Machine embroidery has come a long way since its humble beginnings, with roots dating back to the 1800s. Once a labor-intensive, handcrafted skill, the advent of modern technology has revolutionized this art form, making it accessible to sewing enthusiasts of all levels. Today, intricate designs, mesmerizing patterns, and whimsical monograms are just a needle-and-thread away.

There are various types of stitches that form the essence of machine embroidery. This article will introduce you to the basics, dazzle you with specialty stitches, and share insider tips and tricks to help you achieve those picture-perfect results. You will also learn important factors for achieving the perfect stitching like stabilizers, thread selection, and troubleshooting common stitch problems.

Basic machine embroidery stitches

There are three basic embroidery stitches that are the building blocks for countless embroidery projects: the running stitch, the satin stitch, and the fill stitch. By mastering them and understanding their unique characteristics, you’ll be well on your way to creating stunning, swoon-worthy embroidery designs, regardless of the digitizing software that you use.

Running stitch

Think of the running stitch as the bread and butter of embroidery. At its core, it is a simple, straight stitch that moves in a continuous line with even spaces between each stitch. In machine embroidery, the running stitch, also called the walking stitch, is created by the needle passing through the fabric in a uniform, linear manner, alternating between entering and exiting the fabric at regular intervals. This results in a dashed line appearance on both the front and back sides of the fabric.

Running stitches are perfect for outlining designs, placement of layers in applique embroidery, adding fine details, or creating delicate textures. They’re also a go-to choice for monogramming and redwork embroidery, and are used as underline stitches for stabilizing embroidery. With a little creativity, you can use the running stitch to create a variety of effects, like dashed lines or continuous patterns.

Satin stitch

If the running stitch is the bread and butter, the satin stitch is the icing on the cake! Satin stitches, or column stitches, are closely spaced, parallel stitches that create a smooth, glossy finish – just like a piece of satin fabric. When working with satin stitches, keep in mind that stitch length and density can impact the final look. Stitches wider than half an inch might snag or pucker, while too much density can cause the fabric to stiffen or distort.

One popular use for the satin stitch is in filling smaller areas within a design, such as petals, leaves, or other intricate shapes. The close, parallel stitches create a polished and elegant texture that brings your embroidered elements to life. In addition to filling shapes, the satin stitch is also a favorite choice for creating borders, applique borders and edging. Its lustrous appearance adds a touch of sophistication and flair to the edges of your designs, giving them a clean and refined look.

Lettering and monograms are another area where the satin stitch truly shines. The stitch’s smooth texture lends itself well to forming beautiful, eye-catching letters that stand out against the fabric. The satin stitch can also be employed to create decorative elements like scrolls, swirls, or motifs, adding visual interest and charm to your embroidery projects. By playing with stitch length, density, and direction, you can achieve a range of creative effects that elevate your designs.

Fill stitch

Now let’s talk about the grand artist of embroidery – the fill stitch. The fill stitch is a versatile embroidery stitch designed to cover larger areas within a design. It creates a solid, textured fill that adds depth, dimension, and visual interest to your embroidered pieces.

Fill stitches can be made up of a variety of patterns, which can be geometric, curvilinear, or custom-created motifs. These patterns are formed by the arrangement and direction of individual stitches, which overlap or interlace to create the desired texture. The most common fill stitch type is the tatami stitch, but there are also other types, like crosshatch fill, motif fill, brick fill and others(more on that later). Fill stitches can be uniform or varied, with changes in stitch length, density, and direction, giving you the flexibility to create unique and captivating designs.

Crucial aspect of using fill stitches is considering the stitch direction and stitch density. The direction in which the stitches are laid out can greatly impact the final appearance of the design, creating subtle shading or bold contrasts. By carefully planning the stitch direction, you can add visual depth and a sense of movement to your embroidery. Density refers to how closely the stitches are placed together. Depending on the fabric and design, adjusting the stitch density can prevent puckering or distortion and ensure a clean, professional-looking result.

Underlay is an additional consideration when using fill stitches. Underlay stitches are laid down before the main fill stitches, providing a foundation that helps stabilize the fabric and supports the top stitches. The right underlay can improve the overall appearance and longevity of your embroidery.

