Outline Stitch vs. Stem Stitch

What's the Difference Between Outline and Stem Stitch?
Mollie Johanson

Have you ever wondered if there's a difference between outline stitch and stem stitch? The two names are often used interchangeably, they look very similar and in most cases either will work for whatever you're stitching. But they aren't the same thing.

Learn the differences between the two, how to work each stitch without confusing them, and then try them out for yourself! 

Positioning the Working Thread

These two stitches are worked almost exactly the same way, but there's one major difference: the position of the working thread.

Starting outline and stem stitches
Mollie Johanson

Outline Stitch

In the examples, the top line of stitching is outline stitch. As you work this stitch from left to right, always keep the working thread above the line of stitching.

This really becomes important in the next step, but it makes it easier to keep track of the thread position if you keep it above the stitching from the start. Especially if either of these stitches (and the differences between them) are new to you.

If you are working outline stitch from right to left, either because you're left-handed or it's just easier for you, the thread position flips, and the working thread should be below the line of stitching.

Stem Stitch

The bottom line of stitching shown above is stem stitch. The working thread is in the opposite position on this, so it should be below the line of stitching when worked from left to right.

Again, keeping the thread obviously below the stitching will help ensure a smooth and good-looking stem stitch.

As with outline stitch, if you are working right to left, change the position of the working thread so it is now above the line of stitching.

Completing the Stitches

If you are working with the sewing method, rather than the stabbing method, this step will look a little different. But the idea is the same, so pay close attention.

As you pull the working thread through from front to back, do so slowly. Leave a small loop of thread on the surface so that you can ensure that your needle is on the correct side of the working thread.

There's nothing so frustrating as realizing that one of your stitches suddenly caused you to change directions and switch from stem to outline or the other way around!

Once you know that your stitch is landing on the correct side of the needle for whichever method you're using, pull the working thread all the way down and the needle through to the front.

Completing outline and stem stitches
Mollie Johanson

Side-By-Side Comparison

At first glance the contrast between these two stitches is subtle, but when you look at them next to each other, you'll see it.

The most obvious difference is the direction that the rope-like line is "twisted."

Look closer at the curved section—stem stitch is a little smoother than outline stitch. The direction of the curve will alter this, so you may want to take that into account when choosing one over the other.

Side-by-side comparison of outline and stem stitch
Mollie Johanson

You may find that some patterns look better in one stitch over the other. Could you use both outline and stem stitch in the same design? Sure you can! You can even wrap your stitches for an even different look!

Experiment with both outline stitch and stem stitch to find what you like better and what works best for what you're stitching!

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