Monday, March 5, 2012

"Working the Stem Stitch in Embroidery"

It’s important, when using this stitch on appliqué, that you try to stitch through all layers, not just the top layer.  If you are stitching through just two layers, it’s easy.  More than that, will be harder, but try to go as deep as you can.  The stem stitch is great for, um, making stems….on plants and flowers….and little vines.  It’s also great for outlining almost anything, especially appliqué piece edges.  It’s great for “drawing” with thread to describe details of a piece such as how you see it in these pictures of the “Wilkommen”, from our pattern of the same name.   

It makes a nice twisted thread line on the surface of the piece.  Here’s how it’s done.

When I teach a class, I make up little samplers for the participants out of some simple materials.  I make each student an embroidery “hoop” out of tag board; two circles, basically, about 6” in diameter.  I staple these to opposites sides of a piece of white cotton cloth and draw some lines on it for them to follow.

Most any needle will do, but if you plan to continue to embroider with your appliqué, you will use a couple of different needles quite a lot.  The needle on the left is an embroidery needle.  The one on the right, is an appliqué needle. 

 Notice the size of the eye.  The embroidery needle has a large eye, which makes it good for using varying amounts and sizes of thread.  I usually use two strands, but for work that needs more bulk, up to six strands can be managed. 

By contrast, the appliqué needle is thin with a tiny eye, making it useful for working a single strand of strong thread in tiny stitches needed for the blind stitch used by most stitchers to anchor appliqué pieces.  It goes through several layers of fabric without too much trouble.  It’s also a little flexible, which is useful for maneuvering.  More on appliqué, itself, in another session.

"Oh, What a Tangled Web..."

To begin, one of the most frustrating problems for beginners is that of getting one or two strands of floss out of a skein without tangling up the whole thing. Here's how to overcome that little problem.

Pull about 18” of six-strand floss out from the skein and snip it off.  You don’t want to sew with a longer length  than this because it will wear out and break before you ever get down to the end of it.  Beside that, it tangles horribly.

So once the six-strand length is cut, hold the thread in your left hand, near the end you will thread through your needle, and pull one strand straight up and away from the bunch, holding back the strands that gather as the strand is pulled, with your other hand.  Lay the strand aside and smooth the remaining strands out straight again.  Then, pull another strand out the same way.  We will be using two for this project so that is all you will need here.  But, even if there are only two strands left of the hank, you still must separate them in this same way so they come untwisted from one another.

Moisten, trim and thread the two strands through the eye of the needle.  Always thread the end that came out of the skein or off the spool, first, through your needle.  Thread has a slight “nap” to it, according to how it is twisted during spinning.  Using the right end will prevent additional tangling and help your thread to be your friend and not your enemy.

For this exercise, you can make a knot in the end of the strands, if you like.  Later on, I’ll show you how to weave your thread ends into the back of your embroidery so that the back is smooth and almost as pretty as the front.  For appliquéd quilting, though, the back is never seen in the final product so knots are okay.

Bring the thread and needle to the front on the line of travel.

Insert the needle about 1/8” to 1/16” from the start point and bring it back up in the same hole made by bringing the thread to the front.

Tug the stitch firm and hold the working thread down below the line of travel.

Make your next stitch as before.

Continue on until you have finished the line or run out of thread.  Before you run out of thread, always be sure you have enough to take to the back of the work and weave through or make a knot.

Here is the back of the piece we just stitched.  This is how the back of the stem stitch looks.

Weave your remaining thread under the stitches on the back of the piece 6 or 7 times….enough to hold it and keep is from undoing itself.  Or just make a couple of half-hitch knots through the first stitch, if the back is not to be seen.

This is how the finished woven fix looks when done.  Snip off your thread close to the work….closer than I’m showing here, so the ends don’t show in the front as a shadow on the white background.

"Using the Stem Stitch on Curves"

The stem stitch works well on curves but I like it to have the same look on an inside curve as it does on an outside curve.  Draw an “S” on your sample fabric about 2” tall.  When you look at it, the first curve I am stitching on this “S” is an outside curve.  Holding the thread to the outside of the curve makes it lie down very nicely and it holds the line of travel very nicely.  But when you go around the other curve, at the top of the “S”, the stitch doesn’t look quite as good and doesn’t describe the line of travel quite as well.  I call the upper curve of the “S”, the inside curve, just for the sake of this demonstration.

To stitch the  inside curve (below), move your thread above the line of travel just before you begin the curve and continue as before, all the way to the end of the curve.  The transition is nearly invisible in the line of the stitch, and the inside curve looks as smooth as the outside curve.

The finished “S” with both curves lying quite smooth and sweet.  End of lesson.  Now, you can stem stitch to your heart’s content!!!

By the way, I will be giving away a copy of

 the "Eight Great Potholders" pattern this 

week to someone whose name we draw 

from our readers who leave a comment on 

this post by Midnight, PST, Monday, 

March 12th, 2012.

Here is a sampling of each potholder figure.....four are Sunbonnet Sue and four are Sunhat Sam.  These patterns can be used as quilt blocks as well as potholders.

To leave a post, just click on "COMMENTS", below.  Be sure and leave your name, so I can find your email address in my contacts list.  If you are not in my contacts list, you can email me your information by going to Prairie Cottage Corner using the link at the top right of this page.

Happy Stitching!!!


  1. Love Sunbonnet Sue and Sam. Great looking potholders. Thanks also for the easy to understand tutorial.


    1. Thanks for stopping by. Sue and Sam are wonderful subjects for our stitching. I really get a kick out of them.

  2. Thank you for these very clear, concise instructions and the hint on doing the curves. Well presented.

    1. Thank YOU, too, for coming by. The Stem Stitch really rocks, seriously. It's a great way to draw with thread.

  3. Thank you so much for the instructions, just what I need to give me the confidence to try something new.

  4. Thanks, Josie. Isn't it true, though? Sometimes all we need (beside thread and needle) is a little nudge of confidence. There you go. Happy stitching.

  5. Hi Josie! Congratulations! You've won the free pattern. You can email me from my site at for a secure way to share your mailing or emailing address. I can send it to you attached to an email or I can send it by snail-mail. Just let me know. Thank you for entering.

  6. Thank you so much for your wonderful giveaway. I am so lucky and I will now have the lovely job of choosing pretty fabrics. I always loved the sun bonnet Sue patterns and with a new grandchild expected in August I will be busy making a baby quilt first.
    best wishes


Welcome to Prairie Cottage Corner. Please come in and stay a while. We are here to help you with your love of quilting, quilt design and embroidery. We especially like Sunbonnet Sue and her friends.

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Happy Stitching! Prairie Stitcher