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Smooth as Silk: Split Stitch Embroidery

Smooth as Silk: Split Stitch Embroidery published on No Comments on Smooth as Silk: Split Stitch Embroidery

Smooth as silk: Split stitch Embroidery
— Mistress Isela di Bari, Guild Patron

It is a simple stitch, yet has enriched the noblest of medieval embroideries. It is an easy stitch to learn, yet difficult to master. It is one stitch of many used by modern embroiderers, yet enjoys a long history spanning centuries, countries, and cultures. The versatile split stitch is an excellent choice for outlining, completely filling, shading, or delineating detail within a period design.

split stitch diagramSplit stitch technique

To execute this stitch, bring the needle up through the fabric (A) and then back down through the fabric (B) no more than 1/8 in. away. Then bring the needle up (C) and actually split the thread halfway or 1/3 of the way between points (A) and (B).

Opus Anglicanum -- split, chain, and stem stitchesUsing tinier stitches creates a smoother appearance, especially when you get into shading and contouring. Larger stitches or looser tension offer an effect more similar to chain stitch. When skillfully executed with a single strand of thread in a very compact manner to fill a motif, it is quite com-mon to be confused about whether you are looking at split, chain, or stem stitch. These stitches were easily interchanged when doing faces, hands and hair in embroideries such as the French aumoniers (alms pouches) of the mid-1300’s.

Although easy to learn, really master-ing split stitch takes practice. It is time consuming and requires total concentration and patience. Here are some of the fine points to making a beautiful split stitch.
• Make all the stitches of uniform length except around curves, where shorter stitches are recommended.
•Use equal tension to prevent pucker-ing and enhance smoothness.
• Work adjacent rows close enough that they almost overlap and the ground fabric does not show.
• Split the thread at equal lengths.
• Work towards producing a smooth, uniform appearance.
• Establish direction to how stitches are placed so they properly flow.

When filling a design with parallel rows of stitching, I tend to stitch back and forth to save time. However, author and embroiderer Jane Zimmerman advises that working the split stitch always in one direction produces a more smooth and uniform appearance.


Contemporary embroiderers will tell you that you can use two strands of thread and then just split between them. However, for us “period” needleworkers, a single strand of thread is preferred.

Historically, such stitches would have been most likely executed in fine, untwisted silk thread. Modern threads that can be used include the higher-sheen threads of Kreinik’s Ping Ling (now difficult to find in the U.S.), Eterna silk floss, Japanese flat silk, and Madeira’s silk floss, or the lesser-sheen threads such as Kreinik’s Silk Mori, Kreinik’s Soie d’Alger, and Silk Splendor.

I find that these less shiny types of threads do not produce the fineness, sheen, nor smoothness of the higher-sheen types. The single strands of Splendor are also thicker than the others; they produce a heavier effect in overall appearance. The most difficult of these threads to use is the Japanese flat silk, which easily snags and is best worked with a “laying tool”. Other threads you may wish to experiment with, which I have not tried, include Zwicky floss and Pearsall’s filoselle floss.

Suggested fabrics for executing split stitch include a densely woven linen, silk satin and twilled silk. I also tend to use a lightweight, densely woven piece of linen as a second layer under the ground fabric, which seems to produce a smoother, uniform effect for the silk threads as they are laid. If you’re using a second layer, baste the top fabric to it. Keeping uniform tension and not pulling the stitches too tightly is very important. For velvet or any fabric with a thicker nap, it is best to do the split stitch embroidery first on another fabric such as linen or silk, and then appliqué the finished piece onto the velvet.


Using an embroidery frame is a key factor in the execution of split stitch. When the fabric is pulled taut and tension of the stitches is even but not stressed, there is less chance of the dreaded “puckering” of your ground fabric. I find that I can get better tension when using a frame rather than a hoop. My fabric seems to remain in a more taut position. But this is debatable among embroiderers.

Also debatable is the use of a “laying tool” when doing split stitch. I would definitely recommend it if you were using the Japanese flat silk or doing satin stitches with Kreinik’s Soie Platte thread, but I have not tried it with other silk threads when doing split stitch. Using a “laying tool” (on the Japanese Embroidery Center website) helps lay the thread smoothly and enhances the sheen of the thread.

