I have been embroidering since I was about 12 or 14. I learned from a book, maybe even a pamphlet from the yarn store. My Mom was capable and creative in many ways, but she did little needlework, so I don't think I learned much from her other than how to knot the thread. This is my excuse for not knowing that there was even a difference between Stem Stitch and Outline Stitch until this very afternoon.

I knew there was some variation in the way the stitch looked if I worked in different directions, but  thought it had something to do with the way the yarn was plied. (And that may indeed have something to do with it, but not in the way I thought.)
I pulled all my stitch books and looked up both Stem and Outline Stitches. Out of fourteen books, only two depicted them as being distinctly different. Another five noted a difference but said it didn't matter as long as you were consistent. Five more had just one or the other, and two had neither!

 One was very strict and said only working with the thread on the left was correct, anything else was WRONG!
 Some worked from left to right, and some worked from top to bottom.

 A couple also called it Crewel Stitch.
 Erica Wilson, the grand doyenne of modern needlework, said that Stem Stitch was very useful for outlining, but never suggested that there might be something else actually called Outline Stitch.
And oddly enough, the usually comprehensive Mary Thomas didn't even mention it at all, perhaps since she classified her stitches by genre rather than method.
It's no wonder I was in the dark all this time. Making a sample helped me see this difference. When worked with the thread above, the stitch is a little more full and irregular. With the thread below, it's a little smoother. But if someone didn't spend half their life in front of an embroidery hoop, they would never notice.

It's clear than there is a huge range of opinion where even the simplest stitches are concerned. And in seeing the many different ways the instructions are worded and illustrated, I don't think one is any clearer than another. It's a difficult thing to depict a kinesthetic action in words or diagrams. Video or even learning in person should be better, but might not be depending on the individual involved.

And of course,in the end the name doesn't matter a bit. What's important is that you get the effect you want, however you contrive to achieve it.

I got caught up in all this minutiae whilst working away on the bears, and thinking that what I am doing is mark making, not crewel embroidery. My stitches are really quite willy-nilly, and although I consult stitch directories for inspiration, I don't actually follow them that closely. My process, what I consider one of translation, is based more on the material I am working with than formal technique. It might sound banal, but is actually kind of a revelation for me.


  1. Anonymous2:30 AM

    You know, if there was a Nobel Prize for embroidery, you'd probably win it. Your way out there, in a world of theoretical sewing.

  2. I hope you don't kill me for asking, but does it matter what direction the twist in the yarn has? It seems to me that if you're laying the stitches beside each other either matching the twist or going opposite to the twist it would make a difference. And no, I'm not going to experiment to find out. I'm a spinner not a stitcher, darn it! (Hah! Pun. Bad.) Sorry. I'll just quietly slink away now...

  3. I think you are right Louisa! That was my guess too, and when I have time I will try it our with a Z plied thread and a S ply. As you know, the direction a yarn is plied in can make a difference in the way weaving and knitting look, so why not stitching? Ah, the joys of minutae!


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