How to Work the Back Stitch in Embroidery

How to Work Back Stitch
Mollie Johanson
Overview
  • Skill Level: Beginner

The backstitch is a basic outlining hand embroidery, cross stitch, and sewing stitch. When getting started in embroidery, it should be one of the first stitches you learn.

Backstitching produces a thin line of stitches, perfect for outlining in almost all embroidery patterns. Fill the outlined shape with satin stitch or feather stitch, or used it as a base for embellishment as in Pekinese stitch. Or put it to practical use and stitch two pieces of fabric together.

This stitch gets its name from the process, which results in each stitch going backward from the direction of the line you are forming. You can create the backstitch going from both right to left and left to right. Try it both ways! 

Notes

 The instructions below are for working from left to right. Practice on a small square of cotton or other fabric of your choice, using needles of type and size appropriate to the fabric.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Embroidery hoop sized for practice cloth
  • Embroidery needle, size between 1 and 5
  • Small sharp scissors
  • Pencil or water soluble pen
  • Ruler

Materials

  • Small square of cotton fabric for practicing
  • Six-strand embroidery floss

Instructions

The stitches formed with a backstitch are made by bringing the needle up a stitch length away from the end of the previous stitch, and taking it down at the end near existing stitches, laying the thread on the surface of the work.

Although the backstitch is a basic stitch to learn, it takes practice to make the stitches even. The goal should be to train your eye to see how to space the stitches. For short lines, this might mean visually dividing the line into a certain number of stitches. With longer ​lines, you might need to compare your stitches as you go, and then divide the space at the end of the line so you don't end up with a very tiny or very long last stitch.

There are two methods for making stitches, the stabbing method and the sewing method. Give both of them a try to discover which is right for you.

  1. Getting Ready

    If you are still learning to stitch, go ahead and mark your fabric with a few practice lines. Use a ruler and a water-soluble pen or a pencil.

    Place the fabric in the hoop. Cut a 12 to ​14-inch length of six-strand embroidery floss and thread it through the embroidery needle. Knot the other end.

  2. Stabbing Method

    This technique is the preferred backstitch style for many embroiderers since it creates a tidy line, and the stabbing motion can help ensure an accurate stitch. As you stitch, move your stitching hand from the back of the fabric to the front of the work as needed.

    To begin, bring the needle up through the back of the fabric slightly in front of where the stitching will begin (point 1).

    1. Make a single stitch backward to the point where the stitching should begin (point 2) by inserting the needle front to back.
    2. Bring the needle up a short distance from the first stitch on the line to the right. This will be the start of the second stitch (a new point 1; the old point 1 is the new point 2).

    Continue stitching in the same manner, spacing the stitches at regular intervals, until you reach the end point of your line.

    How to work back stitch
    Mollie Johanson
  3. Sewing Method

    In this technique, you will keep your needle on top of the fabric as you work, apart from dipping it to the back momentarily. This method is faster for some stitchers.

    To begin, bring the needle up through the back of the fabric slightly in front of where the stitching will begin (point 1).

    • Insert the needle at the point where the stitching should begin (point 2); without pulling the needle and thread all the way through the fabric, bring the needle up where the right end of the second stitch will be (new point 1; the old point 1 is the new point 2).

    Continue stitching in the same manner, spacing the stitches at regular intervals, until you reach the end point of your line.

    How to work back stitch
    Mollie Johanson
  4. Practice

    The first line taught you the mechanics of making the stitch. Make two more lines, one in each method, to see which is more natural to you.

    Back stitch example
    Mollie Johanson

More Ways to Experiment With Back Stitch

Backstitch can be embroidered in rows as a fill stitch. For this technique, you can stagger and overlap the stitches as though they are bricks. Or, you can choose to have each line repeat the same pattern. Similarly, you can make a thicker outline by stitching two rows of backstitch side by side. For example, use two lines of stitches to make thicker downstrokes on embroidered monograms, which will help to achieve the look of calligraphy. You can also make your backstitch a little more decorative by wrapping or weaving the stitches