Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry showing text and outlines in stem stitch.
Basic backstitch

Backstitch or back stitch and its variants stem stitch, outline stitch and split stitch are a class of embroidery and sewing stitches in which individual stitches are made backward to the general direction of sewing. In embroidery, these stitches form lines and are most often used to outline shapes and to add fine detail to an embroidered picture. It is used as a hand-sewing utility stitch to attach definitively and strongly two pieces of fabric together. It is also used for writing.


Basic backstitch is used to outline shapes in modern cross-stitch, in Assisi embroidery and occasionally in blackwork.

A versatile and easy to work stitch, backstitch is ideal for following both smooth and complicated outlines and as a foundation row for more complex embroidery stitches such as herringbone ladder filling stitch. Although superficially similar to Holbein stitch, commonly used in blackwork embroidery, backstitch differs in the way it is worked, requiring a single journey only to complete a line of stitching.

Stem stitch is an ancient technique; surviving mantles embroidered with stem stitch by the Paracas people of Peru are dated to the first century BCE.[1] Stem stitch is used in the Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidered cloth probably dating to the later 1070s, for lettering and to outline areas filled with couching or laid-work.[2]

Split stitch in silk is characteristic of Opus Anglicanum, an embroidery style of Medieval England.[2]

Description of the technique

Stitch diagram for working Back stitch

Backstitch is most easily worked on an even-weave fabric, where the threads can be counted to ensure regularity, and is generally executed from right to left. The stitches are worked in a 'two steps forward, one step back' fashion, along the line to be filled, as shown in the diagram.

Neatly worked in a straight line this stitch resembles chain stitching produced by a sewing machine.

The back stitch can also be used as a hand sewing utility stitch to attach two pieces of fabric together.


Variants of backstitch include:

Stitch gallery

See also

Look up stem stitch in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.


  1. Enthoven, Jacqueline: The Creative Stitches of Embroidery, Van Norstrand Rheinhold, 1964, ISBN 0-442-22318-8, p. 65
  2. 1 2 Levey, S. M. and D. King, The Victoria and Albert Museum's Textile Collection Vol. 3: Embroidery in Britain from 1200 to 1750, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1993, ISBN 1-85177-126-3
  3. Reader's Digest Complete Guide to Needlework. The Reader's Digest Association, Inc. (March 1992). ISBN 0-89577-059-8, p. 48


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