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What Is a Backstitch?

Angie Bates
Angie Bates

The primary stitch in blackwork embroidery, the backstitch is a type of stitch which creates straight lines. The backstitch is used to outline other stitched patterns, serve as a baseline or foundation for other types of stitches, and, particularly in the case of blackwork, create geometric designs. As its name suggests, the backstitch is created by stitching backward.

Backstitches are used in counted embroidery projects, meaning the threads, or the tiny holes in the fabric between the threads, are counted so the crafter knows where to place stitches. For this reason, traditional Aida cloth or linen is often used. These cloths have a very even weave and the threads and spaces between the weaves are easily identifiable. Backstitches are sometimes also sewn onto tighter weave fabrics where the threads of the weave are not as obvious.

A punch needle can be used for some types of hand-made embroidery.
A punch needle can be used for some types of hand-made embroidery.

Usually very small, backstitches are only about the length of one thread of cloth, or an eighth of an inch (0.3 cm). To work one stitch, the needle is pushed up through the back of the cloth, then pushed down through the cloth at the next hole, in the opposite direction the crafter normally stitches. For example, right handed crafters may normally stitch from left to right; using the backstitch technique, the stitch would be completed to the left of the starting point. The needle then is pushed through the hole directly to the right of the starting point, and the second stitch is completed at the starting point.

Working this way across the fabric, a series of backstitches will create a straight line. Since the stitches are so small, the lines can follow a curved as well as straight pattern. Diagonal stitches may span two threads instead of one and are worked liked long stitches. This allows the backstitching to sharply outline other stitches and patterns.

The backstitch is also used as a foundation for other stitches, like the Pekingese stitch. When working with Pekingese stitches, a crafter must create a straight line first, using a series of backstitches. The Pekingese stitch is then sewn around the straight line to create a braided look.

Blackwork embroidery in particular relies heavily on the backstitch, along with the Holbein stitch, which is similar. In traditional blackwork, only black thread is used on white, or nearly white, fabric to create floral or geometric patterns. Originally, this type of embroidery was found on clothing in 15th and 16th century Europe.

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Discussion Comments


@ceilingcat - The backstitch is pretty versatile, that's for sure.

I used to cross-stitch some when I was younger, and I remember having a lot of trouble with the backstitch when I first learned it. It really confused me because it was going the wrong way! Obviously I got over it, but it's funny to think back on it now!


I really like the backstitch. It has a lot of uses in embroidery, just like the article said. Plus I really like the way it looks, with no gaps in between the stitches.

I also like to use it to hem pants sometimes. I hemmed a pair of jeans the other day, and I used a backstitch. Normally the stitching shows on the hems of jeans, so I decided to achieve this look with the back stitch. It turned out very nicely!

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    • A punch needle can be used for some types of hand-made embroidery.
      By: Louella Folsom
      A punch needle can be used for some types of hand-made embroidery.