Due to the fineness of the silk threads and the tininess of the split stitches taken, I prefer using quilting needles (sizes 8 or 10) because the eye is smaller and holds some of the slicker silk threads better. Zimmerman suggests a “round eye” embroidery needle (sizes 7-10) and argues that this type of needle makes a large enough hole in the example, see the “astonished apostles” detail from an altar front from the Passion of Christ series (on this issue’s cover, in Me-dieval Craftsmen: Embroiderers), or see the St. Florian’s website, St_florians/embroidery/opus.htm.

Uses of split stitch


Use split stitch to indicate bold contrasts, as in the striped hair of Opus Anglicanum and Byzantine embroideries. For example, see the “astonished apostles” detail or the St. Florian’s websiteme.


Split stitch can effectively indicate the contours of facial features by using directional stitches and slight shading. Zimmerman says she can’t emphasize enough the importance of establishing the direction of how the stitches are placed in a motif when using silk embroidery. I find this to especially be true about split stitch. There’s an example of directional flow on the face and throat of the Archangel Gabriel from the cope of Pius II at Pienza (on the St. Florian’s website). Note that the split stitch was done so tightly and finely in creating the spiraled cheeks and chin dimple that it caused an indentation in the fabric. This indentation remains in the fabric even after the silk threads have disintegrated.


Use split stitch to indicate the direction and folds of drapery by using a directional flow of stitches and gradation of colors or shading as indicated in my first Opus Anglicanum piece (p.2), inspired by the John of Thanet panel. You can see an excellent photo of this shading technique on the St. Florian’s website, specifically in the article written by Lady Acacia d’Navarre on Opus Anglicanum.split stitch gives “painted” effect to boar

Usually split stitch shading employs 3 to 5 shades of the same color, moving from darker shades on the inner folds to lighter shades on the outer folds. When worked as a solid shaded filling, split stitch looks almost “painted” and adds a three-dimensional effect (see my recently stitched boar on this page).

Split stitch enjoyed the limelight as the “preferred” stitch for garb, face, hands, feet and hair in Opus Anglicanum pieces. In the French aumonieres, split stitch shared the limelight with stem, chain, and knot stitches when worked on body features (hair, hands, etc.). There’s a wonderful example of an alms pouch featuring two lovers on the website: emb/almpouch/almpouch.htm and in Medieval Craftsmen: Embroiderers. Alms pouches were completely embroidered on both sides, and the garb draping the figures was usually worked in shaded split stitch to give perspective or depth to the human body. Again, the background was worked in laid and couched metal thread enhancing this play of light and color. Note that although these Pre-Renaissance embroiderers of the 13th-14th centuries are trying to achieve a three-dimensional effect and more humanistic appearance, I find that they are still held captive and their fig-ures remain two-dimensional.


Split stitch is used to indicate detail or outline such as in the Byzantine “Medallion of Christ” (c. 1200), where the split stitch is used to draw the inner lines of the garment worn by the figure. In the Bayeux Tap-estry, split stitch and chain stitch may have been used as outline stitches (but see note p.7). And in many of the opus pieces, embroiderers used the split stitch to outline fingers, nails, toes, facial features, etc.

Split stitch history

The earliest use of split stitch can be traced to a Coptic embroidery (7th-8th c.) of a circular panel depicting a scene from the Annunciation and Visitation. (There’s a good color photo of this panel in Synge’s Art of Embroidery.) Although the split stitch is done in silk thread on linen fabric in combination with satin, straight and couching, the execution of the split stitch here lacks the refinement it ultimately achieves later with opus anglicanum and or nué. The use of split stitch before the 13th century was not as prevalent as chain stitch or laid work, and generally it did not stand alone on its own merit. However, it was one of several stitches used in such embroideries as (these are all in Schuette & Christensen) the late 12th c. Italian chasuble of Boniface VIII, the Byzantine “Medallion of Christ” (ca. 1200), and the stole and maniple of St. Cuthbert (c. 909-916).

