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


Come and See Me

Craft Fairs and Markets

You can buy cross stitch kits and supplies, greetings cards and a range of hand made items such as tote bags and quilted patchwork book covers.

Sheriff Hutton Village Market


Visit their site at to see who else will be there.

Helperby Food Fair and Craft Market

Saturdays 22nd June, 28th September and 23rd November

Northallerton Town Hall

Wednesday 12th June

How to use waste canvas

Here’s a step by step guide to using waste canvas for sewing your cross stitch design onto a garment or any close-weave fabric. I was asked to make a personalised cross stitch Christmas tree ornament for a friend’s baby. Here’s how I did it.

Noah’s Christmas Tree Ornament

Waste canvas is a fabric grid, like aida, which we use to cross stitch onto garments and fabrics which don’t have a clear grid pattern. It is temporary, and is removed after stitching. The fibres are held together by a starchy glue, which softens when wet. When your design is finished, you wet the waste canvas, and pull the threads out one by one.

Here’s what to do…

Gather your materials
Gather your materials

I will be using dark green cotton, 14hpi* waste canvas and an embroidery hoop. You don’t necessarily need to use the hoop, I use one if the work is big enough, I find it makes it easier to handle. Make sure you are using enough waste canvas to cover your design, count up the holes on the chart or measure. Use enough waste canvas to leave at least a one inch/2.5 cm border around the work.

*14hpi refers to the size of the grid pattern, it means there are 14 holes per inch. An inch is around 2.5cm.

Pin the waste canvas to the fabric
Pin and tack the waste fabric to your main fabric. 

If you are cross stitching your design onto a garment you will need to be very careful with positioning, on a piece of fabric like this, it’s less of an issue. However, in both cases you need to be careful to line up your waste canvas with the grain of the fabric. If you don’t, your design may not lay nice and flat, and could look wonky. This is tricky to see from the front of the fabric, generally I put in one careful row of tacking following a line of holes in the waste canvas, then turn the work over to see if it runs along the grain. I sometimes have to do this more than once.

Is it straight? Look at the back. A good reason for using contrasting thread to tack. 

Once I am satisfied it’s straight enough  – and it can take more than one attempt – I go ahead and complete the tacking, making sure to cover the whole area. I usually start with the diagonals.

Once the tacking’s done, I put it in the hoop. 

Now I am ready to sew. I have used quite a lot more waste canvas than I need for my design, partly because I tend to over estimate to “be on the safe side”, and partly so that it’s big enough for the corners to be caught down by the hoop.

While sewing take care not to split the waste canvas threads with your needle. Split and trapped threads will be really hard to pull out later. The same goes for your tacking stitches. For this reason I really keep half stitches to a minimum when I am creating my design. I find it very hard to create a neat half stitch using waste canvas. When sewing using waste canvas I use a sharp hand-sewing needle, and not the size 26 tapestry needle I normally use for cross stitch.

fast forward to…

The stitching is done

I wasn’t kidding when I said I used too much waste canvas! You really don’t need to use this much.

The next thing to do is trim away the excess, and wet the waste canvas. You can do this by simply running your work under a cold tap, or by immersing it in clean, cold water. If you are stitching onto a garment you can keep most of it dry by just holding the part you are working on under the tap.

Waste canvas wetted and ready to be removed

Give it a few moments for the starchy glue to melt and then pull the threads out one by one with a pair of tweezers. When there is a lot of stitching this can be tricky – pull firmly but slowly, and hold your fabric down flat with the other hand to stop it stretching and warping as you pull.

Use a firm, gentle pulling action

Some time and lots of careful tweezer action later…

All threads pulled
All waste canvas pulled out, ready to be pressed and made into a Christmas tree ornament

And here’s the finished ornament


Have a look in my web-shop for PDF cross stitch charts to download, and stitch them wherever you like! 



Getting Started with Cross Stitch

Things you need


Cross stitch is made using fabric with a very regular weave pattern, which makes neat, even stitches easy to create. The most commonly used fabric is called aida. It’s the fabric I always use, and is the one shown in the photos and videos on this site. My charts are designed to be stitched on aida, and if you buy a kit from me at a craft fair it will contain a piece of aida.

Aida looks like this:

fullsizeoutput_6bd.jpegAida comes in different gauges, which refers to how far apart the holes are. This is called “thread count”, or “holes per inch”, and is often abbreviated to “hpi”. (See note below about metric vs imperial measurements). As you can see from the photo, it comes in different colours.

I work mainly on 14 count aida, and the photographs on this site are all of work done on 14 mount aida.


I use DMC or Anchor Stranded Cotton . This comes in 8 metre skeins like these:

fullsizeoutput_6b5.jpeg…which I keep spooled onto bobbins like these, making sure I label them:

fullsizeoutput_6ac.jpegI have accumulated quite a stash of threads over the years. When I decided to start selling designs, I made the decision to go with DMC rather than Anchor threads. I chose DMC because that’s what I had more of, and my favourite craft shop stocks them. Anchor are just as good and they are pretty much interchangeable. It is possible to find a DMC/Anchor conversion chart online. I do stress that it is important to use good quality threads in your work, the colours have depth and are consistent, and the threads have a good sheen.

DMC’s standard range of stranded cotton has 500 colours, and there are several smaller, special ranges such as Light Effects (metallic) and the new Étoile (sparkly). The thread consists of six strands. My designs are stitched using two strands for standard cross stitches, and one for the backstitches used for outlining.

