How to stitch: Long and short stitch

I’ve had a couple of requests for this tutorial, so I hope I do it justice! I’m not surprised as long and short stitch is the key stitch used in the silk shading technique. You might also have heard of it called thread painting or needle painting. It’s one of the techniques that really excited me when I started looking at embroidery beyond cross stitch.

While the concept might seem simple, I’ve found it’s taken me a while to start to get to grips with this stitch. To get it to the standard I’d like anyway, and there’s still plenty of room for improvement!

Before I start getting into the tips I’ve picked up, let’s cover the basics.

A good foundation

I usually start long and short stitch with a different stitch entirely – split stitch.

I use split stitch to help me get a nice smooth edge to my long and short stitch. It also helps to create depth in my embroidery.

However, not every edge will need split stitch. It depends on the effect you’re going for. If you want to create a nice, smooth edge then split stitch should help you.

In my example, I’m stitching a square with vertical stitches. Since the sides of my square are at the exact angle of my stitches, I’m not going to use split stitch on these sides. It would just get in my way.

Two horizontal lines of split stitch worked with crewel wool. One is light blue, the other dark blue.

However, if I was going to work this square with anything but vertical (or horizontal) stitches, then I would use split stitch around all four sides.

Long and short stitch

For the first “row” of long and short, work your stitches coming up inside your shape and going down over your split stitch edge. You want to tuck your needle slightly under the split stitch to create a nice neat, smooth edge.

I like to start stitching in the middle of my shape. I work out to one side before coming back to the middle and working out to the other side.

Creating a line of staggered length stitches, all finishing neatly against the split stitch edge.

In this row you want to create stitches of different lengths by staggering the start points. Although it’s best not to make any of your stitches too short as they could give you problems later. I find it helps to think about creating stitches that are long and longer.

Completed first row of staggered stitches for long and short stitch.

To continue filling your shape, start your stitches by bringing your needle up through one of your previous stitches. Similar to split stitch. Then end your stitches by going down into your shape.

As you are filling your shape, your stitches should all be the same length. Or at least similar.

Working the filling stitches of long and short stitch.

The key is to stagger where your stitches start. This is what will create a smooth an even look to your stitching. If you don’t stagger your stitches enough, you’ll start to see rows of stitches forming instead.

Keep filling your shape with staggered stitches that are all about the same length. When you reach the edge of your shape, finish your stitches by tucking your needle slightly under your split stitches to create a nice smooth edge.

Finishing long and short stitching smoothly against a split stitch edge.
A square worked in long and short stitch and crewel wools. It is light blue at the top and shades down to dark blue at the base.

Long and Short Stitch Tips

It’s a stitch that I’ve found I can get rusty at. So regular practice helps me.

It’s also one of those techniques that often goes best when you aren’t thinking too much about it! Some stitchers swear by a glass of wine (taking care not to spill any on your work of course!). I like listening to uplifting music or fun podcasts. Anything that helps me stay relaxed.

When I first started with the silk shading technique, I didn’t stagger my stitches enough. I was surprised how extreme you can go here.

It can be fun to stitch some samples, especially while you’re getting used to the technique. I’m a big Disney fan, so I practised with these Mickey shapes.

Two Mickey Mouse shaped samples from when I was first practicing silk shading.

You can see in the top Mickey that I wasn’t staggering my stitches anywhere near enough. I believe this was partly because I was thinking about rows of stitching.

That’s also the case in the ears of the second Mickey. Then in the lower half, my stitching starts to look better. I was no longer thinking about rows of stitching and instead I was just thinking about how to evenly fill the space.

It’s helpful to draw some guidelines on your fabric to help get your stitch direction right.

For curved shapes, it’s helpful to shorten your stitches as you’re going around the curve. This allows you to change the angle of your stitches more gradually, creating a smoother finish.

To get the smoothest looking stitching, use just one thread in your needle.

While stranded cotton is probably the most commonly used thread, I really enjoy working this stitch with crewel wool. The thread is thicker, making it much easier on my eyes. Plus I also find that the wools are quite forgiving in terms of smoothly blending together.

Silk shading

Silk shading is an technique that uses long and short stitch to create detailed embroideries. Often aiming for a realistic effect. It’s a popular way of stitching flowers and animals.

Here are some examples of my silk shading stitching.

Embroidery of a woman standing on a cloud, reaching for the stars above her.

I used tapestry silk shading (all the stitches are vertical) and stranded cotton for the dress in my reach for the stars design. Stitch your own with the pattern or kit.

Crewel embroidery of a wolf sitting between a tree and some ice.

For this wolf I used natural silk shading (the stitch direction reflects the natural form of the subject) and crewel wools. I’m writing up the pattern, so watch this space to stitch your own!

To really perfect your silk shading, I’ve found Marg Dier’s Silk Shading book to be a great resource. It has lots of helpful tips, exercises and inspiration – Marg’s work is simply stunning!

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6 thoughts on “How to stitch: Long and short stitch

  1. Very helpful. I’m getting ready to soft shade a deer. I’m really apprehensive about starting. Really don’t know where to begin as head or body first. But this did help on the stitch length etc.

    1. Glad this is helpful Caroline! There’s a lot to cover with silk shading, so I’m working on an additional guide that should be ready soon. A good rule of thumb with silk shading is to start with the parts of the design that are further back and work your way forward. I’m guessing that for your deer, the body is probably behind the head, in which case I’d begin with the body. Good luck with it, I’m sure it’ll turn out great!

  2. You make it look so easy! I’ve found practice makes the difference. Thanks💙💙💙🥰

    1. Thanks Michelle! It’s definitely taken a lot of practice and I always find it quite tricky again if I haven’t stitched it for a while.

  3. Thank you. As ever, really helpful- I’m finding it a very difficult stitch to learn. Seeing your examples where it didn’t quite work very helpful too!

    1. Great to hear Mel, thank you! It’s definitely a tricky one, I still feel like I need lots of practice! Good to hear those examples are useful, I often find I can learn quicker by getting things wrong and figuring out what needs adjusting.

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