Whitework Tutorial II – Stem & Long-Short Stitch

As the internet will let me down here for at least another week here, I have decided not to leave you all hanging anymore and get back to blogging now. It is about time I share with you the long-promised embroidery tutorial, detailing the new stitches I used to embroider the reticule for the “Yellow” challenge. The two “new” stitches are the stem stitch and the long-short stitch. I used them in addition to the back and satin stitches introduced in the Whitework Primer.

When you look at the reticule again, you will find stem stitching on the veins of the leaves, the yellow seed pods and, as the name suggests, on the stems. The long-short stitch I used to fill and shade the small flower petals at the top.

Initially, the shading was not part of the plan, but then I took the embroidery on a journey to Sweden with me. Then, on a little shopping tour, I ran into a crafts store called “Panduro Hobby”. There I found many shades of shiny DMC floss and could not resist buying some skeins in lighter shades of pink and purple… And now you can see the outcome of that little splurge on the finished piece. ;) Anyway, here is a brief photo walk-through of the two stitches starting with a little background on the uses and historical usage.


Stem Stitch

The stem stitch is one of the most common whitework stitches. It has been around in period embroidery (Regency as well as the later eras) and is still in use today. If you take a look at the “White Embroidery” chapter in Thérèse de Dilmont’s Edwardian “Encyclopedia of Needlework”, you will find two types of stem stitch. Here, the “modern” version I am showing you today was called the “sloping stem stitch”.

Sloping Stem Stitch from “The Encyclopedia of Needlework”.

What makes stem stitching so popular is its very variable usability. It can be used for decorative outline, but is also a quick and neat fill-stitch, if used in tightly spaced rows or columns. Another nice property of the stem stitch is that it takes tight curves very well. Hence it can also sometimes be found in stitched cursive monograms on handkerchiefs or undergarments.

Finished line of stem stitching.

As you can see here, a finished line of stem stitches looks a bit like a woven rope. I also like to compare it to the underside of a back-stitch. So, if you turn over the loom to peek at it, you will find a very similar structure. When doing the stitch it also sort of imitates the motions happening when doing a reverse back-stitch of sorts. Okay, maybe that sounds a little complicated, but you will see that it is actually pretty straightforward once you got into it. Here are the four easy steps it takes:

Step 1: Take a stitch forward.

First, thread you needle with floss or purl yarn. Come up on the front of your fabric and take a stitch forward. Come out at the back but do not pull the stitch through entirely, yet.

Step 2: Come up in the middle.

Next, you come back up in the middle of the little loop you just created. Now you can pull it all the way through.

Step 3: Take another stitch forward.

Now take another stitch forward, just like you did in the first step.

Step 4: Come up at the end of the previous stitch.

When you come back up this time, take your needle towards the end point of the previous stitch. Repeat the last two steps for the remainder of your stitching. If you like you can also choose to come up in the middle of the loop again, just like before. It is another way of doing the stitch and entirely up to you. I prefer poking through at the end of the previous stitch and only come up in the middle once, to secure the very first stitch of the line. It is the only way to keep it from unpicking itself, just as it would with the back stitch.



Long-Short Stitch

As opposed to the versatile stem stitch, the long-short, or long-and-short, stitch is purely a fill stitch,. And, admittedly, I am not quite sure if it has ever been used for period whitework. Yet it is a nice, fuss-free way to add some shading to your embroidery that adds a nice, shaggy texture to your work, counter-balancing the very smooth satin stitches. Yes, shaggy… even though the long-short stitch is actually a variation of basic satin stitching. This also makes it useful for filling embroidered birds with ruffled feathers.

Finished long-short stitch.

In the sample you can see how that comes to be. Basically, it has to do with the lineup of short horizontal stitches. Here you can also see why one should not use purl yarn for this stitch like I did. Since it is thicker than floss, it is harder to space the stitching evenly and this will make the outcome look a bit crooked. So please, be smarter than me and use a few strands of floss instead. ;) But, all in all, the long-short stitch is easier than the stem stitch. And here is how you do it:

Step 1: Take a horizontal stitch.

To start, come up at the front and take a horizontal stitch backward from where your needle is.

Step 2: Alternate short and long stitches.

