Starting to stitch

At last! I bet you thought we’d never get to the stitching….x

Well, we’re finally here, so in this post, I’m probably going to go off on several tangents, but hopefully, you’ll get a feel for the ways I like to use threads and stitches. As ever, remember this is only my way of doing things, there are no rules, no rights or wrongs, you must do what works for you.

I’m going to begin today by assuming that what I have in my hands is a piece of base cloth, with a collage of fabrics pinned down in the places I’d chosen, after playing around with positions and eventually deciding on the layout I liked best.

If you were using lines or a painted background as your starting point, you would now also be ready to move on to the stitching phase.

I’m going to begin by talking mainly about the fabric collage approach. 

First stitches – holding everything down and in place.

The very first thing I would do now, is to carefully put the base cloth into the frame. I say carefully, because the fabrics will undoubtedly be moving around quite a lot and the pins will certainly target any unsuspecting fingers you leave in the way.

Occasionally I work a design that is small enough to enclose within the frame. This makes life easier, being able to see the whole picture all the time, so if this is your first step into intuitive slow stitching, it might be a good idea to start fairly small. 

However, larger pieces have to be worked in sections, taking the frame on and then repositioning it as you go around. At the early stages, proceed carefully.

Once the fabric is in the frame, my first priority is to tack down all the individual pieces and remove the pins. It’s important to me to have everything securely in place, so that I can confidently move the frame without dislodging any of the pieces.

How you do this is up to you. I tend to try and use threads that are a similar shade to the fabric shape so that the tacks don’t show up too much, but that’s because I’m lazy and rarely go back and remove the tacks. You could tack everything down loosely with one easily visible colour and then remove the tacks as you go into the detailed stages.

My favourite way to stitch down the individual pieces is by using a very simple straight stitch. I’ll try to stitch down every piece, ensuring that any corners are carefully held down. This is so that when I move the frame, it doesn’t lift up or crease the fabric pieces. Eventually, when I’ve added a lot of stitches, this stops being a concern, but it is worth being careful at the beginning.

Beginning to use stitches artfully.

As soon as you have everything securely held in place, you’re ready to begin the really fun part, adding artful stitches in an increasingly meditative way. If it helps, you might think of the stitches you make as little lines that you’re drawing with, imagine how it would be to use a pencil to make lines, to shade or to define. Then realise that stitches are just the same, they’re the ways we use to make lines.

Let’s talk about which stitches to use.

My stitch repertoire is very small and none of them are difficult. You probably already know them perfectly well. They are; straight stitches, running stitches, cross stitches and couching. (Of course if I was working in needlepoint, I’d be using tent or continental tent stitch).

Let’s discuss them a little more.

Straight Stitches.

These are the real workhorses of the stitch world. So simple, literally just putting the needle in at one point and back out at another. But with this simple stitch, so much is possible. There’s such a variety of lines to be created with straight stitches. Try using them in a row, standing like soldiers, all the same height. Then think about having them in a row but all different heights. Try using them along a wavy line. Try having them lean in different directions. Stitch them close together,  or further apart. Stitch one row, then go in between the gaps creating a row above or below – keep doing it.

One of the added beauties of all the stitches I use, is that as you build them up on the fabric, they tend to create unplanned textures in the fabric, creating little ridges or ripples. This can deliver lovely and intriguing effects.

Running Stitch

The other great workhorse is the running stitch. At its simplest, it’s just a line created by passing the thread in and out of the fabric. On its own, a line of running stitch isn’t particularly interesting – although of course there are ways you might address that – but when you start to stitch parallel lines, something wonderful begins to happen. Keep adding lines of running stitch and you find you have a new texture. Keep the stitches lined up, or let them go free. See what a difference they make.

I have mentioned it before, but it was seeing how running stitch had been used in Kantha at the Fabrics of India exhibition at the V & A in 2015, that really set me off in a new direction. Everything I’ve made since then has been inspired by those stitches.

Cross Stitch

Now you might be wondering about this, and let me be clear, I’m not someone who creates perfect little cross stitches, the sort of thing you use to make cross stitch patterns. However, I have found that a loose style cross-stitch, where you simply make one stitch in one direction and then another that crosses the first, can be extremely useful. I like to use them to add a different texture into the work. Sometimes I’ll use them sparingly, dotted about in a space. Other times, I’ll build up layers of them, different colours, different angles, different sizes, until your eye doesn’t see the crosses anymore, but instead, it sees a kind of net or web.

My advice is to experiment – of course. I like this stitch a lot.

And finally, the last of my favourites…


I first embraced couching when I was still working mainly in needlepoint, but beginning to add in different stitches. What I craved, was the ability to stitch curves and circles, something that’s very difficult in traditional tent stitch. When I let myself go and first used couching to define a bendy line, I have to say I felt liberated.

Today I use couching as much to add detail and texture as to add curves, but it is a very useful addition to the stitch toolkit.

