Stem Stitch and Outline Stitch Tutorial

Stem vs Outline Stitch

Stem Stitch vs Outline Stitch

Are you ready for another embroidery stitch tutorial? Let’s dive into the stem stitch and the outline stitch.

They both have a lovely twist, like a rope with a fairly consistent width. The stem stitch and outline stitch are great for outlines, creating stems for flowers, and curves. They create nice solid lines and they make a nice alternative to the chain stitch when I don’t want that chain look. Don’t get me wrong, I love the chain stitch but sometimes it’s not the look I’m after.

You can also use them to create fills, and if you take advantage of the direction of their twists and lay them next to each other just right you can create a texture with a chevron-like appearance which is just so magical! At least I think so!

They are among some basic stitches worth knowing, but they sometimes get mistaken for each other because of how similar they are. You’ll sometimes hear the stem stitch being referred to the outline stitch and vice versa, so I’ll try to help you distinguish the two.

While they’re considered a basic stitch we should know the word ‘basic’ might fool you a bit. They are simple to create but there is a bit more to them than meets the eye.

They look very similar to each other, don’t they? But if you look a little closer you’ll see that they twist in different directions. It has to do with where your needle and working thread come up in relation to the line you’re creating, and… the direction you are creating your stitch.

I think in order for you to understand what I mean by that we should start by first learning the basics of how to create a stem stitch and an outline stitch. It will help you visualize things much better.

Starting with the Stem Stitch

We’ll go from left to right… this is important to remember. First, bring your needle up through your fabric, then leave a small gap & push your needle to the back of your fabric. Leave a bit of loose thread on top and push it over to the bottom.

loop on top of fabric

Go back about 3/4 of a stitch length and come up halfway. Your needle should be above your loose thread like it is here. Remember, we’re working from left to right.

needle coming up between the two ends of he loop

Next, pull your needle and thread through. I like to tighten the loop first by pulling the thread from the back before pulling the needle through, but it’s optional. I just think it’s a little less wear and tear on the thread. Your working thread should be above your stitch.

Now, just repeat the steps. Move up a stitch length & push your needle through your fabric. Again, leave a little bit of loose thread behind & push it over towards you below the line where your stitch is being created).

When you come back up, push your needle up through the end of the last stitch & repeat you’re steps until you’re happy with the length of your stitch.

To end your stitch, come up through your fabric & push your needle through the very end of your stitch.

And that was the stem stitch. Let’s now create the outline stitch.

The Outline Stitch

Just as you did with the stem stitch, come up to the top of your fabric, then back down a stitch length away. Remember to leave a little bit of loose thread behind, but this time, push your loose thread down above your stitch line, so away from you.

Go back about half a stitch length and pull your needle & thread. Your working thread should be below your stitch. Next, move up a stitch length and push your needle to the back, again leaving a bit of loose thread behind.

Go back to the end of your last stitch and push your needle up to the top of your fabric. Remember, your needle should come up below your loop.

Repeat your steps. End your stitch just like we did with the stem stitch, by coming up to the top of your fabric then pushing your needle through the very end of your stitch.

Now you now how to create an outline stitch. See how similar it is to the stem stitch?

Changing the Direction of Your Stitch

Now that you are familiar with the stem stitch and outline stitch here’s how to switch things up when you change the direction of your stitch line so your twists are consistent.

I created a little chart to help you with that as well as a little diagram below:

Stem Stitch

If you’re stitching from…

  • Left to Right: loose thread should be BELOW your needle & working thread.
  • Bottom to Top: loose thread should be to the RIGHT of your needle & working thread.
  • Right to Left: loose thread should be ABOVE your needle & working thread.
  • Top to Bottom: loose thread should be to the LEFT of your needle & working thread.

Outline Stitch

If you’re stitching from…

  • Left to Right: loose thread should be ABOVE your needle & working thread.
  • Bottom to Top: loose thread should be to the LEFT of your needle & working thread.
  • Right to Left: loose thread should be BELOW your needle & working thread.
  • Top to Bottom: loose thread should be to the RIGHT of your needle & working thread.

You can keep it straight by referring to my little illustration below:

diagram for how to create the stem stitch and outline stitch depending on the direction

How to Read the Illustration:

Imagine you are stitching two squares going counter-clockwise, one with the stem stitch (on the left) & the other using the outline stitch (on the right).

  • The square represents your stitch line.
  • The arrows represent the direction your stitches are being made.
  • The loops represent the loose thread seen in the step where we pushed our needle up through the fabric.
  • The needle will either be inside the box or on the outside of your box.
Stem Stitch
  • The loops are always on the outside of your square (stitch line).
  • The needle is always towards the inside of your square.

So for example, if you are stitching along the bottom stitch line (going from left to right), then your loop (your loose thread) will be towards the bottom while your needle will be above it.

Outline Stitch
  • The loops are always on the inside of your square (stitch line).
  • The needle is always towards the outside of your square.

In this example, if you are stitch along the bottom stitch line (going from left to right), then your loop (your loose thread) will be above your needle.

Stitch Challenge!

It’s always much easier to understand and remember things when you give it a try. So grab your embroidery supplies and stitch two squares. Use the stem stitch with one and the outline stitch with the other.

Do this a few times and you’ll master it in no time! You can always refer back to the illustration as well.

Tips & Tidbits

When it comes to creating a curve or curved shape, you’ll end up with a much smoother result if your stitches are smaller. If your stitches are too large for your curve your line will no longer be nice and tight. Rather, it might look as though you had a few drinks while stitching! So keep them small.

Then there is this… we’ve focused on the the differences between the stem stitch and outline stitch, but to me, they’re practically the same stitch and can be used interchangeably. I’m sure someone out there might consider this embroidery blasphemy, but if you compare some of those lines you wouldn’t know which stitch it was.

For example, if you compare a stem stitch going from left to right to the outline stitch going right to left it will be very hard to distinguish which is which.

My point is, don’t get too hung up on which stitch to use as long as your stitches look consistent, meaning the twists of your stitch should look the same when you creating, say a leaf, for example. You might use a stem stitch on one side & perhaps an outline stitch on the other side, depending on the direction you’re working. As long as both sides look like they have the same stitch I don’t see why you couldn’t mix it up this way.

You should still know how to create both stitches however. It was incredibly confusing for me at first, and now that I understand them my advice is not to get too hung up on the details. However, I recognize the importance of knowing how to create them in all directions so I encourage you to learn. It will help you make some good decisions when deciding which stitch to use and when.

Continuing on about curves, sometimes, instead of creating smaller stitches to create a smoother curve just remember to push your needle up towards the inside of the curve so your thread will always be on the outside of the curve. I imagine the curve of the loose thread laying next to the curve of your stitch line to remember this. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s a stem stitch or outline stitch as long as my result looks good.

As always, I’ve included a video tutorial:

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❤️ Happy stitching!

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Embroidery Stitch Tutorial: The Stem Stitch & Outline Stitch

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