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Design for pattern darning

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Design for pattern darning
Christian de Holacombe
Filum Aureum, Fall 2006

Since pattern darning isn’t as well known as some other techniques, there aren’t a lot of published patterns for it.

Fortunately, a lot of historical crossstitch and other “squared” patterns can be used for pattern darning. Some types work much better than others, and sometimes it requires a bit of thought to see how to adapt a pattern for better results.

Patterns worked in one color are by far the easiest. In pattern darning, when there are two or three squares the same color next to each other, you will want to take just one stitch across the whole width. Look for patterns that don’t have a long horizontal or vertical “run” of stitches in the same color. More than five or six squares of the same color in a row means taking a long stitch or “float” that may be long enough to snarl, catch on things or otherwise become a nuisance, depending on the purpose of the object you’re embroidering and what kind of wear and tear it will get.Friction between the thread and the holes in the cloth is also what holds the stitches of pattern darning in place, so patterns with long floats, where the thread passes fewer times through the fabric, may also be more difficult to stitch with a smooth and even tension.

Since pattern darning often has substantial amounts of thread both on the front of the fabric and on the back, you also have to look at the background (uncolored) squares of the pattern in the same way: more than five or six uncolored squares together can mean a long float on the back. If the piece you are embroidering is reversible or unlined — the border on a napkin, for instance — the back may be as subject to snags as the front.

In looking for potential patterns, remember that pattern darning can be worked either horizontally or vertically. A pattern that has too many dark squares in a row one way can sometimes be worked quite nicely without long floats if it’s worked in the other direction.


For instance, this pattern has several long floats in every repeat if worked horizontally, as shown in the left picture by the long black and gray rectangles. But if it’s worked vertically (right picture) the longest float is only five squares.

Some patterns become much more workable with really minor changes. A diamond-shaped motif that is too wide, for instance, can be interrupted in the middle with a single dot of the reverse color, turning one stitch that would be too long into two shorter stitches with a short gap between.

Here, for instance, is a pattern that would not work well for reversible pattern darning, due to several long floats on the back:

But just by filling it in a bit at the top and bottom, it becomes much more workable:


backsidePattern darning can look just as good on the back of the fabric as it does on the front, although usually it won’t look the same on both sides. If you want your piece to be reversible, this means taking extra care with your beginnings and endings.

Sometimes you will be able to hide the ends of your threads in seams or hems. One typical use for pattern darning is to imitate the bands of woven-in designs that appear on Italian “Perugia” towels. This kind of pattern darning is worked all the way across the towel from edge to edge. You can start a new thread at one side, work across, and cut the thread at the other side; when you hem the towel later, the ends of your design threads will be caught in the hems.

Other patterns, such as some of the Arabic “medallion” motifs, are worked as self-contained spots, or as vertical bands in the center of your fabric. Here you have to find a way to hide the ends under the stitching. A trick that’s sometimes used in reversible blackwork (double running stitch) is to secure the end of the thread by taking three or four tiny running stitches hidden underneath a longer stitch. In areas of dense stitching, you can also run the end of your thread crosswise under and through several adjacent design threads and cut the end. Both of these techniques are useful too if you run out of thread and have to start a new one before you get to the end of a row or a logical stopping place.


From left to right: a squared diagram, a sketch of how that diagram can be interpreted in pattern darning,
and an example of finished stitching by Sabrina de la Bere.

When you’re working back and forth on a motif, it’s helpful to take some thought for how to manage the turns at the end of each row. The least attractive and least durable type of turn is to go down through the fabric and up again a single thread away; this tends to pull out. Patterns with diagonal, zigzag or irregular edges on the sides where the turns will be are much easier to work back and forth, because the end always passes under at least two threads between the end of one row and the beginning of the next.

It’s also important not to pull the thread too tightly when starting a new row. If you look at some of the historical pieces, you can see a row of tiny loops at the ends of the rows where the thread was left just a bit loose at the turns.

“Impossible” patterns can sometimes be made possible by taking a backstitch here and there rather than a straight running stitch: the back of the fabric will not be a perfect reverse of the front in this case, but it’s a useful trick to know. And a straight vertical edge can actually be worked with a little creative cheating: simply work every other row of the pattern, so that your thread passes under two or more threads at each edge. Then go back and work the rows in between. The only place the difference will show at all is on the straight edges, and then only if someone has their nose right up against your embroidery.

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