While I was researching the newsletter on Pulled Thread, I came across several references to hemstitching. For some unknown reason, hemstitching has been a technique that I have tried to stay very far away from. Perhaps it is some deep-seated psychological issue about finishing a project? Then things happened to push me towards using hemstitching as the next newsletter. Fiber Arts Festival was this month and they do the coolest thing to get people involved. You can earn a sticker by going to the various demonstration booths. Once you earn 5 stickers you can pick a "prize" out of the goody box. I picked out this packet of books and patterns. To my horror, well not quite that bad, I found an entire pattern book on hemstitching and a Creative Needle issue from 1986 detailing several hemstitches. It was like I was being stalked! Since I needed a newsletter subject, I decided to face my deepest fears and find out just what hemstitching is all about.

One of the first things I do is to research the history. You have to figure that hemstitching has been around for a very long time, but there isn’t much written about it. As the name implies, its original purpose was to finish the hem. Then probably as people had more time to stitch and ornamentation became more important, hemstitching became more elaborate. All the sources called it drawn thread because you withdraw fabric threads to create the open area to do the fancy work. Drawn thread examples have been found dating clear back to the 1st century, so by definition alone, one could assume hemstitching has had a long life.

Despite the name, hemstitching is not limited to just the hem. It can be used for further ornamentation on the fabric. In fact, the hemstitched design can get quite ornate. Perhaps it was my naive thought that hemstitching was plain and only used to finish an edge that caused me to shy away from it. Since I paid so little attention to it in the past, I was amazed to find several of the linens I purchased during my trip to Kansas had hemstitched edges.

Now that I realized the purpose of and possibilities for doing the hemstitch, I decided to try it. The fabric should be one with a weave that allows you to easily remove the fabric thread. One of the reasons for this step was to create a guide line where the edge was folded to and then stitched down. Originally the same color thread, or even the withdrawn thread, was used so the stitch was virtually invisible. Today, you can use contrasting threads to create even more interest and design.

You want to use tapestry needles for hemstitching. It is important not to split a fabric thread and sometimes that is easy to do especially when you are doing some of the fancier twists. Whether or not you use a hoop or frame, is up to you. Some references said to use a frame while others said this was a great project to take with you because you did not need a frame. I tried it both ways and found that when I started doing the twisted and more intricate designs, I needed a frame to keep my tension even. I used Q-snaps because I could twist the plastic pieces on the side to lessen or increase the fabric tension. Scissors with fine points were a big help in making sure I clipped the correct fabric threads.

I wanted to make my examples large enough to see, so I used 20-count Natural Jasmin-Floba (1-520) with DMC Pearl Cotton Size #8 thread in just a slightly darker color #842.


I soon learned that the most time consuming part of the process is withdrawing the threads. For many samplers, you are told do a satin stitched edge and cut your threads like a Kloster block in Hardanger embroidery. However, for an actual hemstitch, you often cut your fabric thread several inches ahead of where you want to actually end. You unweave that fabric thread to the point you want your hem to stop. Then you thread your needle and carefully weave the fabric thread out several stitches towards the edge.

TIP: When you are pulling your fabric threads, be sure to pull the horizontal threads far enough to expose the correct number of vertical threads. What I am trying to say, is if your design element uses threads in multiples of four, you need to be sure your exposed vertical threads are divisible by 4.


The basic hemstitch is the straight hemstitch.

Straight Hemstitch »

Here are a couple more things you can do with these pairs of bars.

Tie two pairs together with a coral knot. You will secure your thread in the right edge and come out in the center of the open space shown as A. Lay your thread over the top of the next two pairs and bring your needle above the thread and down in the open space to the right of the first pair. Bring the point of your needle up between the second and third pair and within the loop created by the needle. Gently pull your needle through adjusting the location of the coral knot as you tighten the knot. Here is the chart. Keep in mind that each fabric line in the open space is actually a pair of threads that we have already straight hemstitched.

Through the use of the coral knot you can create a lot of patterns. For example, here is what happens if you group your coral knots over 4 pair and then individually over a single pair four times.

