How to stitch: Stem stitch

This is the first in a series of stitch tutorial posts I’ll be creating. As well as walking you through how to create each stitch, I’ll include tips that I’ve learnt along the way for easy and beautiful stitching. My first tutorial had to be stem stitch. It’s so versatile that I often think of it as my “if in doubt” stitch!

Stem stitch is commonly used for outlines since it creates a pleasing and flowing line. You can also use it as a filling stitch by working rows of it side by side.

Stem stitch vs Outline stitch

Did you know that the way your stitches slant affect what this stitch is called? If your stitches slant bottom left to top right, that’s stem stitch. If they slant the other way, that’s technically known as outline stitch.

Image showing the different stitch slants of stem stitch and outline stitch.

Unless your stitching is going to be assessed I wouldn’t worry too much about this!

Although your stitching will tend to look better if you’re consistent. So I think it’s good to be aware of the difference.

You might sometimes deliberately choose to include both in your stitching. For example, if you work them next to each other, you can get a nice chevron or plaited effect.

Imaging showing outline stitch and stem stitch worked next to each other to create a chevron effect.

How to stitch

So, how do you stitch stem stitch?

Start to work your first stitch like a normal straight stitch, but don’t pull the thread all the way through. Instead, keep a loop of your thread on the front of your stitching and hold this to the side.

Step 1 of stitching stem stitch. Leave a loop of your first stitch on the right side and bring your needle up half way along the stitch.

Bring your needle up halfway along your stitch and then pull the thread through to complete your first stitch.

TIP: I like to pull the loop on the front through to the back before pulling the thread all the way through as this minimises strain on my thread.

Take your needle down half a stitch length along from the end of your first stitch. You want this stitch to be the same length as your first stitch. Again, leave a loop of your thread on the front of your work.

Stem stitch step 2. Bring your needle down half a stitch length away from the end of your first stitch.

Hold your loop to the same side as you did previously. Then bring your needle up where your first stitch finished.

Stem stitch step 3. Leave a loop of your stitch on the front and bring up your needle where your previous stitch finished.

Pull your thread all the way through to complete your second stitch. Continue stitching in this way.

Image showing a line of stem stitch being worked.

How to ensure your stem stitches always slant the same way

To ensure that I’m always stitching stem stitch when I intend to, I tell myself to ‘follow the compass’ as I’m stitching.

What do I mean by that??

Basically, I think of the direction that I’m stitching in as north. If I follow the compass, then the next direction around is east. So that’s the side that I need to have my loop.

Image and diagram showing the "follow the compass" concept for stitching stem stich. Your stitching direction is always North, so you hold your thread loop to the East.

I like to think in this way, as it’s just one thing I need to remember to get my stitch slant correct. It works no matter what direction I’m stitching in – around winding curves and even if I turn my work upside down!

Two photos showing how the "follow the compass" rule for stem stitch makes it easy to remember which way to hold your thread loop.

Do you think “follow the compass” will help you to stitch stem stitch consistently?

I’m working on more stitch tutorials that I’ll be adding soon. So let me know if there are any particular stitches you’d like me to cover! You can find all the tutorials here.


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