Also known as kensington, crewel stitch,

stalk stitch, and cord stitch

There are three approaches to stem stitch (and outline stitch). Before a discussion of those, let’s talk about the difference between stem and outline stitch.

They are not the same, being either worked with the thread up or to the right (outline stitch) or with the thread down or to the left (stem stitch). The results are different.  Outline stitch creates a hard edge and the twist of the thread (the plies) untwist during the working.  Either stitch is worked from left to right (right-handed stitchers) or right to left (left-handed stitchers).

Why do you use stem rather than outline or outline rather than stem?  One reason is the twist of the thread which needs to be taken into consideration. Depending upon whether you choose a Z (rayon and some silks) or S twist (cotton and some silk), as you work the stitches, the thread will twist up tighter, or untwist. Use the stitch which maintains the twist, rather than flattening out the plied threads. There is such a distinct difference in the thread twist relation to this stitch, that authorities in Brazilian embroidery reverse the terms. That is, when the thread is up or right they term it stem stitch. For more discussion on Z-twist, see: Thread Terms in Progression and Thread Grain

It also depends upon personal preference for the look you want; that is, the final result. Embroidery is a creative endeavor. Choosing a stitch means your final product has your “signature.”

When using stem stitch to outline motifs, you may have to alter the way you are holding the work so that the stitch hugs up to the previous stitching.

In all of the text which follows, the term stem stitch will be used for expediency sake.  The results are the same for either stitch.

Whatever method you choose in your work, try to choose the method which best suits the type of embroidery you are executing.  Fine embroidery usually uses the corded method, but not always. Chunkier embroideries can use the corded method for even greater bold appeal. As well, the second method might give the project just what you are trying to convey in its artistry. Choose the method that enhances your work rather than choosing a stitch because it’s the only one you know how to do. This guide hopes to teach you the three common methods for working this versatile stitch.

There is a difference in opinion amongst current teachers as to whether you change direction of the thread (i.e. go from stem stitch to outline stitch) when embroidering concave or convex curves.  It is my personal opinion that this is not necessary and spoils the look of the line, since stem and outline do not look similar.  Controlling and adjusting the length of the stitches is key to making curves and points neat. Experiment for yourself and use the method which you personally feel attains the finished look you want.

Stem stitch is used any number of ways in embroidery and was one of the first stitches invented for embellishment. Possibly because of its use in hand sewing. It is the backbone of embroidery and learning it well helps you to increase skill level in other areas of embroidery. The most common useage is for:

1. stems (as its name implies) and vines in combination with other decorative stitches;
2. as the only stitch used in a work (common in Redwork for example, and 16th century embroideries);

3. as an outline for stitches such as satin stitch as well as padded work and motifs filled with other stitches.


Three different forms of stem stitch worked on 18-count Monoco and pearl #5 for illustration purposes.


The back of the work. Notice the distinct differences.

To learn the three techniques, download the PDF  Stem Stitch