A Stitch in Time: Split Stitch

The split stitch is one of the oldest and simplest of the basic embroidery stitches, visually resembling a small compact chain stitch, but with a much narrower and flatter appearance. It’s an easy stitch to work and is especially useful when stitching around tight curves. The split stitch is also known as the Kensington outline, split back, and opus anglicanum.

slip stitch

Coptic linen panels from the 7th and 8th centuries were embroidered in straight, satin and split stitches. The split stitch was extensively used by English embroiderers in opus anglicanum needlework (English medieval ecclesiastical embroidery). Stitched in microscopic split stitches, the faces and hands on these pieces in the Victoria and Albert Museum are absolutely exquisite. The eyes, cheeks, mouths, noses, and fingers are stitched with a single silk thread usually on a twilled silk background fabric over linen. One of the earliest documented embroideries using the split stitch is the stole and maniple set from the tomb of Saint Cuthbert (634–687), discovered in the 19th century in Durham, England. The entire surface of the cloth is embroidered with images of saints and prophets worked in stem and split stitches, with the remaining fabric surface covered with couched gold thread. Opus anglicanum reached its summit during the first half of the 14th century. The famous Syon and Tree of Jesse copes, dating around 1300–1320, are excellent examples of this type of work. Roman and Florentine embroiderers of this time period also used the split stitch on Italian vestments and altar cloths.

During the Jacobean period (1603–1625), the primary embroidery motif was the Tree of Life, an exotic imaginary plant, teeming with every imaginable type of flower, leaf, stem, and fruit. This stitchery was typically worked in wool threads on a twilled linen background and extensively used the split stitch. The flat embroidery style of the neo-classical period of the late 18th century has been described as needle painting with the split stitch again enjoying renewed interest for bed hangings, clothing, and framed pieces. During the first half of the 19th century, the split stitch once again became popular because of interest in Gothic-style architecture and furnishings.

slip stitch

slip stitch

The split stitch can be worked horizontally left to right (Figure 1) or right to left (Figure 2) or vertically bottom to top (Figure 3), and is always worked with the individual stitch lengths as even as possible. However, when stitching around inside tight curves, the stitches can be shortened slightly to accommodate this decrease. The majority of old and historical references illustrate the split stitch as in Figure 1, in which the back of the fabric displays small short stitches with the majority of the thread on the front, thus conserving the silk stitching threads that were pricey. The split backstitch (Figure 2) pads the fabric back with long stem stitches and is not considered the traditional method of working the split stitch, although the surface stitches look the same. The placement of the split may vary from the middle (Figure 2) to close to the end of the previous stitch (Figure 1); splits are usually consistent within a motif and should have an equal amount of thread on either side of the split. When close side-by-side rows of split stitches are used for fillings, the stitches are worked in the same direction, and the splitting area of the stitches should alternate from row to row to avoid creating a wider area.

slip stitch

The split stitch can be used for outlines, stems, solitary stitches, fillings, or as padding under other stitches. The ground fabric can be plain or evenweave fabric and should be held taut in a hoop or frame while stitching. This stitch requires a sharp needle and a soft, untwisted or only slightly twisted thread, such as cotton floss, silk floss or thread, flower thread, pearl cotton, ribbon, and wool, cotton, or blended yarn. It’s nearly impossible to split a tightly twisted or hard thread evenly. The stab method of stitching works best in keeping the working thread untwisted and the stitches flat and even. At the end of a solitary stitch or line of stitching, a tack-down stitch, either long (Figure 2) or short (Figure 3), depending upon the effect you wish, is used to anchor the stitch(es).

slip stitch

slip stitch

slip stitch

The Swedish or detached split stitch (Figures 4 and 5) is a variation that is worked with two individual strands of thread in the needle, using threads of the same color or two different colors or thread types. These threads may be close together in tone or hue (Figure 4) or two contrasting colors (Figure 5). This can produce amazingly subtle shading or a rather dramatic contrast. This variation, as well as the regular split stitch, can be used as a stand-alone stitch with the tack-down stitch at the end as usual or at an angle on either side of the original stitch (Figure 6).

This is one of my go-to stitches for redwork or crewel embroidery.

—Deanna Hall West

Deanna Hall West is PieceWork’s needlework technical editor; she previously was the editor of The Needleworker magazine. Stay tuned for more stitch tutorials from Deanna in the months ahead!

Enjoy learning more about embroidery stiches in our blog series “A Stitch in Time.”

Illustrations by Ann Swanson.

Featured Image: Model designed and stitched by Deanna Hall West. Materials include: Wichelt linen fabric, 32-count, in Ivory; DMC Pearl Cotton thread, Size 5, for stamens and pomegranate seeds; fingering-weight wool yarn, for all remaining embroidery; and embroidery/crewel needles, sizes #6 and #8. Photo by George Boe.


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