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Stefan's Florilegium


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8-P-Stitches-art - 5/22/01

"Embroidery: Eight Period Stitches - Method of construction and a brief history of each stitch" by Mistress Ealasaid nic Shuibhne

NOTE: See also the files: embroidery-msg, cross-stitch-msg, emb-blackwork-msg, p-x-stitch-art, emb-frames-msg, silk-msg, tapestries-msg, linen-msg.



This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan’s Florilegium.

These files are available on the Internet at:


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.

While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.

Thank you,

Mark S. Harris

AKA: Stefan li Rous



Embroidery: Eight Period Stitches

Method of construction and a brief history of each stitch

by Mistress Ealasaid nic Shuibhne

Baronial Collegium

Barony of Atenveldt



Stem Stitch or Outline Stitch

The Stem stitch is worked left to right. The needle emerges at the end of the line to be covered. It then enters the material a little to the left on the line to be covered and emerges half way between where the needle emerged and where it enters the fabric. Be sure that the needle always emerges on the same side of the line being worked, or your stem stitch will appear twisted. For a thin line, always pass the needle through the drawn line of your pattern. For a fuller, more cable-like look, push the needle down on one side of the line, and bring it up on the other side of the line, giving each stitch a slight slant. Be sure to be consistent on which side you go down on and which side you come up on.

The stem stitch can be used to make outlines, or when lengths of stem stitches are worked side by side, it can be used to fill a design element.






Split Stitch

Work just like the Stem Stitch, only instead of the needle emerging beside the previous stitch, the needle passes through the preceding stitch. Also, only back up about a third of the previous stitch, not half way as in the stem stitch.

Can be used as an outline stitch, or as a filling stitch.


Double Running Stitch or Holbein Stitch

A simple running stitch that requires two passes to cover the line of the design. The needle emerges at the beginning of the line. Make a series of short stitches - leaving a gap between each stitch that is the same length as the stitches. Also take care that each stitch is the same length. (i.e., ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ )

When the end of the line is reached, turn the work and work back to the beginning, filling in the gaps.

This is the main stitch used in Blackwork, and when done with care, results in the back of the work being identical with the front of the work.





Chain Stitch

Bring the needle up at the beginning of the line. Use your thumb to hold the thread against the fabric, a little to the left of the line. Pass the need back down through the fabric in the same spot it came up through. Do not pull the stitch tight! Bring the needle up a little farther down the line of the design, passing through the loop this has created. Now pull the stitch tight until the bottom the loop is snug, but still laying below where the thread is emerging from the fabric. Insert the needle in the same spot the thread is coming out of the fabric and insert it a little farther down the design line, again coming up through the loop. Continue in this fashion.

You can create a wider chain by inserting the needle beside the emerging thread, instead of going back down the same hole you came up through. The farther to the side, the wider the chain.



Surface Couching (and Underside Couching)

Bring one or more threads up through the fabric at the starting point of the design. Lay the threads on the fabric. With another thread (either a contrasting, or matching color), make a series of small stitches across the main thread. Be sure the main thread lies smooth and does not pucker or bunch. When using couching to fill in a design, you can create a further design effect by how you place the couching stitches, whether you stagger them, or line them up from thread to thread. The commonest method for working metallic threads.

An older version of couching is called Underside Couching. In this method, the main thread is laid on the fabric. With a different thread, come up beside the main thread, pass over it, and put the needle back through the same hole. Tug the couching stitch all the way back through the fabric, pulling the main thread through the fabric just enough to let the couching thread disappear from the surface.



Brick Stitch

Work first row right to left, second row left to right, third row right to left, and so on. The first row consists of alternating long and show stitches (see diagram above). Each succeeding row consists of long stitches only, until the last row, which is again worked in alternating long and short stitches. All long stitches should be the same length, with the short stitches being half as long. All stitches should lie parallel to each other.

The stitches can be packed together tightly so that no fabric shows through, or they can be worked with a slight gap between stitches to create a more airy effect. This works well to fill in backgrounds, or rectangular areas. Does not do curves easily.

The modern variation on this, known as the Long and Short stitch, was also used in medieval embroidery. In the Long and Short stitch, the stitches to not stay strictly parallel and can fan out to fill the design area.




Satin Stitch

Bring needle up on left side of design element. Lay thread across design and push needle down on right side of design element. Bring need up on the left side, right beside the previous stitch. Push needle down on left side, right beside where the needle passed down on the previous stitch. Continue in this manner until the design is completely covered. The back of the work will be as fully covered as the front. Pull the stitches tight enough so that they lie flat and do not flop around, but not so tightly that the fabric puckers.