Specialty machine embroidery stitches

Bean stitch

The bean stitch is a variation of the running stitch that creates a thicker, more pronounced line. This effect is achieved by stitching back and forth over the same path multiple times, typically three times, forming a pattern that resembles a string of beans or a row of tiny triangles.

The bean stitch begins like a standard running stitch, with the needle entering the fabric and coming up a set distance away. However, instead of continuing forward, the machine then moves the fabric back to the starting point, and the needle re-enters the fabric at the same spot. The process repeats, with the needle coming up again at the same exit point, completing the back-and-forth motion. The stitch then advances forward to the next stitch length, and the process is repeated for the entire length of the bean stitch line.

The bean stitch is popular for creating outlines or adding texture and definition to embroidery designs. It is especially useful when working with thicker threads or fabrics that require a more substantial stitch to stand out. The stitch’s distinct appearance and the added weight it provides make it an excellent choice for projects like quilting, appliqué, or designs that need a bold, graphic element.

Motif stitches

The motif stitch is a creative and versatile option in machine embroidery that allows you to incorporate small, predefined patterns or designs as a fill stitch. These motifs can range from simple geometric shapes to more intricate designs like flowers, leaves, or abstract patterns. By using motif stitches, you can add a personalized touch to your embroidery projects and create unique, eye-catching effects.

In the context of embroidery machines, the motif stitch is programmed into the machine’s memory, either built-in or loaded from an external source. The machine then repeats the selected motif across a designated area to create a continuous fill pattern. The arrangement, size, and density of the motifs can often be adjusted to suit your design needs and preferences.

Motif stitches are particularly useful for adding texture, visual interest, or a customized element to your embroidery designs. They can be used to fill larger areas or combined with other fill stitches to create dynamic, multi-layered effects. With a wide array of available motifs, you can experiment with different styles, themes, and patterns to find the perfect fit for your embroidery projects.

Chain stitch

The chain stitch is a classic embroidery stitch that, despite its age-old roots in hand embroidery, has found a comfortable place in machine embroidery as well. This stitch’s distinct appearance, versatility, and texture make it a favorite among embroiderers.

The chain stitch creates a series of loops that are linked together, resembling the links of a chain, hence the name. Each loop is connected to the next, forming a continuous line that can be straight or curved. This line can be used to create outlines, text, or intricate patterns in your embroidery designs.

When creating a chain stitch, the embroidery machine starts by making a loop of thread on the surface of the fabric. The needle then goes back down through the fabric within that loop and comes up a short distance away, creating another loop. This second loop is caught within the first, linking them together. The process repeats, with each new loop being secured by the previous one, forming a chain-like line.

One of the unique characteristics of the chain stitch is its texture. The looped structure of the stitch creates a slightly raised, textured line on the fabric, which adds dimension and interest to your designs. This texture makes the chain stitch an excellent choice for elements of your design that you want to stand out or give a touch of depth.

In addition to its textural qualities, the chain stitch is also appreciated for its flexibility. It can easily follow curves, making it ideal for outlining complex shapes, creating decorative borders, or forming elegant script letters.

Stipple stitch

The stipple stitch is a machine embroidery technique that’s commonly used to add texture and dimension to an embroidery design or quilt. This stitch creates a continuous, meandering line that doesn’t cross over itself, resulting in a squiggly, “stippled” effect.

Originating from the world of quilting, the stipple stitch is used to sew the layers of a quilt together while adding a beautiful, textured finish. The density of the stippling can be adjusted according to the desired effect; closely spaced stipple stitches create a more pronounced, textured finish, while wider spaced stitches result in a softer, more subtle effect.

In machine embroidery, the stipple stitch can serve several purposes. It can be used as a fill stitch to create a textured background, adding depth and interest to a design. It can also be used to quilt fabric in the hoop, either around an embroidery design to make it pop or over the entire fabric surface for a quilted effect.

Cross stitch

The cross stitch is an age-old technique that has transitioned smoothly into machine embroidery. It’s characterized by two stitches crossing over each other to form an “X”. This stitch can be used to fill larger areas or create intricate designs that resemble pixel art. In machine embroidery, cross stitch designs can be quite detailed and sophisticated, offering a charming nod to this traditional hand embroidery technique.


