The stem stitch might not be the most impressive looking embroidery stitch, but it is incredibly useful. This stitch is super easy to make and is likely one of the stitches you will use the most.
If you're looking for a stitch that will allow you a quick way to whip up a pretty, curvy stem for a flower, this stitch is it. Perhaps that's how it got its name! A stem stitch is a variant of a back stitch because when you're making a new stitch, you're not going ahead by a full stitch, but rather are slight "backtracking."
This stitch is also highly useful for outlining and even for creating the foundation for more complicated stitches!
Making Your First Stem Stitch
To make a stem stitch, you will have to start with a running stitch. If you're not sure how to make one (or need a quick refresher), head on over to my quick guide on making running stitches. If you're already well-versed in running stitches, go ahead and start by making a running stitch (figure 1.)
After making your running stitch, you will want to come up just to the side of your stitch (figure 2.) Complete this stitch by making another running stitch. Tada! You're making stem stitches (figure 3!) As you can see they're just running stitches that are kind of going side-by-side a bit.
What's So Special About Stem Stitches?
Stem stitches allow you a lot of control when it comes to the direction you're going. They're perfect for times when you don't want to go in a starkly straight line. You can make your lines wavy or you can make them gradually go into one big curl, it's totally up to you!
You'll want to play around a bit with stem stitches in order to see the kind of control they give you. While this stitch is easy to learn, it can be a bit tricky to master the curves you can make with it. If you find yourself unable to control the direction your line goes in, you can use a pencil or a fabric marker to draw a line to use as a guideline (I had to do this when learning this stitch for the first time.) Go ahead and stitch away to get the hang of it!
A fabric marker is an incredibly useful tool whether or not you have this stitch down. You can use it to draw out a design. The marker washes off with water, so you don't have to worry about covering up your lines with stitches.
What else makes the stem stitch special? Well, it's actually an ancient technique! Mantles made by the Paracas people of Peru, dating back to the 1st century BCE, have been found embroidered with this stitch. It has also been found woven into the Bayeux Tapestry, a cloth depicting the Norman Conquest of England.
(The flower in the photo at the top was made using the stem stitch and the lazy daisy stitch.)