Using backstitch for outlining and adding detail in cross stitch

This post looks at using backstitch for outlining, and for adding details in cross stitch.

Outlining with Backstitch

Many cross stitch charts instruct us to use backstitch in our work. When cross stitching images, the style of outlining you choose depends on the effect you want to create.


This is Penny.  Apart from the arms, these three pictures of her are identical, but with different outlining styles. The outlining changes her appearance quite dramatically. I asked in a Facebook post which one people preferred.

Picture One

Here, each element of the picture is outlined in a darker shade of the colour of the element itself. The pale blue hair is outlined with a darker blue, the orange skirt is outlined with a darker orange, and so on. The exceptions are the face, because the hair and jumper are already outlined, and the eyes. I have used the same colour for the eyes and the outline of the eyes.

This style of outlining gives subtle definition to the work. You can see that Penny’s arms are behind her top, and she stands out well from the background. I use this style of outlining mostly with larger, more detailed designs which have several different elements.

30% of responses to my Facebook poll said they liked picture one. One person said: “I guess it would depend on the piece. Picture two if I want it to stand out or if there’s a simple one-figure focus; picture one if there’s more going on in the finished work.” Another said “I prefer picture one. My mum always taught me to do as in picture 2”. I like that comment, it reminds me that we should not necessarily always do what we’ve been taught, it’s OK to break away and try something new!

Picture Two

In this picture all the elements are outlined in black. You can clearly see all aspects of Penny, she sticks out crisply from the background, and all her details are clear. You could say this gives a cartoony look to the work. I use this style of outlining with smaller designs, for example greetings cards, where clarity and impact are important. Like the person in the comment above, this is what I was taught to do.

70% of responses to my Facebook poll said they liked picture two.

Picture Three

This picture has no outlining at all. Without it, an image like this one is unclear and even a little fuzzy. In some designs, this might be the effect you want to achieve. No one picked this picture in my Facebook poll. Let’s never mention her again.

To sum up the 1, 2 or 3 question…

It’s clear we definitely need some form of outline in cross stitch work like this, but when it comes down to it, it’s up to you whether you go for the subtle effect of picture one, or the more “popping” effect of black, as in picture two. 8% of those who answered actually said they liked both one and two. (For those who’ve spotted that adds up to 108, I included those votes in the totals).

My cousin said this in response to the Facebook poll: “That’s funny, as I’ve just finished a cross stitch of Peter Rabbit for my daughter.  I wasn’t sure whether to do the outlining, but I did it and found it quite difficult but I think it looks better with it. Out of the three I prefer option one.” 

Using backstitch for detail

These three pictures show our cute puppy first with no backstitch at all, then with added backstitch detail (eyebrows, muzzle, leg definition) and finally with all the individual elements outlined with backstitch, including the nose and eyes. Again, the choice is yours for the effect you want to achieve.

I like the last picture best. Because this design was created with beginners in mind, it uses cross stitch and backstitch only. There are no three-quarter stitches. This makes the edges of the design blocky and square. (If you don’t know about three-quarter stitches, they allow you to have a diagonally sloping edge, as they are triangular; they can be tricky for a beginner, though.) The black outline definitely accentuates the blockiness. Maybe a more subtle approach like Penny 1 above would be preferable. Having said that, it’s clearly not meant to be a realistic depiction of a dog, so I can live with the blocky edges happily. Again, it all comes down to preference.

If you like this doggy you can stitch him for yourself, there’s a link to the shop at the end of the post.

But then… maybe we don’t want to use backstitch at all

All three designs above use cross stitch only. There is no backstitch at all. I didn’t feel it was necessary, and it would accentuate the edges, which I feel would be detrimental. The cat was designed with a specific person in mind, a young lady of 10, who’s ready for her second project. If you like him, there are six versions of him on my site, links below.

I was in two minds about the elephant though. I finally decided he does need the outline, so the kits I’ve made include black thread, but the final choice is down to the individual. Looking at this again now, maybe a red outline instead of black…

And finally, my lovely, simple lotus. No outlining around the outside of the flower, but can you see where the backstitches are? I have used the darkest of the three pinks just to define the edges of the petals within the flower. This saved the pinks from running into each other.


In Conclusion

I hope you’ve found my thoughts on using backstitch in your work interesting and useful. My conclusion is that it’s up to you! Obviously there are times when a design just isn’t clear without it, but you can decide on your own style, and sometimes you might decide to use none at all. I’d love to read your comments and feedback. My next post will look at three-quarter stitches – do we need this evil in our lives? Probably, but let’s talk about that another time.

Have a go yourself

Most of the designs above are available to buy as kits on my site, some are also available as downloadable PDF charts. Here’s a link to the shop, have a look! If the design you want isn’t there yet, it will be soon. If you can’t wait, let me know, and I’ll get on with it.

Click here for the shop


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