As the name implies, the original purpose of hemstitching was to finish the hem. Then as people had more time to stitch and ornamentation became more important, hemstitching became more elaborate. Hemstitching is a drawn thread technique 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.

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 Originally the same color thread, or even the withdrawn thread, was used so the stitch was virtually invisible.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 will 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. Using a hoop or frame is up to you. Some references instruct using a frame while others suggest hemstitching to be a great project to take with you because you did not need a frame. A frame may be useful when performing more intricate twists and designs that require even tension. Q-snaps work well because they allow you to lessen or increase the fabric tension easily. Scissors with fine points allow you to clip the correct and correct amount of threads.

The examples shown here were stitched on 20-count Natural Jasmin-Floba with DMC Pearl Cotton Size #8 thread in just a slightly darker color #842.

Getting Started

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. But 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. 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 on the Straight Hemstitch chart. 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. Keep in mind that each fabric line in the open space is actually a pair of threads that have already been 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 that used this technique to create a pattern. It is especially unique 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. Do not put your needle through the pairs and pull through when doing this technique. You have to have wiggle room to "flip" the tip of your needle the other direction. Here are 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. Here is what the twists look like if you have two pair and four pair, compared to a single bar with a coral knot.

Many hemstitching designs or patterns sometimes don’t have standard names like other stitches, so we have coined this design 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.

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

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