Start your second stitch right on top, or below, the first one. It should either be longer or shorter than your first one. Continue your first column, alternating the long and short stitches as you go.

Step 2 1/2: Finish the first column.

Once the first column is finished, you are also done with making long and short stitches. For the next columns to follow, you will simply continue the pattern you just started, using horizontal stitches of the same length. This will automatically continue the alternating pattern you just started.

Step 3: Continue the pattern with even stitches.

You can continue the long-short stitch with the same thread and work the next column back down to the starting point. But, if you are shading, you can continue with a different color thread. Then you will begin the new column right next to the very first stitch you took earlier.

And that was it already. I hope this tutorial had been useful to extend your, historical and modern, stitch repertoire a little. As my own embroidery learning curve continues, I will try and add more new stitches to the collection. Below I have also included two useful sources and links to accompany you on your embroidery journey in the meantime.

For now, I will return to sewing a few new items for the Regency wardrobe. As it is, there probably will be no second dress this year because my first pair of short stays has sort of handed in its notice and I will have to make a new pair first. I think this one will get a busk and proper steel boning for more durability. But, as fall is rushing in here now, it is time to get comfy and cozy. And so, the shenanigans will continue with a few comfy and cozy Regency garments for the long, cold evenings and the even longer Sunday mornings spent lounging in bed. Please stay tuned as the journey continues.

Warmly, Nessa



Useful links:

Needle N Thread : On this page you will find tips and video tutorials for nearly every classic and modern embroidery stitch, explained by Mary Corbett who has a huge wealth of embroidery knowledge and experience. Her video on the stem stitch also shows you a sewing method to speed up the stitching.

”The Encyclopedia of Needlework”: This 1900s publication by Thérèse de Dilmont has a whole lot of useful advice on period needlework stitches and techniques. This link will take you to the chapter on whitework, but the rest of the book is just as readable.



Regency & Victorian White Work – A Primer

And finally, it is time for another embroidery tutorial.

In my previous post, about the Regency-era cap, I promised you to blog a bit about period white-work embroidery. So here goes a little primer / tutorial for you all to enjoy. First I will start you off with some hard facts about this nifty kind of embroidery. Then I will show you another quick way of tracing patterns, especially suitable for white, translucent fabrics. After that, we will go down to business with a few basic stitches. But not to worry, they are not that hard to do at all.

To show you, how white-work creates really pretty results with easy stitches, I would like to share a little picture with you. Here is the white embroidery work that will go on my Regency cap. I finished it the other day. Yay!

Finished Regency white-work.

What is White-Work Embroidery?

First of all, white-work is called white-work because it consists of white stitching, worked on white fabrics. Basically it is the direct precursor of the basic style of embroidery that is popular today. Only nowadays, we do the same stitches, only using lots and lots of colorful thread. Especially in the Regency and Victorian eras, it was all the rage in linen embroidery: It was used on handkerchiefs, underthings, caps, white muslin gowns and all the textiles up and down the trousseau, namely bed linens, tablecloths and towels.

As white thread is not exactly visible on white ground, white-work likes to use raised stitches of different kinds. This creates satiny, tangible patterns that stand out, in the sense of the word. Back in the day, it was also indispensable when it came to binding decorative eyelets and scalloped hems. Monograms of any kind where usually worked in this fashion, too. So, for historical costuming, it is an incredibly useful, and beautiful, technique to know.

When I first researched this kind of embroidery on-line, I came across the most awesome needlework book from the Victorian era: the “Encyclopedia of Needlework” by Thérèse de Dillmont. It contains  chapters on all kinds of period needlework with many drawings and practical tips. Here is a link to the chapter on white embroidery. If you would like to learn more about it beyond this post, it will teach you all you will ever need to know.

Tracing Patterns

When we talked about Elizabethan blackwork in the other tutorial, I showed you how to trace by simply basting the paper pattern to the fabric. This method is the most go-to when working with thicker and/or colorful fabrics. For tracing patterns onto thinner white cottons there is a different little trick, which, surprisingly, is period correct. When I read about it in the above-mentioned book I thought, “Man, Victorians were really practical.”

