How to stitch: Fishbone stitch

The name of fishbone stitch always sounds a little funny to me. I like the stitch and I’ve used it in a few designs. I think it’s some weird mental loop I have because I’m vegetarian. As if I automatically think “fishbone” = nope 🤣 But then I remember it’s just a stitch and all is good!

Anyhoo… Let’s jump straight into how to stitch fishbone stitch and then I’ll cover some tips and ideas for using it.

How do you stitch fishbone stitch?

I find it useful to start by drawing a couple of guidelines down the centre of the shape I’m going to be stitching. You might find it easiest to draw a single line down the centre first and then a couple of lines either side of this.

If your shape has a pointy end, start your stitching there. Stitch a straight stitch from the point and down the middle of your shape.

A pointy oval shape drawn on fabric with two lines drawn down the centre. A stitch is being made at one of the points.

Start your second stitch by bringing your needle up on the outside of your shape, just along from your first stitch.

This stitch is going to cross over the end of your first stitch. Do this by taking your needle down into the furthest away of your guidelines.

The second stitch being made, at the end it will cross over the first stitch.

Bring your needle back up on the unstitched side next to your first stitch.

Finish this stitch on the furthest away of your guidelines. So that this stitch crosses over both of your previous stitches. It’s essentially a mirror image of your second stitch.

The continuing plaiting action of fishbone stitch.

Keep working like this, where you’re alternating the side on which you are stitching. I think of it as similar to a plaiting motion.

Making a stitch in a shape about half filled with fishbone stitch.

If at the end of your shape, you don’t have space to keep working the overlapping stitches, then work some straight stitches to fill out the space.

A completed pointy oval in fishbone stitch using blue crewel wool.

Stitching tips

Before you start stitching, decide if you’re going to outline your fishbone stitch. If you aren’t outlining it, then you’ll want to be mindful of starting your stitches just outside your design line. So that your design line isn’t visible when you’ve finished stitching. In the above example you can see that my outline is still visible because I was bringing up my needle on the line.

How far down the shape you end your second and third stitches sets the angle for your fishbone stitch. I typically aim for around 45 degrees. Although you can of course go sharper or shallower depending on the effect you want to create.

Be mindful of keeping the angle of your stitches consistent as you work down your shape. I find it helps me to hold my thread along my fabric, parallel to my previous stitching, to check where I should be finishing my stitch.

Your fishbone stitch will generally look best if the two sides look like mirror images of each other. i.e. both sides of stitching make the same angle with the centre line.

A diagram over the top of fishbone stitch showing how the angle of stitches on each side mirror each other.

An exception to this would be if your shape and stitching curves around. Then you’ll want to adjust your stitching angles so that the end result still looks like the stitches are smoothly and evenly sweeping around. Can you tell I’ve tried to make this diagram look a little bit like a fish? 😄

A diagram showing how the angle of stiches would change working around a curved shape.

Fishbone stitch in use

So where and when might you use fishbone stitch?

I tend to think that any shape with a point is a good candidate.

Making flower petals and leaves popular choices. I can also see it working well on feathers and I’ve used it for different segments of stars.

Here, I used fishbone stitch for the middle petal in this flower as part of my Royal School of Needlework certificate piece.

A crewel embroidery yellow and purple flower.

And the stars in my Reach for the Stars kit and pattern use fishbone stitch.

Embroidered stars in yellow and silver stranded cotton.

You could of course also take the name quite literally and use it for a fish! 🐟

Want more stitch tutorials? Check out the full list here.

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