Using backstitch for outlining and adding detail in cross stitch

This article looks at using backstitch for outlining, and for adding details in cross stitch. In it I discuss the different effects you can gain by using it, or even by not using it, with plenty of illustrations along the way.

Right at the bottom of this article, you’ll find a brief description of how to form backstitch, with a couple of photos.  Click here to watch a 15 minute “how to” tutorial on my YouTube Channel.

One last thing before we get going – you can buy all the cross stitch materials you need, from charts and fabrics to the full range of DMC stranded embroidery threads and ready-made kits in my web shop, see the menu to the right, or click here.

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 chart of him here

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’s a chart with six versions of him on in the web shop, click here

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. You can buy this flower as a kit in pink here, and in orangey tones here.


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.

P.S. How to sew backstitch

If you are familiar with backstitch in the context of hand sewing, this is exactly the same stitch, just using the holes in the aida fabric as a guide. It’s called backstitch, because of the way the stitches are formed. In the pictures below, the line of stitches is being formed going towards the right, but the part of the stitch visible from the front of the fabric is made “backwards”, from right to left.

In cross stitch this stitch is used largely for outlining, but also for small details and lettering. As backstitch is almost always done using a single thread, you can’t start off in the same way as for a cross stitch (as described in the “Getting Started with Cross Stitch” post.) Instead, 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. 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.

Bring your needle up one space to the right, and then push your needle back through the hole on the left. Then repeat this sequence, moving one space to the right each time.

4 thoughts on “Using backstitch for outlining and adding detail in cross stitch”

  1. Thanks for the different examples of the same design! This is super helpful in trying to decide how to outline. I’ve been working on a cow…even on green fabric, it’s still blending in to the background. I’ve been messing around with ivory/ecru outlines to be more subtle but seeing your strong black outlines has convinced me to go that direction!

    1. I’m glad you’ve found it helpful, thank you for your comment. I’d love to see your final design! 🙂

  2. When backstitching between two colors and there are two different colors for both colors, which color trumps. Say outlining a branch which is up against a flower. Between the branch and the flower do u use the backstitching color of the branch or the back stitching color of the flower? Hope I am describing it so u understand. Thank u for any help you can give me.

    1. Hi Jane, it’s a good question. I think I would say it can depends on a couple of things. Firstly, is there a clear background and foreground in your image? The item in the foreground should be fully outlined in its own colours. If they are side by side and have equal prominence, it’s a trickier decision. Do you want someone looking at the piece to pay more attention to the flower or the branch? In most cases, probably the flower. In that case outline the flower fully. If it’s not as clear as that I would probably give prominence to the stronger coloured item, so the brighter of two colours, for example.

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