The power of simple hand stitch

The power of simple hand stitch

It’s so easy to have your head turned by every new, exciting textile technique that comes your way. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It can be great fun to try out new processes and incorporate them into your textile art.

But using too many techniques can also become overwhelming. And as we’ve previously explored in the articles Are you a textile technique addict? and Diagnosis: Artistic paralysis, the result is often a chaotic creative process, a confused visual vocabulary and an indistinct brand of textile art.

Going back to basics doesn’t mean stepping backwards creatively. In fact, going deep with simple stitch techniques and learning how to speak through them in your own unique way can push your practice and your artistic identity forward.

In this article, we explore  simple stitch techniques and showcase how they’re being used by some of the world’s most inventive and inspiring textile artists.

Straight stitch (or Running stitch)

Straight stitch (also known as Running stitch) is often perceived as the most basic of stitches.

But ‘basic’ doesn’t mean boring or easy. In fact, despite how simple it is to execute, straight stitch is surprisingly versatile as a means of creative expression.

Innovative contemporary artists are pushing the boundaries of this traditional technique and achieving a multitude of amazing effects by:

  • Varying the way the stitch is spaced
  • Varying the length of the stitches
  • Experimenting with different and unusual thread types
  • Exploring changes in direction
Jean Littlejohn: Winter Solstice

Jean Littlejohn: Winter Solstice

Winter Solstice by Jean Littlejohn

In Winter Solstice, 62 Group member and one half of the legendary teaching duo Double Trouble Jean Littlejohn uses curved rows of running stitch spaced in a fairly conventional way (in that more thread is seen on the topside than the underside) to convey a sense of movement and to reflect the routines and rhythms of everyday life.

Elisabeth Rutt: In Case I Forget

Elisabeth Rutt: In Case I Forget

In Case I Forget by Elisabeth Rutt

Curator and artist Elisabeth Rutt uses much longer straight stitches in a more ordered way in her piece In Case I Forget. Against the chaos of the painted background the stitch brings a sense of unity and clarity to the piece.

Emily Jo Gibbs: Peter

Emily Jo Gibbs: Peter

Peter by Emily Jo Gibbs

In the figurative piece Peter, Emily Jo Gibbs (whose work can be found in the permanent collections at the V&A, London and The Museum of Fine Art, Houston) uses running stitch in several ways:

  • Traditional rows of running stitch outline the defining features of the subject.
  • Short curved lines create movement in the subject’s hair.
  • And longer stitches in various colours and at different angles represent the scuffing on the bottom of the subject’s skateboard in an almost graphic style.

Back stitch

Back stitch is the nearest hand stitch to machine stitch and is strong enough to hold two pieces of fabric together. It can be used to create unbroken lines in a way that the basic straight stitch or running stitch can’t. This makes for great illustrative effects and means back stitch is the go-to technique for what many textile artists refer to as ‘drawing with the needle’.

However, it can also be used to make broken lines and, because back stitch stands proud of the fabric in a way that straight stitch doesn’t, it offers an excellent way of creating texture within a piece too.

Anne Biss: Woking Town Centre

Anne Biss: Woking Town Centre

Woking Town Centre by Anne Biss

Anne Biss is a member of the Society of Designer Craftsmen and Prism Textiles and often uses back stitch in the creation of her textile maps.

When used in combination with heavier threads, back stitch is used to bring certain elements ‘off the page’ (because it is a raised stitch). By varying the weight and colour of threads, the lines of the map become more or less prominent.

Louise Baldwin: You Can Never Have Too Many Cardigans

Louise Baldwin: You Can Never Have Too Many Cardigans

You Can Never Have Too Many Cardigans by Louise Baldwin

Louise Baldwin, who has exhibited work throughout Britain, America, Japan and Germany uses back stitch to add texture and pattern to her work.

In the piece You Can Never Have Too Many Cardigans, she created a collection of small square shapes using a single back stitch for each edge in various weights, types and colours of thread.

Sue Stone: Portrait of a Lincolnshire Lad

Sue Stone: Portrait of a Lincolnshire Lad

Portrait of a Lincolnshire Lad by Sue Stone

And Chair of the 62 Group of Textile Artists Sue Stone relied heavily on back stitch in the creation of her piece Portrait of a Lincolnshire Lad.

She made a series of somewhat broken lines to create the features on the faces of her subjects using a thin brown DMC thread, but also employed the more common unbroken back stitch to create the pattern on the shirt of the older figure and to add background interest in the form of text.

Layering Stitches

Not a single stitch technique but a way of creating intricate detail and depth; layering stitches.

Experimenting with the direction and length of the stitches, the way the stitches are spaced and the types of thread used means that a multitude of intriguing effects are possible by laying one stitch over another.

Susie Vickery: Sample

Susie Vickery: Sample

Sample by Susie Vickery

Award winning fine art embroidery artist Susie Vickery is well known for her appliquéd figurative textiles but is always looking to push her use of techniques.

