We’ve all read about two stitches that are most commonly used in linear styles of counted stitching. 

First comes double running stitch (aka Holbein stitch, Spanish stitch, and punto scritto, among others).  Pretty straightforward and well known, it can be used with care to produce works that are absolutely identical front and back, although meticulous double-sided implementation isn’t mandatory unless there’s specific need. 

double-runningDouble Running.
Front and back are identical


Back stitch is the other big technique used for linear counted work, with lots of historical examples.  If anything its even more well known than double running.  Its appearance is different front and back.  On the front, it looks exactly like double running.  But on the back, a much heaver and thicker line is produced.  Depending on the care of the stitcher and the thickness of the thread it can look like outline or stem stitch if the needle is introduced (uniformly) above or below the previous stitch on the reverse; or even chain or split stitch, if the needle splits the previous stitch on the reverse.



Back Stitch.
Looks the same as double running on the front (top), but different on the reverse.

Now, why would one pick one technique over the other? 

Sometimes it’s a good thing to try to economize on thread use.  Back Stitch uses about a third again as much yardage per distance embroidered than does Double Running.  Therefore, if I wanted to conserve thread I might opt for Double Running over Back.  Double Running is also the stitch of choice if double-sided presentation is a necessity, or if the fabric is so sheer that the heavier reverse side of Back Stitch might show. 

On the other hand, Back Stitch can be much easier to work, especially on long runs that can befuddle even those familiar with the there-and-back-again logic of Double Running.  In Back Stitch, there is no retracing of the path to fill in every other stitch.  Work proceeds logically down a single path.  Branches mean starting a new thread, rather than departing from a baseline and working back to it.  Many people prefer the “I’m here” certainty of Back Stitch to the puzzle path approach of Double Running.

So I present this stitch hack – one known to just about every counted stitcher, although few would admit using it openly.  I will arbitrarily call it “Wandering Running Stitch.”  I am sure this is an “unvention,” and I’ve just promulgating something that’s already described under another name.  For example, I would not be surprised to see this documented as a technique for quickly stitching durable seams in plain sewing. 

Both a bit of heresy, and a chimera of sorts, Wandering Running Stitch neither plain Double Running, nor is it true Back Stitch.  Advantages are that it looks like Double Running on the public side of the work; uses the same amount of thread as Double Running; and avoids now-how-do-I-go-back problem.  It’s main disadvantage is that like Back Stitch, the reverse side looks different from the front.  In this case, the reverse shows a discontinuous, dashed line of double-thickness. The overall effect is a bit heavier on the reverse than is plain Double Running, but is not as massive as Back Stitch. 


wanderingWandering Running Stitch
Looks like double running on the front, but leaves spaced, doubled dashes on the reverse. 



All three methods, for comparison.  Front sides on left, reverse on right. 
From top down – Double Running, Back Stitch, Wandering Running

The following sequence illustrates the stitching order.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Now.  How to use this hack. 

First off, it’s not for reversible work.  Nor is it for use on pieces sent to juried panels, where rules favor the use of traditional/historical stitches, and the state of the back side.  There is NO precedent for or documentation of using this stitch in history that I know of, so I would not advise it for SCA pieces destined for Arts & Sciences competitions.  However, for single sided work, or lined pieces, or items done for your own pleasure, or a project to help you get into the swim of a style that has frustrated you in the past – why not use an unorthodox approach if it makes life easier?

Because the active area is always at the needle with no half-worked baseline to retrace, Wandering Running would be especially good for stepped or continuous line patterns with no branching.  It would be very useful to people who stitch in hand without a hoop or frame, and also for those who use a particularly small or round frame.  In both cases, there’s no moving back over previously stitched paths, making it easier to tension in hand; or minimizing the need to remove and relocate a small hoop to revisit prior paths.

I think Wandering Running will be especially useful for people who have given up on blackwork because they find double running logic daunting, and have problems remembering where the baseline of their design is, or what direction they were heading.  I also think that people who have tried Back Stitch instead of Double Running, but who were displeased with the heft or thickness of the reverse side might also find this technique interesting. 

Another use is in completing the filling patterns used in inhabited blackwork, which are often not entirely suitable for full reversible treatment in the first place.  I occasionally resort to Wandering when I’m working a filling into an oddly shaped area, and need to advance the working thread.  I will plan out my path of attack and use Wandering to “walk” my working thread to the new area to be completed rather than ending off the thread and re-starting in that location. 

In addition to the uses above, Wandering Running can be employed to render complex linear designs, in combo with more traditional Double Running.  I can see using Wandering on the main baseline, moving along it until one encounters a side branch, then veering off to complete that side branch using traditional double-running methods, and returning to the baseline to continue on to the next point of departure.  The biggest difference between this and a full Double Running treatment of the same design would be no “dashed line” of semi-completion along the baseline, making it easier to see where along the design path one is. 

So.  Have you seen this hack before?  Does it have a name?  Does it have a place in your repertoire, or does the merest thought of such heresy inflame you to the point of whipping out your Embroidery Voodoo Dolls* and using poison-tipped #24 tapestry needles to condemn me to my fate?


