Shading with split stitch

This is one of a series of ‘hints and tips’ articles from Ruth O’Leary. View some of Ruth’s work in the Gallery.

Split stitch is a surprisingly versatile stitch with a long history. It was used extensively in medieval English Opus Anglicanum work to create the subtle shading of faces and hands, for example, and can be used to create detailed miniature landscapes.

It’s usually worked quite small, and can be used in areas where long and short stitch or satin stitch might otherwise be used but where more detail is required. It gets its name from the second stitch splitting the first.

Split stitch


To sew split stitch:

  • Using two strands of thread, work one small stitch, as though it were a running stitch
  • Bring the needle up through the centre of the first stitch, between the two strands
  • Put the needle back through the fabric to create a second stitch of similar length to the first.
  • This can be used to either form a single line resembling a very fine chain stitch, or in a block, covering an area of fabric.

Materials and equipment


When working on a project using split stitch you will need:

  • A general sewing kit (needles, scissors, etc)
  • A sewing hoop or frame large enough for the entire design to fit in comfortably
  • Plain background fabric such as calico or linen, large enough to fit into the hoop or frame
  • Fine embroidery threads, such as stranded cotton.

Getting started


A design for a landscape, for instance, can be based on a photograph. Trace the outlines of blocks of colour, such as trees, a hillside, parts of a building, etc; keep the original drawing or photo with you as a guide to the colours to use in your project.

Once you’ve finalised your design:

  • Using dressmaker’s carbon paper or other method, trace your design onto your fabric.
  • Put the fabric with the design on into your hoop or frame, making sure it’s taut.
  • Choosing a suitable dark shade, outline hard edges (e.g. the horizon, building outlines) in back stitch. You should use just one strand of your stranded cotton.
  • Using two strands, fill in sky, grass, etc. using closely worked split stitch. This should follow the contours of hills, buildings etc. You should aim to cover the whole fabric.
  • Again using two strands, work trees in French knots. Other vegetation can be worked in French knots or free long and short stitch. Rocks, shingle, etc can also be worked in French knots.

Split stitch shading hints


To get a seamless shaded effect, several colours very close to each other are needed. The more colours you can use in the space available, the better the effect.

Starting with your first colour, fill in as much of the design as required with closely-worked split stitch.

To shade into the next colour, take one strand of your first colour, and one strand of your second colour. Continue to fill in the design, using the two colours together.

Finally, using two strands of your second colour, continue to fill in the design.

Combinations of colours can also be used for the French knots and long and short stitch.

Find out more


If you’re interested in finding out more about Ruth’s work or would like to discuss commissioning a piece of unique textile art, please get in touch.