Want to be even more creative?

Anchor a new thread at the top of the right edge. Do another coral knot over the top of the one tying the four pair together. Now go to the individual pair and do a coral knot half way up the top of that pair. Do that for the remaining three individual pairs. Do a coral knot on top of the group of four pair. Now, drop down and do coral knots along the middle of the lower half of the individual pairs. To make a coral knot on the bottom you have to reverse your loop and bring your needle up from the bottom. If you don’t do this, it isn’t really a knot.

You begin to create a wave. You can choose to leave it like this or do coral knots on one more pass.

Anchor another new thread at the bottom of the right edge. Do a coral knot over all the other knots on the four pair. You should have 14 "spokes" coming out of this motif now. Work your way across creating the opposite "wave".

Here are two examples from the Kansas trip that used this technique to create a pattern. I especially like how the stitcher did some needleweaving with the resulting spokes.

Another neat trick you can do with the pairs is to twist them. Some books called this inverted threads. The key to success is to just use the tip of your needle. I am used to putting the needle clear through the pairs and pulling through. Don’t do that! You have to have wiggle room to "flip" the tip of your needle the other direction. It really was quite fun once I got the hang of it. I think I had to rip it out at least 4 times before it finally sunk in. This didn’t chart well, so I tried to take some step-by-step photos.

Go over two pair and insert your needle underneath the second pair and over the first pair. Don’t push your needle through. With the tip just past the first pair tip your needle forward into the hole. Keep going and rotate the tip of your needle all the way around so it is now facing to the left. Bring the tip out so you are pulling your thread over the top of the unworked pairs. Gently pull your thread and your pairs will twist and the thread will go through the middle of them.

Now let’s get really creative, or is it crazy, with four pair!

Place your needle over the next 3 pair and reverse to go right under the third pair and pull the thread through.

Now, going to the left, place your needle under the first and the third pairs and pull slightly to bunch the pairs together. You are half way there! Tug on your thread to the right to lift the twisted pairs out of the way. Go over and back under the fourth pair and over the pair hidden underneath the twisted pairs (it is actually the second pair). Don’t push your needle through very far because you are going to take the needle down in the hole and twist it around so it is now pointing to the left. Gently pull the thread to the left and both twisted pairs should settle into place with the working thread running through the center of the twists! Pretty cool! Here is what the twists look like if you have two pair and four pair, compared to a single bar with a coral knot.

One thing that frustrated me was that the designs or patterns don’t appear to have standard names like other stitches. So, I am calling this one the basic zigzag hemstitch. Instead of pulling together two fabric threads, try pulling together four fabric threads. Do this first along the inside (or bottom) edge.

Flip your piece over so you are stitching right to left again. The stitch is the same, but begin by gathering just two threads together in the first stitch. The remainder of the stitches will have four threads. This will cause the threads to create a zigzag in the open space.

Now you have learned three simple stitches – straight hemstitch to create pairs (bars), coral knots, and zigzags. Now take these and let your imagination go to create all sorts of patterns. Gather up groups of three pairs with a coral know, then do a spider web around the spokes. You can use any of the needleweaving designs in the spaces between the spokes. Put your Hardanger stitches to work with some needleweaving between the bars or try wrapping some of the bars together. If you like the knots you can alternate where you put the coral knots. If you add several rows of coral knots in a wave pattern you get the look of bobbin lace.

Here are some resources available on hem stitching.

I hope you have a little bit of fun with hemstitching. There will likely be a follow up newsletter because I have found a ton of really fun stitches that will let your imagination and creativity go wild. In fact, I may have found a new favorite technique!!

We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!

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“The following article was written by Debi Feyh of Nordic Needle and published in their weekly e-mail newsletter. Permission was granted by Nordic Needle to share this article in (name of your publication). For information on subscribing to their weekly e-mail newsletter, visit www.nordicneedle.com. A free mail-order catalog is available to you upon request if you live in the USA or Canada.”

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