[*If demand is sufficient, I will consider sharing a design for Embroidery Voodoo Dolls.  Suggestions for appropriate historical periods of attire for EVDs will be considered.]

21 responses

  1. I, too, have committed heresy with this cheat. Shhhh! Don’t tell anyone, k?

  2. Elaine Cochrane | Reply

    I unvented this the first time I tried to outline cross-stitch, but it gave me an uneven, lumpy line because I pulled the back-stitch part too tight. I now mostly use double-running, after learning from you or one of the other generous SCA people how to zigzag my double-running to make the line straight.

  3. Please share. Sue

  4. Angel Shoemaker | Reply

    Thank you, what fun. Looking forward to the suggested EVD pattern idea.

  5. Thank you for this post! No I never saw this way of doing things documented. I found out how to do it on my own and always wondered why no one is telling us about this method. I’m using it whenever I do not want to do proper double running stitch. I haven’t done much blackwork but I use the stitch for lettering or lines in cross stitch patterns. I don’t really like the back side of back stitch, it can get quite messy if you don’t really pay attention on how you insert the needle.

  6. Ha! I’ve done it too. When I’m leaving an area and still have enough thread to continue onto the next part, the Holbein st. would leave me stuck away from the new area so I call this stitch the “escape stitch”.
    By the way I’m surprised that the true Holbein st. is never correctly explained. It’s a lot more subtle than just doing the same thing back and forth. I really enjoy tugging delicately on the return thread to make the stitches form a continuous line, especially in curves. A bumpy line, straight or curved, is the thing to avoid at all costs yet I’ve never seen the correct stitch explained except in Mary Thomas’s Embroidery Book.

  7. I have used this technique for years, and used to prefer it to either back stitch or double-running stitch. But I have found that, for long stretches of straight stitches, you can see the difference between the forward stitch and the back stitch – one pops up, and the other lies flat, so that the line of stitches looks almost like cobble stones, not very even. That said, I do think it’s tidier than double running stitch on the surface, and neater than back stitch on the back, so I use it from time to time.

    1. I am not seeing as much high-and-low in finished appearance. I take special pains to stab perpendicular to the fabric, and I use a blunt-tip needle for both double running and “wandering running.” Everyone stitches slightly differently, so I do see how a difference between the back-again and out-bound stitches can develop, though.

  8. I have used this stitch after being shown by my first blackwork tutor. She refers to it as Running Backstitch

  9. I used this (I call it “half-back stitch” throughout the Neverending Altar Vestments, and most other designs. For me it’s a lot faster than Holbein when Hobein isn’t “necessary”, and uses less silk than backstitch, and it’s much easier to keep my place in the pattern.

    1. Yup! It’s one of the sneaky little tricks that anyone who has done a big (single sided) piece has used, but that few people talk about. Glad to know that you use it, too!

  10. […] double running, with short hops in “Heresy Stitch”. But I’m not being slavish about the double-sided/double running protocol.  I am using […]

  11. […] to determine baselines and stitching order (read from bottom up).  I also confess to abject heresy if my pathing needs the jump and the final presentation form allows […]

  12. This solution was presented to me in an EGA Embroidery Group Correspondence course (under a different name). It’s great for a lot of fill patterns that aren’t always reversible per se. For a traditional pattern meant to be reversible, I would use double running, but the wandering option is perfect for leaving a relatively clean back in a lot of cases even if it doesn’t quite match.

  13. […] using double-running, with occasional short hops in “heresy stitch” to avoid getting caught in a dead-end.  Once I’m done the back of this piece will not be […]

  14. […] will note that I am using Heresy Stitch for the baseline of my frilly plumed border, rather than sticking to strict double running.  […]

  15. […] the center of your chosen pattern, and start from there. Double running or back stitch – even heresy stitch – it doesn’t matter. Start in the center and work your way out. You can choose to work […]

  16. […] intended to be seen on both sides. There are lots of knots. And you can see that I’ve used heresy stitch in laying down my initial border outlines, and in advancing the border in general. The short length […]

  17. […] Blackwork Heresy. Back stitch, double running, and the hybrid that floats between them, which I nicknamed “Heresy Stitch.” Useful but not something I’ve documented in historical works. Can be easier for people who get lost when working double running, and saves thread when compared to back stitch. […]

  18. I used this stitch 70 years ago in 6th-grade home economics as the combination stitch to sew together the aprons we would wear when we were allowed to actually learn cooking basics.

    1. I certainly am not claiming to have invented it, only to have stumbled across it while stitching. I’ve never seen it described in “orthodox” blackwork technique descriptions which focus on double running and back stitching. But I find it to be a useful tool for advancing the thread, especially when working fills in small spaces. Since I usually begin those in the center so that the design is neatly aligned in my chosen spot, I often have to circle around that center bit of stitching, and Heresy Stitch lets me do so more easily, without excess stranding on the back, or lots of stops and starts with their associated ends to deal with.

Leave a Reply to Elaine Cochrane Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: