mastering the backstitch for text

“…of faces in a crowd on the…” Backstitch study in progress.

Mastering the backstitch as mode of expression in text….

I’ve lately been participating in a class series called Stitches and Stanzas with Rebecca Devaney, a textile artist and researcher who studied haute couture embroidery at École Lesage in Paris, France, and who established Textile Tours of Paris.

In this series of classes is an exploration of putting words to stitch – in particular, using the backstitch. Now, I do a lot of backstitch work when I make my couture garments so I’m not new to handling a needle & thread and using these tiny stitches as tools to work their magic in garment construction. But writing with the backstitch is another thing altogether. Having recently finally worked out the technique of writing with a needle & thread, my own text work with thread is built up with a combination of stitch types such as the running, backstitch (each of these both long and short), couching, seed stitch…and whatever else it takes to animate the letter and word structures I am trying to convey.

writing with a needle & thread” Composed with single strand silk Gütermann thread and a #9 sharp needle.

But the backstitch for lettering….now this is something that has proven to be a technical challenge for me. Having spent many years studying and creating works of letters and text in calligraphy on many types of fine papers, I have come to have certain preferences and expectations when it comes to working with letters and text. Foremost, I love handwritten text – the cursive movement and gestural quality of such simply brings the letters and words to life…and these are elements I strive for when working with any type of hand rendered text. And the backstitch…well, when I first began shaping letters with this type of stitch I struggled to find satisfaction of how the letters could show life, as I found the backstitch to look and feel so static. In the photo example below is my first go at using a backstitch to form letters. As can be seen, the stitches are so close together that they almost look like beads, and although the word Bonjour looks nice, it has a static effect to my eye, and this is an aspect that I wanted to “correct”.

“Bonjour” Hand written text. Triple strand red cotton embroidery floss on linen.

In any case, practise practise practise…. And below is my end of the day result to this particular study. So I’m satisfied here that I’ve got some ground work to go by now.

“of faces in a crowd…wet, black bough” Double strand, black cotton embroidery floss on linen.

Here are some of my reflections on this latest study:

Although a beautiful and useful stitch that I work with in my couture garments, the backstitch can appear static if one is seeking to use it to visual effect. So here in this study my challenge was how to animate this stitch within a cursive script.

I think the key to success here is variation in length of stitch. ie not to make the stitches the same length (as one would do when using it in a construction situation with couture garment work). So I have used all backstitching here in this study and the length of these stitches vary from long to short.

When working with long and short stitches, in paying attention to the expressive quality of the cursive effect of hand lettering one is able to mimic/recreate the gestural movement of the hand while writing.

So you have the long strokes of letters like h, l, p, f, t and so on; and then the short connective strokes that make cursive writing cursive.

The curves are a bit more challenging. Some of the curves I used a very short stitch that will suggest a turn, and then I will also place my stitches in such a way to suggest cursive flow in a long curve such as with the f, l, and e. But here these can end up being stylistic decisions as well.

Remember that cursive handwriting is unique and individual to each person’s hand, and as we are not machines, when we write and connect our letters we are doing so with expression and the purpose of saying something at that moment. I would not expect all of my hand written letters to look exactly the same. If I wanted that effect then I would simply use a font and embroider that. I love to see the unique quality of expression in a hand written note, and this is what I’ve aimed to work on in this study.

For a bit of fun, I share below the back of the study where you see the understitching. I love how abstract it all looks…looks like a new language in itself!

The backside of the lettered work.

What do I see myself doing with this newly acquired skill? Certainly I’m looking at working poetic pieces for framing and show on a wall.

However, you will definitely be seeing such text work on some of my future garment works!


  1. Really interesting post. I see what you mean about “bonjour” being very static. Your interpretation and execution of letting is much more artistic; therefore more interesting. Thanks for sharing your studies.

    Liked by 1 person

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