How to stitch: Burden stitch

I think burden stitch is a lovely stitch for filling large or small areas of your embroidery. It creates a good texture and can be stitched in different ways to mix it up and create different effects.

I’ve always found the name a bit funny though. I guess my mind goes to the context of “don’t be a burden”!

However, from looking up where the name burden stitch comes from, it seems it was renamed in the 19th century after an embroiderer, Elizabeth Burden.

Elizabeth was William Morris’ sister in law and worked in his embroidery department. She also taught at the Royal School of Needlework in the 1870s which is where she popularised the stitch. So I’m guessing she was at the forefront of embroidery at the time and would be an interesting person to learn more about.

Anyway, now I’ve reassured myself about the name, let’s get into how to stitch it!

How to stitch

Start by stitching rows of long, parallel stitches across the full width of your shape.

Long, evenly spaced horizontal stitches covering the full width of a circle.

Your stitches should be a consistent distance apart. When working with crewel wool, mine are usually around 3-5mm apart.

Starting in the centre of your shape, work a vertical stitch by coming up from under a long stitch, crossing over a long stitch, then going down just under the next long stitch.

First two stitches of burden stitch. They are next to each other and offset by one long stitch.

Work your second stitch next to your first stitch, but offset by one row of your long stitches. So you start by coming up from under the long stitch that your first stitch crosses over.

Keep working stitches in this staggered way to fill your shape.

A circle filled with burden stitch. The long stitches are in mid blue, the small stitches in light blue.

Burden Stitch Tips

I find it easiest to keep all my stitches parallel and aligned if I start in the middle and work out. I do this for both the long foundation stitches and the smaller securing stitches.

A circle where the top half has been fully stitched with burden stitch. The lower half is covered with long horizontal stitches.

When you’re working your smaller securing stitches, angle your needle as you bring it up and down through the fabric so that you’re working under your long stitches but not stitching through them.

Working the first stitch by angling my needle under one of the long stitches.

Your small stitches can be worked right next to each other so that your fabric is completely covered. Or you can leave a little space between them for a less solid finish.

Using burden stitch around a curve

If you’re filling an area that curves slightly, you could make you burden stitches curve with your shape.

To do this, your foundation stitches will need to smoothly sweep around your shape rather than all being parallel. Then work your smaller stitches to always be at right angles with your long stitches.

I did this in the owl wings of my Royal School of Needlework Jacobean crewelwork piece.

An owl stitched in the Jacobean crewelwork embroidery style. His wings are burden stitch going around a curve.

By working my burden stitches close together, the changing angles of my stitches appear to flow smoothly.

I’d probably only use burden stitch around a thin-ish curving shape like the owl’s wings. If your shape is too wide or it curves too sharply, then your stitches on the inside curve will be much smaller than on the outside curve.

Burden stitch variations

As mentioned, your stitches can be close together for a solid filling. Or they can be further apart, allowing some of the fabric to show through.

You can also create different textural effects by working double burden stitches. Or even triple etc.

I think this exaggerates the basket weave look, so good to do if that’s the texture you’re going for.

Double burden stitch worked in purple crewel wool with blue foundation rows.

You can also get creative with colour!

I like to use different shades or colours for the long stitches and the shorter stitches as I think this emphasises the texture in a pleasing way. Even just a slight variation in the shade between these stitches can give your embroidery more depth.

Plus, with the way the stitches intersect each other, if you change colours between rows, you’ll get a bit of blending making for a smoother transition.

You can also use different colours within rows to create more complex shading or to create a pattern or design. Kind of like an elongated cross stitch grid.

Burden stitch rectangle with a heart shaped pattern worked in purple, light blue and mid blue crewel threads.

So, what do you think of burden stitch? What would you use it for?

I think it’s a really nice looking stitch and I like the variation possibilities. So for me, it’s definitely not a burden! 😀

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2 thoughts on “How to stitch: Burden stitch

  1. I need a lot more practice to get my burden stitch looking as neat as yours…but I am working on it

    1. Thank you! Practice definitely helps. Thankfully it’s very rare that anyone will be looking at our stitching this closely 🙂

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