To make a raised satin stitch, cover the design area with chain stitches or brick stitches, then work the satin stitch on top of them. It is also easier to keep the correct tension on your satin stitches if you do this. The under stitches don’t have to be perfect, since they will not show in the finished product.




Bayeaux Stitch or Laid Work

Bring needle up at position A and down at position B (far left example). Bring needle up at position C, leaving a gap between the A-B thread that is the same width as the thread. Take needle down through position D. Continue until you reach the bottom of the area to be covered. Turn the work 180 degrees. Bring the needle up between the original A and D positions, push need down between the B and C positions, filling the gaps. Continue in this manner until area is completely covered. (middle examples above)

Lay thread across work at right angles to first sets of threads (see the far right example). Lay couching stitches over this thread.


Summary by Century

Compiled from the descriptions of examples of embroidery found in museums. This is not to limit your choices, but to give you a list of choices that can be documented via Primary Sources.

4th Century - Coptic and Byzantine

Wall hangings, decoration on tunics, altar cloths;

Stitches: Stem, Satin, Chain, Long and Short stitches worked in wool

Fabrics: Linen

Designs: human figures, birds, animals, flowers and plant forms.

Imitating weaving patterns of the time.


8th-9th Century Anglo Saxon

Vestments, secular garments

Stitches: Couched Gold and Silver threads, split and stem stitches in silk.

Fabrics: Linen, silk

Designs: rondels, animals, birds, interweaving (Celtic Knotwork), Biblical figures,

arches, diaper patterns, Latin inscriptions


10th-11th Century Norman

Vestments, Ceremonial garments, Bayeaux Tapestry (though possibly 12th century)

Stitches: Split, Chain, Bayeaux Stitch, couching, stem in wool

Fabrics: Linen, silk

Designs: figures, animals, birds, plant forms, tree of life, decorative borders,

Biblical scenes, Latin inscriptions; Historical scenes

Bayeaux Tapestry best known, well preserved example


11th-12th Century - Opus Anglicanum Romanesque

Vestments, seal bags, wall hangings,

Stitches: Split, Stem, Underside Couching, Surface Couching, Cross,

Bayeaux stitch, wool, silk, linen, gold and silver threads

Fabrics: Linen, Silk Twill

Designs: Stiff figures, Biblical scenes, animals, mythical figures, scrollwork



13th-14th Century - Opus Anglicanum Gothic

Copes, mantles, vestments,

Stitches: Split, Underside Couching, Surface Couching, Bayeaux stitch

wool, silk, linen, gold and silver threads

Fabrics: Linen, Velvet, Silk Twill

Designs: Heraldry; softer figures, scrollwork, mythical figures, Biblical scenes,

interlacing (knotwork), animals, arches, lion and leaf masks

Pearls worked into the embroidery


15th Century - Or Nue and Assisi (Italian Work)

Wall hangings, altar cloths, vestments, bed linen,

Stitches: Underside Couching, Split, Surface Couching, Double Running,

Cross and Long Armed Cross, Metallic and silk threads

Or Nue: Placement of colored silk couching stitches on metallic threads

used to add depth and shading for 3 dimensional effect

Assisi: pattern outlined in Double Running, background filled in with

cross or long armed cross, design itself not embroidered

Fabrics: Brocade, Velvet

Designs: Animals, flowers, Heraldry, Biblical scenes, Saints,

pearls and precious gemstones worked into the embroidery


16th Century - Blackwork and Assisi (Italian Work)

Secular embroidering gains popularity; wall hangings, secular garments, bed hangings, cushions, book bindings, book bags, first appearance of samplers (1598)

Stitches: Couching, Split, Satin, Double Running (Blackwork), Double Running,

Cross, Long Armed Cross, silk and metallic threads

Fabrics: Velvet, Linen, embroidery on Linen and appliqued to velvet

Designs: Biblical scenes, Saints, floral motifs, scrolling stems, flowers,

insects, animals, vines, pastoral scenes, interlacing knotwork,

mythical figures, demons, satyrs


17th Century - Tudor

Clothing, especially collars and cuffs of shirts and chemise, gloves, handkerchiefs, coifs; Blackwork - design worked exclusively in Double Running stitch

Stitches: Double Running, Cross, Stem, Couching, Chain, silk thread

Fabrics: Velvet, Silk, Linen, Satin

Designs: Scrolling Vines; pastoral scenes, stylized plant forms, imitating woodcuts,

geometric forms, diaper pattern


General Tips

Never knot the end of your thread to anchor it at the starting point of your stitches. It will leave an unsightly lump on the front of your work. An easy way to anchor the beginning of your thread starts out by breaking this rule. Put a knot in your thread. From the front side of the work, push the needle through the fabric about 3 inches away from your starting point. Bring the needle up through your starting point and embroidery. Be careful not to pull the first stitches so tight that the fabric puckers near the knot. When you reach the end of your thread (or the end of the area to embroidered with this thread), snip the knot and thread the 3 inches of thread onto a needle. Weave this into the back of the stitches just worked. You can also use a very small crochet hook to weave this ‘tail’ into the back of your work.