Threading the needle and making a start

I use a size 26 tapestry needle. This has a blunt end, which helps to avoid snagging threads, especially when you are working several stitches close together. This is particularly important when you have stitches of different colours next to each other. I do sometimes use a sharp sewing needle when I have a lot of half stitches to do – more about that later.

The first thing to do is cut a length of thread from the bobbin. 18 inches/45 cm is a good length. Next, separate out one thread. Do this slowly and gently, to avoid a tangle. Then bring the two ends of your thread together, and thread both through the eye of your needle. You will have a loop of thread on your needle like this:


Decide where you want to place your first stitch. Most designs will indicate the middle stitch for you, but if not count across and draw a faint ruler line down the middle, then count down the side and do the same. Where those two lines cross is your middle stitch. Once you have identified that, you can count from that to where you have decided to start your piece. I suggest stitching any blocks of pale colour first. This will keep the edges of those areas cleaner, because when you make a pale stitch next to a dark stitch, pulling the needle up through the hole between them might pull a fibre or two of the darker thread through, which can make the edge a little fuzzy.

To start your first stitch neatly, bring your needle from back to front through the hole at the bottom left corner of your chosen site, pull the thread through, leaving a tail behind. Then push your needle from front to back through the hole at the top right corner, creating a diagonal stitch. Be careful not to pull the thread all the way though. Now turn your work over, and put the needle through the loop at the end of your thread. Now gently pull until your stitch lies flat and neat against the fabric, without pulling holes out of shape. Watch this video to see that in action. (You’ll need to click the “back” button on your browser when it’s finished to come back here.)

Watch this short video

Forming cross stitches

(See the previous section for the first part of the stitch). If you are sewing just one stitch, go ahead and form the other diagonal of the cross stitch by bringing your needle up through the bottom right hole, and back down through the top left hole. You now have one cross stitch. Throughout your work, always form your crosses in the same direction, i.e. the top diagonal will always go from bottom right to top left, . This keeps your work neat and tidy, and, when you have blocks or areas of stitches together, you will have a regular finish, and you will be able to see the sheen on the thread.

If you have a block or patch of the same colour to stitch, start at the top left hand corner of the area and form the stitches in two parts. Go from left to right along a row, forming the first diagonal of each stitch (bottom left to top right), and then come back along the row, forming the second diagonal of each stitch (bottom right to top left). Then go down to the next row and so the same thing. Watch this video to see this in action. (You’ll need to click the “back” button on your browser when it’s finished to come back here.)

Watch this short video

It’s important to mention the tension of your work at this point. You need to pull the thread through snug enough so your stitches lie flat and even, but not so taut that it distorts. Remember, snug, not taut.

Finishing off your thread

When your thread runs out, or when you’ve finished with a particular colour, here’s how you finish it off: after forming your last stitch, run your needle gently through the back of a few stitches and then again back the other way, taking care to do this with a light touch in order not to pull any stitches. Pull your needle away and snip the thread off as close to the back of the work as you can. You want to avoid leaving a little dangly bit, which could be visible from the right side of the work. Watch this video to see this in action. (You’ll need to click the “back” button on your browser when it’s finished to come back here.)

Three-quarter stitches

Some designs call for three-quarter stitches. These are triangular in shape, and make the edges of shapes look smoother and less blocky. To form a three-quarter stitch, start the same way as you would for a standard cross stitch, with a diagonal stitch as in picture 1. Then insert the needle into the middle of the square, making sure your needle goes through the fabric on the far side of the stitch you’ve just made (picture 2), so that when you pull the thread through, it covers the diagonal stitch and catches it down, but does not pierce it (picture 3).  You may find it easier to use a sharp needle when making these stitches, and not a tapestry needle, as you need to pierce the fabric rather than just push the needle through a ready-made hole as for an ordinary cross stitch.

three quarter stitch

Watch this short video


The other main stitch used in cross stitch projects is back stitch. If you are familiar with backstitch in the context of hand sewing, this is exactly the same stitch, just using the holes as a guide. In cross stitch it is used largely for outlining, but also for small details. As backstitch is almost always done using a single thread, you can’t start off in the same way as for a cross stitch. You can run your needle under the back of a few nearby stitches  a couple of times in order to secure your thread in a similar way to how you would finish off ( see above). Alternatively, you can leave a small tail of thread behind your work and catch it down behind your first few stitches as you go. You will need to use this second method if you are starting your backstitches away from any convenient blocks of stitching.

Things to avoid

Try not to carry your thread across the back of an area which will not be stitched, as it may be visible from the right side. If you have two different areas of the same colour to do, it’s better to stop and start again, unless they are quite close together, and the area between is going to have stitches which will hide it. If you carry the thread a long way across the back of the fabric without catching it down, be careful not to pull it too tight as it will distort your work. If you don’t pull it tight enough, the last stitch you made will quickly start to look loose.

Metric and imperial measurements – keeping it old school

Cross stitch, like patchwork, is a world which still operates largely in imperial measurements – that’s feet and inches. This is most probably because cross stitch and patchwork are very popular in the US, where the imperial system is used. Although you will buy a metre of aida here in the UK rather than a yard, the gauge is still measured in holes per inch. An inch is around 2.5cm.