This sample was made during her time as a student on Sue Stone’s online course Exploring Texture & Pattern and demonstrates the effectiveness of overlayering a simple row of running stitches going in one direction with another row going in a different direction. It also shows how various patterns can be achieved by carefully selecting thread combinations for layering.

Melissa Zexter: Woman in Veil

Melissa Zexter: Woman in Veil

Woman in Veil by Melissa Zexter

Melissa Zexter creates embroidered photography that has been exhibited across the US and often builds juxtaposition and layers of complexity with thread.

In the piece Woman in a Veil she has used straight stitches in various bright colours to create shapes, on top of which she has criss-crossed more stitches. She has left the ends of the threads hanging to create yet another layer of interest.

Jean Littlejohn: Time and Tide

Jean Littlejohn: Time and Tide

Time and Tide by Jean Littlejohn

And in Time and Tide,another example from Jean Littlejohn, we see that layering is equally effective in building texture with a single neutral thread.

Once again Jean has used simple straight stitches but has created a sense of movement, perhaps to represent the ebb and flow of the tide, by building up several areas of density layering stitch upon stitch.

Cross stitch

Evelin Kasikov: CMYK Embroidery

Evelin Kasikov: CMYK Embroidery

CMYK Embroidery by Evelin Kasikov

Cross stitch is often associated more with crafting than art, but graphic designer and author of CMYK Embroidery Evelin Kasikov has taken this traditional technique and given it a truly contemporary twist. The joy for this artist is combining mathematical precision with handmade craft.

Evelin told us, “I take great pleasure in working out the grid and the integral structure of the piece. Nothing is random. For instance I recently did two wall installations for an ad agency, two different designs but both based on 25mm square grid unit. For a 3m x 5m wall this is a high degree of accuracy.”

Seed stitch

Richard McVetis: Light Abstraction

Richard McVetis: Light Abstraction

Light Abstraction by Richard McVetis

Seed stitch is the go-to technique for Richard McVetis, who studied constructed textiles at The Royal College of Art and is now best known for his meticulously embroidered drawings and objects.

This technique is achieved by creating a series of tiny straight stitches or back stitches taken at all angles and in any direction, but more or less of an equal length. These small stitches are usually used to fill in part of a design as is evident in Richard’s piece Light Abstraction, in which the stitches are placed quite irregularly and without making a formal pattern.


Tilleke Schwarz: Unfollow

Tilleke Schwarz: Unfollow

Unfollow by Tilleke Schwarz

Couching, which is sometimes called laid thread work, is a technique in which threads are laid across the surface of a fabric and held in place with stitches either in the same or a different thread. A huge variety of textural and patterned effects are achievable with couching depending on the holding stitch and the thread combinations.

In the piece Unfollow, author and internationally renowned textile artist Tilleke Schwarz has used couching to create a chaotic area of raised threads. Fairly thin threads are held in place using small straight stitches.

If you’ve enjoyed this insight into simple embroidery stitches, why not share it with your friends on social media using the buttons below?

Monday 28th, November 2022 / 12:30

About the author

Joseph Pitcher is the son of textile artist Sue Stone. He is an actor and voice-over artist and has worked at the RSC, the National Theatre, West End theatres and several other leading regional venues across the UK. Find Joe on Google

View all articles by Joe



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9 comments on “The power of simple hand stitch”

  1. Tal says:

    Are most of the machine stitched?

  2. Ann says:

    Awesome! Thank you!

  3. Mercy Rojas says:

    Magnifico el articulo. En mis trabajo, sin ser muy consciente de ello, utilizo estas puntadas. Las he utilizado porque simplemente me surgen en mi mente y se van caminando a la tela o papel, pero con el articulo entendí la fuerza primitiva que tienen.

  4. Pat Todd says:

    Very inspirational!

  5. Carlyn says:

    So much effort went into these beautiful pieces.
    I so admire the creativity and skill!

    Always lived crewel and candle wicking but this takes things to a WHOLE NEW level .

    Thank you so much for sharing !!

  6. I truly LOVE your articles and the beautiful and inspirational photos of work by various fiber artists. I have been a fiber artist for many years, and I am 77 now but still going. I love learning different things when they fit the way I like to work best. I mostly enjoy hand stitching using different stitches, collage and some applique, but not traditional applique. I tend to work spontaneously, doing things as they fit my moods and thoughts at the time. Spirituality and Humor tend to be the two things I express. Although I have worked on fiber arts for years, I do not considered myself to be an advanced fiber artist, and I am not a competitive person, so I do what I enjoy at any given time. I have sold some pieces, but mostly for tiny bucks and that is OK because I am always glad to put something into someone’s hands knowing that person will enjoy the piece. Your little notes are sure a joy to read and very appreciated. You can see some of my little pieces on my blog. Oh, I create mixed media too and years ago, I covered my old Honda Civic Hatchback with a number of fabrics. There are photos of it on the blog too. Thank you very kindly.

  7. Inspiring, as always. Thank you.

  8. sabrina says:

    Wow, how many variations there are in this technique! I love the fantasy of these artist!
    One of this days I wiil try to work with the needle.

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