How to stitch: Couching

When thinking about embroidery stitches, I don’t think a couching stitch is one of the first to come to mind. However it opens up a number of different possible effects for your stitching. Plus you can it stitch it relatively quickly. So I think it’s definitely worth having in your toolkit.

If you’ve done any goldwork you’ve probably come across couching. As it’s perfect for securing metalic threads to your fabric. However it can also be used in other types of embroidery and with other threads.

At it’s essence, couching is the process of laying a length of thread across your fabric and securing it in place with stitches. There are many ways you can get creative with this. But first, let’s cover the basic couching stitch.

How to stitch

Gather your main thread, the one that you’re going have sitting on top of your fabric. Pretty much any thread can be used for this, even quite thick ones. You can also couch multiple lengths at once.

For this example, I’m going to couch 3 lengths of blue crewel wool. Which I’m securing in place with a single length of purple crewel wool.

You can secure your couched thread with a matching or contrasting thread, depending on the effect you want to create.

Start both threads in the usual way (e.g. the waste knot method). Bring up your main thread at the beginning of your line and hold it in place along your design line. Bring up your securing thread alongside your main thread, a short distance from where it begins.

3 strands of blue crewel wool lying across the fabric, with a stitch starting just to the side of them.

Complete this stitch by taking your needle down just to the other side of your main thread.

Keep working small securing stitches along your main thread, following your design line.

Working small purple securing stitches across 3 lengths of blue crewel wool.

Your couching will look best if you can keep your stitches an even distance apart.

If you have any tight curves to work around, you may need to reduce the distance between your stitches. Also be sure to work a stitch at the tightest point of your curve if it bends sharply.

A curved shape worked in couching. Around the tight curve at the top, the securing stitches are closer together.

When your couching is finished, take your main thread to the back of your work and secure it.

A completed curved line of couching. Blue threads have been couched down with a purple thread.

Tips

Aim to keep your securing stitches going straight across your couched thread, so that they are always at right angles to your line of stitching.

Keep your securing stitches an even distance apart. Although when going around tight curves, you may need to shorten them.

Take care that your securing stitches are “just” the right size. Too small and if you’re couching down multiple threads you could make them look bunched up. Too large and your line could start to look like train tracks. But of course, there may be times when either of these are the effect that you want to create!

A different way to start and finish your couched thread

If the thread that you’re couching down is too thick to comfortably fit through a needle, you can use the lasso plunging method to bring your thread to the back of your fabric.

Take a short length of thread and fold it in half. I typically use upholstery thread as that’s nice and strong. Thread the 2 cut ends through your needle so that you have formed a loop at the other end.

Take your needle down through your fabric where you want your thicker thread to finish. You should end up with your loop on the front of your work. Thread the end of your couched thread through this loop.

A loop of yellow thread being used to plunge the blue threads to the back of the embroidery.

Now you can pull your loop through and it will bring your couched thread with it. If your thread is very thick, you might have to pull quite hard.

Once your couched thread is on the back of your work, secure the end by stitching over it with your finer thread. Use the backs of the stitches you’ve already worked rather than taking your needle through the fabric – you don’t want to create any new stitches that are visible from the front. Once your couching thread is secure, trim off any excess.

The back of an embroidery, showing a thick blue thread being secured by stitching over it with a thinner purple thread. The stitches are being worked through the backs of existing stitches.

Getting creative with couching

Couching can be a relatively quick way of stitching a thick line. It can also be a useful way of creating a very fine, smooth line, since the line created is simply the thickness of your thread.

It’s not restricted to just lines through. You can stitch rows of couching next to each other to create a more solid fill.

For example, in a piece I recently stitched for the Royal Astronomical Society’s quilt project I couched different shades of purple and blue threads next to each other to create Titan’s atmosphere.

A quilt square showing Saturn in the background, the Cassini spacecraft and the Huygens probe descending to the moon Titan.

I used couching as I wanted the atmosphere to look smooth and a similar texture to the orange fabric of the moon. As a contrast, I worked Saturn’s rings in stem stitch, which you can see is more textured.

Close up of 3 rows of couching worked next to each other. The securing stitches have been worked in a brick pattern.

For the couched threads I used 6 strands of stranded cotton. Which I secured with 1 strand. As you can see in the photo, I worked the securing stitches in a brick pattern. I think this is the nicest looking way of stitching rows of couching next to each other.

Another way to get creative with your couching is to vary the colour of your securing stitches as you work along your thread. By doing this you can create shading.

You could even work some of your securing stitches right next to each other to create areas of fine detail and build up a picture. This is the basis for the goldwork technique Or Nué. A stunning example of which I recently saw here on Instagram.

Another way that I frequently use couching is to secure laid work. Check out my laid work tutorial here.


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