroidery gained popularity.
Through out the beginnings and establishment of embroidery
as a craft, there has been a set of basic stitches that developed
everywhere in the world. Each basic stitch is the basis for
an entire family of stitches that share the same characteristics
as the mother stitch but are executed in slightly varying
The Secrets of Good Embroidery
There are only three secrets to embroidery success. The first
is size. The difference in good embroidery and not so good
embroidery is the size of the stitches in relation to the
thread being used and the design being worked. The second
secret is consistency. Each and every stitch should be the
same size as the rest of its fellows. This particular secret
is really just a mark of practice and patience. The third
secret is a healthy respect for the materials being used.
Thin material simply will not support heavy threads. Consider
either backing the material or using a smaller thread size.
To Hoop or Not to Hoop
I've done it both ways and have not formed a preference for
either method. Both methods require that you be very careful
with tension and this also seems to be a mark of experience
The Big Five
stitch is the simplest and most basic of all stitches and
probably the oldest. Running stitch is often the foundation
for more complex stitches and it is also used for hand quilting.
Included in this family of stitches are: Cross stitch and
Couch work. Most often used either by itself, as a foundation
or as an outline stitch.
The needle simply "runs" along the material, making
stitches of equal length. It can be used for outlining as
Backstitch is also known as point de sable. Backstitch is
an old and very adaptable stitch, which can be used as a delicate
outline or as a foundation in composite stitches. This stitch
follows intricate curves well if the stitches are worked in
a small and even manner in order to follow the flow of the
curve. Included in this family of stitches are: Stem, Split,
and Herringbone. Similar in appearance to Running, it is most
often used in the same manner.
Working from right to left, the needle is brought out a short
distance from the beginning of the line to be covered. It
is inserted again at the beginning of the line, thus taking
a step "back", and emerges an equal distance beyond
the point where it first started. This stitch can be used
for lines and outlines.
If you turn over your work at this point, you will notice
that the back of the backstitch looks like stem stitch. If
you want your backstitches to look good both back and front,
I find it easier to do a stem stitch and let the backside
of the stem stitch function as the front side of the backstitch.
|Back stitch as described above.
||Stem stitch: beginning.
||Stem stitch: Always keep the thread
to one side or the other of the needle.
||Stem stitch: This stitch
looks like cording and is popular for outlining.
Satin Stitch or Fill Stitch
stitch is also known as damask stitch. One of the oldest embroidery
stitches to be found, satin stitch is worked on traditional
embroideries in practically every country. Included in this
family of stitches are: Couched Satin or Bokhara work, also
known as laid work as well as Long and Short Stitch. Most
often used as a fill stitch.
Although it appears to be simple, it is actually a bit difficult
to work. The basic stitch consists of carrying the thread
across the space to be filled and returning underneath the
material to the starting point again. The whole art lies in
making the stitches lie evenly and closely together and preserving
a neat firm edge to the shape which is being filled. The longer
the stitch, the more it will catch on things so it is best
to either break up large spaces to be filled into smaller
spaces or to use techniques such as Bokhara work (where the
stitch is couched down either with itself or with a second
Chain stitch is also known as tambour stitch and point de
chainette. Chain stitch is one of the oldest of the decorative
stitches and is the basis of a large group of stitches. Its
use has a long history and is widespread throughout the world.
It is believed to have originated in Persia and India. Included
in this family of stitches are: Basque, Feather, and Wheatear
(which is actually a cross between Chain and Buttonhole).
Used for any number of techniques such as fill, outline and
by itself. The most widely used stitch. Members of this family
as well as the closely related Buttonhole family are most
often used for seam strengthening and embellishment.
Three stitches are shown below. The regular chain stitch,
the open chain stitch and a "Viking" variant of
|Chain stitch 1: the
thread is brought out at the top of the line and held
down and to the left. The needle is then inserted in the
spot where the thread first emerged and brought out again
a short distance away.
||Chain stitch 2: The
thread is then drawn through over the loop of working
thread. If working without a hoop, it's best to pull the
thread parallel with the fabric rather than away.
||Chain stitch 3: the
process of loops and stitches is repeated over and over.
For corners, tack the last thread in line down with a
plain stitch and then begin the next line with a new chain
stitch in the same space.
||Open chain stitch 1:
The thread is brought out and the needle reinserted a
little distance away from the emerging thread.
||Open chain stitch 2:
The loop is caught with the emerging thread as with regular
chain but the loop is open due to the distance between
start and finish.
||Open chain stitch
3: the thread is then reinserted in the same spot
as the first part of the loop and another open loop is
|Open chain stitch 4: The thread is
inserted in the same spot as the last emerging thread
and another open loop is made.
||Open chain stitch 5: a succession
of open loops are made. This stitch requires a looser
tension than regular chain stitch.
||"Viking" chain 1: a small
tacking stitch is made at the beginning and the thread
emerges down and a little to the left of the first stitch.
||"Viking" chain 2: the thread
is then inserted through the tacking stitch and crossed
over itself and the needle inserted to emerge just under
the first part of the loop.
||"Viking" chain 3: one more
loop like the first is made in the tacking stitch.
4: the third loop is made by inserting the needle
under the first two loops, brining it through as for the
first two loops and crossing it over...
|"Viking" chain 5: the needle
is then reinserted in preparation for the next loop stitch.
||"Viking" chain 6: the needle
is always inserted under the two loops above the stitch
||"Viking" chain 7: this
particular stitch gives a nice, raised and corded affect.
For more information, click
Buttonhole stitch is often used as an edging stitch and is
the basis for a large group of stitches. Included in this
family of stitches are: Barb and Cretan as well as Shisha.
Also used as a fill stitch and as a couching stitch. Very
closely related to Chain.
|Buttonhole stitch 1: The thread emerges on the
lower line and the needle is inserted and brought out
again as shown.
||Buttonhole stitch 2: The thread is then pulled
through over the working thread.
Projects Using These Stitches -
Click on the thumbnail for a larger
|Combination of embroidery and applique on a recreated
15th century coin or salt bag.
||Embroidery and applique close-up.
|Central Asian items are almost invariably decorated,
usually with tribal emblems.
||Back of tent bag. Bags such as this were used for
storage of personal items.