The backstitch is a simple yet effective stitch, often used for outlining or adding fine detail to embroidery designs. In this stitch, the machine creates a line of stitches that move forward, then backward, overlapping the previous stitch. This results in a solid, continuous line with no gaps, perfect for creating clean, sharp outlines, text, or intricate details.

Zigzag stitch

The zigzag stitch, as the name suggests, moves in a continuous “zigzag” pattern. This versatile stitch can be used in several ways in machine embroidery. It’s often used for finishing edges, creating borders, or adding decorative elements to a design. By adjusting the length and width of the stitch, you can control the density and appearance of the zigzag, making it a highly customizable option.

Jump stitch

In machine embroidery, a jump stitch refers to the long thread that “jumps” or travels from one part of a design to another when the machine moves to a new stitching location without cutting the thread. This creates a single thread span, or “jump,” across the back of the embroidery.

Jump stitches are common in machine embroidery, especially in designs with separate elements or sections that are not directly connected. While these stitches aren’t typically visible on the front of the design, they can make the back of the embroidery look messy.

Most modern embroidery machines automatically trim jump stitches to keep the back of the embroidery neat and tidy. If your machine doesn’t do this, you can manually trim them with a pair of embroidery scissors after the design is complete.

Embroidery Stitches FAQs

Q: How many stitches are there in machine embroidery?

There isn’t a definitive number, as different machines come with various built-in stitch options, and additional designs can often be loaded from external sources. However, there are three basic stitch types in machine embroidery: running, satin, and fill stitches. Beyond these, there are numerous variations and specialty stitches.

Q: What is the best stitch type for embroidery machine?

The “best” stitch type depends on the specifics of your project. Running stitches are great for outlines and details, satin stitches work well for small to medium-sized filled areas or letters, and fill stitches (like the tatami or motif fill) are ideal for large filled areas.

Remember, the best stitch for any given project will depend on the specific requirements of your design, including the type of fabric you’re using, the size and complexity of the design, and the overall look you want to achieve.

Q: What is the strongest embroidery stitch?

The satin stitch is often considered the “strongest” because of its density. However, for seam construction, a triple straight stitch (a variation of the running stitch where the machine goes over each stitch three times) is exceptionally strong.

Q: What is the most popular embroidery stitch?

This can vary based on the project, but the satin stitch is often a favorite due to its versatility and the smooth, glossy finish it gives to designs.

Q: What stitch is best for embroidery words?

For small to medium-sized letters, the satin stitch is typically the best choice as it creates a smooth, clean finish. For very small letters, a running stitch is often used because it’s less dense and provides better clarity.

Q: What types of stitches are used in applique embroidery?

Appliqué embroidery involves applying pieces of fabric to another fabric surface to create a design. There are a few types of stitches commonly used in machine appliqué embroidery:

  • Running Stitch: This stitch is typically used to tack down the appliqué fabric onto the base fabric. The machine first sews a placement line to show where to place the appliqué material, and then it tacks it down with a running stitch.
  • Satin Stitch: After the appliqué material is tacked down, a satin stitch is often used to cover the raw edges of the appliqué. This stitch gives a neat, smooth finish that helps the appliqué stand out.
  • Zigzag Stitch or Blanket Stitch: Alternatively, some embroiderers might use a zigzag stitch or a blanket stitch instead of a satin stitch to finish the edges of the appliqué. These stitches offer a different aesthetic and may be preferred depending on the design or the embroiderer’s style.

And there we have it, folks! We’ve threaded our way through the maze of machine embroidery stitches, from the basic running, satin, and fill stitches, to the versatile zigzag, blanket, and appliqué stitches, and even a leap (or should I say, “jump stitch”) into some specialty stitches. I hope this guide has you itching to get stitching!

Remember, just like in a well-embroidered design, every stitch has its place. Choose the right one, and your project will go from “meh” to “marvelous” faster than your machine can whip out a satin stitch! Don’t be afraid to dive into the wonderful world of machine embroidery stitches.

And hey, if you ever find yourself in a stitch-uation and you’re not sure which stitch to pick, don’t hesitate to reach out. I’m here, needles poised and ready to help you navigate this textile tapestry we love so much. Until then, happy stitching, my friends!