The ultimate goal of using silk threads with split stitch is to produce a smooth, brilliant effect enhancing the play of light and dark (chiaro-scurro effect). Aware of how pre-Renaissance and Renaissance painters were employing light and dark effects to enhance the realism of their figures, period designers and embroiderers of the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries discovered that contrasting silk threads vs. metal threads within the same embroidery produced a similar effect. This can be seen in the split stitch figures with underside-couched gold backgrounds in Opus Anglicanum pieces (1250-1350), in the French aumonieres (mid 1300s), Byzantine embroideries (1350-1450), and ultimately and most exquisitely in the style of Or Núe (1425-1440).

Although underside couching was almost a “lost stitch” by 1400, split stitch continued to be used most skillfully. One of the finest examples of an “after opus” piece is the early 15th c. St. John the Evangelist embroidery, featuring garb worked in silk split stitch in shades moving from dark blue to green-blue to yellow on the inner tunic, and the outer cloak is worked in silk threads shaded from umber to ivory. The sheen of the colored silk threads playing off the metal thread truly enriches the embroidery.

pouch from Sens -- mounted knightAnd, of course, ultimately we see the split stitch reappear in the Burgundian Vestments of the Order of the Golden Fleece (1425-40). Here the stitch plays second fiddle to the technique of or nué (couching silk thread over metal thread to create shading according to spacing of silk stitches). Although the technique of needle painting using densely embroidered silk threads had been developed a century earlier (see the Eagle Dalmatic), in the Burgundian Vestments you see such needle painting occurring in the flesh tones of the skin; in faces and hands, in hair and in the fur trimmings of the clothes. Most of these areas were executed in split stitch and the technique of or nué was reserved for the garb. Once again, the shimmering silk thread and the gleaming metal threads confirm the play of light and color. It has been suggested that these vestments represent, finally, the achievement of “realistic human represen-tation” not seen before but characteristic of the “new” Netherlandish painting.

Not confined solely to the religious world, the split stitch also decorated such secular pieces as the pouch (11-12th c.) from Sens, France featuring a mounted knight on one side and an eagle with a hare on the back, in silk thread on linen (right).

Nor was split stitch confined to only the human figure. It also decorated foliage, arches, lettering, heraldic designs such as eagles, sphinxes and griffins, etc.

Hopefully, this overview will leave you with a better understanding of the split stitch and how important a role this versatile stitch played in medieval embroidery history.


Schuette, Marie and Müller-Christensen, Sigrid. A Pictorial History of Embroidery (1964). Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., Publisher. New York.

Kunsthistorishes Museum Vienna: The Secular and Ecclesiastical Treasuries (1991). Vienna, Austria. Publisher: Kunsthistorisches Museum. ISBN 3-7017- 0686-7.

Leitle-Jasper, Manfred and Distelberger, Rudolf. The Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna: The Imperial and Ecclesiastical Treasury. Publisher: C.H. Beck/Scala Books, London, 1998. ISBN 3- 406-42938-6.

Staniland, Kay. Medieval Craftsmen series: Embroiderers (1991). University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Buffalo. ISBN 9- 8020-6915-0

Zimmerman, Jane D. Techniques of Silk Embroidery (1982).

Synge, Lanto. Art of Embroidery (1998). Royal School of Needlework. ISBN 1-85149-359X

Messent, Jan. The Bayeux Tapestry Embroiderer’s Story (1999). Madeira Threads (UK) Limited, North Yorkshire, England. ISBN 0-951-634852.

NOTE: Was split stitch ever worked in other materials besides silk – for instance, with woolen thread? Perhaps, but minimally. One reference repeated in several books claims that split stitch was used for some outlining in the Bayeux Tapestry. After reading Jan Messent’s latest research and inspecting photographs with a magnifying glass, I agree with Jan that people may be mistaking the so-called split stitch for what she calls “outline stitch” – similar to the stem stitch, but lying a bit smoother. There’s a bit of chain stitch used for outlining in the “tapestry,” but only on two panels. In any case, the predominant outline stitch in the Bayeux Tapestry is the stem stitch or variations thereof.

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