For it you will need: your fabric, your pattern traced onto a slightly transparent piece of paper, such as notebook paper, a pencil, a windowpane and daylight. So, all you do is put your fabric, right side up, on top of the sheet of paper. Make sure everything lies nice and smooth. Then pin the paper to the fabric, placing the pins around the pattern, rather than spearing through it. Now you place the two pieces against the windowpane and trace the pattern onto the fabric with your pencil. If you would rather not use a pencil on muslin, fabric marker or colored tailor’s chalk will work, too. And done. Below you can see how I did this with my muslin pattern:

Tracing a pattern onto white muslin.


The traced pattern, placed into the hoop.

Basic Stitches

Now that you know how much fun tracing can be, we will move on to learning some stitches. And I bet you will recall at least one, or two, from hand-sewing. To do white-work, I recommend you use 2-3 strands of white cotton embroidery floss. For the stitching above, I worked the yarn through the fabric with a very fine number 3 crewel needle. When embroidering light white cottons and muslins, fine needles really are the safest (and sanest) way to go, unless you like nasty poke-holes in the weave. ;)


All in all, the back-stitch is no different from the back-stitch you know from sewing. It is used to outline the pattern on the fabric. Additionally, it gives support and padding to all the raised stitches, which are worked over it. Use small, even stitches for your outlines. When you use it for padding, the stitches can be longer and messier, as nobody will see them when you are finished. A special variant is the “knot stitch” which is nothing else but two rows of back-stitch worked right next to each other with their stitch patterns matched up.

from “Encyclopedia of Needlework”.

Satin Stitch

Now, this one is probably new to you. It is the simplest filling stitch that is still used to date. I like it because it creates nice, smooth textures. On the downside, it also eats up a lot of thread. To work it, you first need to outline and pad the area you would like to fill with back-stitching. Otherwise, satin stitch has a habit of caving in. If you work very short satin stitches, you can forgo the padding.

To work it, you come up with the thread on one side of the outline. From there, you take it horizontally to the opposite outline and go back down. Repeat this on the underside of the fabric and come back up right next to your first stitch. Only pull the thread until it lies flat. Otherwise you will and up with something crooked. A variety I like it the split satin stitch, which consists of two columns of satin stitches: one goes from the first outline to the center of the filled area, the other from the center to the opposite outline.

Satin Stitch, source: Stitching Cow.


Overcasting, Button-Holing & Eyelet-Making

Now to the fun part of white-work: Eyelets and scallops. Those sound creepy in the beginning, but once you try them, you will love them on the spot. Both eyelets and hem scallops are raw when you cut them out, so they need to be bound, much like in regular sewing. The stitches used for this are also two old friends: the buttonhole, or blanket, stitch and the overcasting, or whip, stitch. You work them much like you would when hand-sewing a hem or buttonhole.

from “Encyclopedia of Needlework”.

A much-loved application of overcasting us the embroidered eyelet. At first, the thought of making these sort of crept me out. So I have decided to give you a little step-by-step guide on how I make them, to save you the trouble of getting all fretful yourselves. ;) First, you outline the uncut eyelet with a circle of back-stitching. You then poke a hole into the center with a fine tailor’s awl or thinnish knitting needle. For bigger holes, you would cut out the center with fine contour scissors. Sharp cuticle scissors work, too, by the way. ;) Then you bind the eyelet as follows:

Step 1. Come up right next to your outline and bring the needle towards the center of the eyelet.

Step 2. Move the needle through the hole in the center. Then go back into the fabric from underneath. Now you should come up right next to where you started out.

Step 3. Repeat until you have gone all the way around the eyelet, covering the whole inner edge with thread. After your last stitch, go back down in a slanting motion and secure your thread on the back.


Note that, with eyelets, it is perfectly fine to pull the stitching a little more tightly. This way, the hole will stay open. To get an idea of what you can create by using the different stitches in combination, here are two little WIP picture of my Regency pattern where you can see all the above-mentioned techniques in action:

Half-done embroidery with outline, padding and finished cover stitches.

Back-stitch in and split satin stitch progress.

And this concludes our little white-work primer. I hope it will be helpful to some of you and inspire some stunning new creations.

Love, Nessa

Useful links:

Encyclopedia of Needlework by Thérèse de Dillmont (1886).