If you are doing the brick stitch or satin stitch, you can take four or five little running stitches (in the area you are about to cover), at right angles to the direction your first ‘real’ stitch will be going. Hold these stitches in place with your thumb while you pull the first three or four embroidery stitches taut. After that, you don’t have to worry about them, they’ll stay. This anchors the thread, and your brick or satin stitches will completely cover the running stitches. If you are careful, you can anchor the end of the thread the same way - just be careful not to catch the embroidery threads on the front.

When you reach the end of your thread, or a stopping point in the design, always weave the thread through the back of the stitches to anchor the end of the thread. Never use a knot or several small stitches in the same spot (like you would for normal hand sewing). They will leave a lump on the front. The lump may not show up immediately, but trust me, it will appear.

If you are embroidering a garment, and if you are worried that this method of starting and ending a section of embroidery will not hold, you can iron on a very light weight fusable interfacing to the back of the work. If your fabric is very light weight, you can touch the interweavings with a bit of fray check, instead. However, if you are planning on entering your work in an A&S competition, don’t add the fusable interfacing until after the competition! Lining a garment that has been embroidered will help reduce wear and tear on the back of the stitches. Again, if you are entering the embroidery in an A&S competition, leave one seam of the lining undone, so the judges can see the back of the work.

Which leads to: make the back of the work as neat as you possibly can. Judges will look at the back and neatness definitely counts. More importantly, a neat back leaves fewer stray threads to be caught and pulled, causing puckers, or caught and broken, causing your stitches to unravel.

When using floss (either cotton or silk) always separate the plies one at a time. Even if the number of plies you have is the number you need, separate them first. Both cotton and silk floss come in skeins of six plies (six threads loosely twisted together). After clipping the length of thread you want (never more than 18 inches!), hold one end in your hand and grab one of the plies. Pull gently. If it doesn’t slide out easily, switch to the other end of the thread. Embroidery floss has a nap, like velvet, and if you pull against the nap, the thread will bunch up. If you pull with the nap, it slides easily. If you take care to thread your needle so that the thread is being pulled through the fabric with the nap, your thread will not fray. If you pull the thread through the fabric against the nap, it frays very quickly. If you find that your stitches start looking a little fuzzy or sloppy before you’ve used half the thread in your needle, you are pulling against the nap. Tie off the thread and get a new one. With a little practice, you will be able to feel the nap of the thread. Be patient, the difference in feel is very slight.

Never pass the thread on the back side of the work more than half an inch to get from the end of one set of stitches to the beginning of the next set. It will show! Also, it increases the probability that your fabric will pucker. You can, however, weave your thread through the back of existing stitches to get it where you need to start the next set of stitches.

Do have several needles going at once for a multi color design. By switching from working one color to working another, you decrease the temptation to carry the thread across the back without weaving it into the back of stitches. Unless individual design elements are so small that there is no room to weave in the beginning and the ending of the thread, just don’t hop from one design element to the other - tie off and start fresh with each design element.

When following these instructions seems to be creating a bigger mess than breaking them does, ignore the instructions and do what works. Sometimes, you have to break the rules to get the results you want.


Suggested Reading

Embroidery: A History, Pamela Warner, B.T. Batsford, Ltd. London

The Victoria & Albert Museum’s Textile Collection: Embroidery in Britain From 1200 to 1750, Donald King & Santina Levey, Canopy Books, a division of Abbeville Press, Inc., New York

Guide to English Embroidery, Patricia Wardle, Victoria & Albert Museum

Medieval Craftsmen: Embroiderers, Kay Staniland, University of Toronto Press

Assissi Embroidery: Old Italian Cross-Stitch Designs, Eva Maria Leszner, B.T. Batsford Ltd., London


Copyright 1998 by Mary E. Jenkins, 7013 West Fillmore St., Phoenix, AZ 85043. <EalasaidS@aol.com> or <mjenkins@omegalegal.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.

If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.

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