A Stitch in Time: 10 Versatile Embroidery Stitches

1. The Tête de Boeuf Stitch: Head of the Bull

The tête de boeuf (commonly referred to as head of the bull, although a direct translation from the French is “head of beef”) stitch, which also goes by the names of ox head and detached wheat ear, presents much confusion to those who wish to explore its origins. As I reviewed my present-day reference books on embroidery stitches, I found two very different stitches (or groups of stitches) illustrated as the tête de boeuf stitch (compare Figures 1A and 1B to 2A, 2B, and 2C). Read more…

2. Knitting Stitch

The knitting stitch, a double row of straight stitches slanting in opposite directions, forms a solidly stitched, braidlike pattern on a canvas or fabric surface, and resembles true knitting. Other names for the knitting stitch include kalem, kelim, kilim, knit, knitting gobelin, and tapestry. Kelim is the Turkish word for “prayer rug,” and kalem and kilim are simply different spellings of the word. The thin and soft kelim rugs of Persia (present-day Iran) were actually woven in the tapestry style—not knotted. When the knitting stitch is worked closely with a fine thread, it produces an appearance similar to a woven tapestry; hence, the tapestry moniker. Read more…

3. Vandyke Stitch

The versatile Vandyke or Van Dyke stitch is a variable-width stitch with a distinctive, centrally raised plait or braid. It is rather unique among embroidery stitches because it does not have multiple names. It does have, however, a number of variations that deal with leg length and spacing of the stitches.

The Vandyke Stitch (which has no relationship to the Vandyke stitch used in smocking), a collar, and a distinctive beard shape, certainly were named after the great Flemish painter, Anthony Van Dyck (1599–1641), who immortalized the collar and beard in his portraits of England’s Charles I (1600–1649) and other notables of the period. The stitch, collar, and beard share a common characteristic—the chevron shape. Read more…

4. Sienese Stitch

Named for the lovely Italian city of Siena, the Sienese (Siennese) stitch is an easy, wide-line stitch in the generic looped-stitch family. The first examples of this stitch and the resulting distinctive Sienese embroidery were shown at the Siena Samples Fair in 1921. At the same time, Maria Martini Mari, then president of the National Council of Italian Women, created the Committee of Ars Senensis, which eventually developed into an organization promoting women’s work in an effort to improve the economic situation of the women who did the work. Read more…

5. Velvet Stitch

The velvet stitch, consisting of a cross-stitch and a loop, is a counted-thread stitch most often used in canvas work. Known by a variety of names—Astrakhan, Astrakhan velvet, Berlin plush, plush, raised, rug, and tassel—velvet stitches produce a raised surface of loops that may be left intact or cut; if cut, the stitches resemble velvet fabric or carpet pile. The velvet stitch may be used for bands and borders (fringe); as a filling stitch for beards, hair, thatched roofs, and animal fur; and to replicate small- or large-scale Oriental carpets. Read more…

6. Upright Cross-Stitch

Surprisingly, the upright cross-stitch, which resembles the common plus sign, has been either ignored or overlooked in many reference books on needlework stitches. Little information other than the traditional how-to-stitch diagrams is available. The stitch is also called the straight stitch and St. George’s cross-stitch (the banner of St. George is a red cross of four equal legs on a white background; for more on St. George, see “The Lord Grey Banners,” PieceWork, September/October 2002). Read more…

Embroidery Stitches

Piecework May/June 2003

7. Feather Stitch

The feather stitch and its countless variations create feathery straight or undulating lines and fall in the category of looped stitches. The feather stitch is actually a variation of the blanket stitch, but it alternates from one side to the other. Read more…

8. Cretan Stitch

The Cretan stitch derives its name from Crete, the largest Greek island in the Mediterranean Sea, home to one of the oldest civilizations (dating from at least the time of Homer’s Odyssey, around the eleventh century b.c.) and a rich legacy of embroidery. The fresco designs from the ancient Minoan palace at Knossus on Crete, excavated during the latter portion of the nineteenth century, are seen on centuries-old as well as modern day embroidered skirts and jackets. The Cretan stitch continues to decorate the bright clothing and household linens of Crete. Read more…

9. Basque Stitch

The Basque stitch, also known as the twisted daisy border stitch, has its origins in the Basque country, located in the western Pyrenees that span the Franco- Spanish border. According to Jacqueline Enthoven in her book The Stitches of Creative Embroidery (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1964), the Basque stitch most likely dates to the eighth century, when the Moors occupied Spain, and it is often used alongside the Basque knot. In fact, Enthoven discovered that the two techniques often are described interchangeably, with some using the term “Basque stitch” to describe the twisted loop stitch (Figures 1 and 2) and others using the term to describe the knotted stitch (Figures 3 and 4). Enthoven, however, cites the curator of the Musée Basque in Bayonne, France, who confirms that the true Basque stitch is indeed the twisted loop. Read more…

10. Portuguese Stem Stitch

The Portuguese stem stitch, a heavily textured line stitch, also is known as Portuguese knotted stem, Portuguese knot, and wrapped stem stitch. Although little history is known about this particular stitch, we assume that, because of its name, it either originated in or was a popular stitch in Portugal at some time. Read more…

—Deanna


Deanna Hall West is PieceWork’s needlework technical editor; she previously was the editor of The Needleworker magazine.

Featured Image: Scissors and needle case courtesy of Loene McIntyre. Photo by Joe Coca.


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