I tend to think of couching as the bold line of drawing in threads. One of its big plus points is that you can use couching to add threads to your work that would otherwise be too thick to sew with through the cloth. This opens up the possibility of using all kinds of threads that wouldn’t otherwise be suitable. I am especially fond of applying thick recycled sari silk threads this way. They have glorious colours and a fabulous silky sheen, but without couching it just wouldn’t be possible to include them. 

It’s a simple stitch to do. You just bring the ‘thick’ thread to the front of the work where you want the line to start, and then, using a needle threaded with another, thinner thread, use that to stitch over the thick thread. You can make these stitches as big or small as you wish. They can be almost invisible, or add their own line. I like to contrast the colours, for instance using a red base thread and stitching it down with a blue thread. 

So that’s my stitch repertoire. If you have others, then use what feels familiar and natural to you. Try pushing the boundaries of your favourites to see what else they might do, try making them bigger or smaller, uneven or regimented. I know lots of people like backstitch and French knots, which I’m sure have excellent uses, so do play with stitches to find the ones that work best for you. My only caution is not to get hung up thinking you need to know lots before you can begin, I hope you can see here, that you can easily create using one or two of the simplest stitches.

Which stitch to use, and where?

Now we get to the really interesting part of the process. Assuming you have your base cloth,  which has either collage pieces or lines drawn on the canvas, how do we move on to deciding where to stitch with whichever stitch style we’ve decided to use?

There’s no secret formula to this part of the process, I can’t tell you exactly what to do and in what sequence, but I will try to explain what I’m thinking about as I get to this stage. I’ll describe some of the thoughts and how I’ll respond. The main thing here is to get started, because in a strange way, once you begin, the rest happens.

So, here are some thoughts for the beginning.

1). Is there a focal point? Is there a point in the composition that draws your attention. Is there a section that I particularly like, or dislike? This might only be a subtle feeling, but I like to contemplate the whole piece for a few moments just to see if anything suggests itself. Sometimes I’ve looked and thought to myself that I can ‘see’ a landscape or a tree or an aerial view. These are things I didn’t deliberately design but which seemed to suggest themselves when I looked closely, or looked with my imagination.

It’s not essential to ‘see’ anything, but sometimes there are clues to help you begin, so give yourself some time to let your imagination wander over it.

2). When I begin to stitch artfully, rather than just for stabilising the fabric, I’ve learnt not to start stitching at the focal point, or near the centre of the piece. The reason, is that the early stitches are not generally my best, I will still be feeling my way in, I may go off on a line or a colour or a thread, that eventually I won’t like as much as others, and if that’s right in the middle of the piece, it can be annoying later. So start somewhere away from the centre, but not too close to an edge.

Avoid the very edges because if you work outside in, you’ll undoubtedly create ridges and tucks in the fabrics, which you’ll have trouble hiding as you get further into the middle. Instead, try starting about a third of the way in and loosely stitch out towards an edge.

3). Look at the negative spaces. What I mean here is, look at the spaces between the fabrics or the lines that you’ve created. In my mind, I might trace a line that goes between some or all of those spaces. Will that line be straight? Or bendy? Then I might choose to stitch that line. By the way, if you look carefully at my work, you’ll see that whatever line I take, there are usually two or three parallel lines of stitching. It must be something to do with the influence that seeing the Kantha stitching had on me, but I like to do this. Whether you do or not, is up to you of course.

4). What colours do I want to use where? I won’t have any specific plans for the colours, but it can be helpful to think in terms of areas where you might want to contrast or complement the collage fabrics. At the beginning, I won’t be too adventurous with the colours, I’ve found that I’m happier staying quite close to the fabric colours while I get my bearings. Once I’ve got a few lines down, I find that it’s easier to decide when and where to add in more exciting colours or textures.

5). If you want to add some stronger lines, then this might be a good time to couch some heavier threads onto the piece. Sometimes I’ve started a piece and realised that what it wanted was a different pattern (often for me that’s a kind of branch pattern) laid over the top. Once the couched lines are in, then it’s back to looking and thinking about where to go in with more stitches.

The main thing is to take a gentle look at what you have before you, and then be brave and begin to stitch. Don’t worry too much about what you’re doing, just put some stitches into the cloth. Let the stitches you’ve made inform the next stitches. Think about lines going off from other lines, or running parallel or simply filling areas of space with whichever stitches appeal to you. One thing will lead to another.

I’ve always found that so long as I keep stitching, the inspiration for the next stitch will come. This I suppose is the heart of intuitive stitching and as such, you’ll have to take my word for it. Reading my words, you might not believe that it would be the same for you, but all I can say is, try it and see. Just like so many other practices, there’s a difference between reading about something and understanding it in theory, and actually doing it yourself. Intuitive stitching comes with practice and the more you do it, the more you open yourself up to the process, the more you’ll find yourself enjoying and benefiting from it.

In the final post in this series, I’ll talk further about the process. I’ll describe a typical progression through working a piece, from beginning to the end. I’ll also talk about meditation, mindfulness and relaxation, and how slow, intuitive stitch supports me in everyday life. 

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