All About the Versatile Chain Stitch

The chain stitch is a fun and versatile embroidery stitch that can be used for outlining, adding a border, or filling hand embroidery designs.

Its name reflects its appearance as each stitch is connected to the next just like links in a chain. A detached chain stitch is created using the same technique as the chain stitch only each link is separate and singular. The detached chain stitch is used when stitching the lazy daisy stitch, and this is most often used to construct the petals of flowers or leaves on vines.

You can use the chain stitch to outline a design in place of a backstitch, split stitch or running stitch to give the design more depth and texture, or use it to create a border to frame a design. Personally, the chain stitch is one of my favorite stitches to use for outlining, filling and lettering in hand embroidery. Let’s take a closer look! 

How to do the chain stitch

The chain stitch progresses quickly once you begin, and when you get into the rhythm of this stitch, you will want to put it everywhere. 

start the chain stitch

Step 1:

Start by pulling the floss and needle up through the underside of the fabric in the hoop.  Place the point of the needle just to the side of the floss coming out of the fabric. You don’t want to go through the same place you just pulled the floss through, but just to the side. 

Step 2:

Then bring the needle up through the fabric, catching the floss around it, this will create the first link of the chain. 

chain stitch tutorial

Step 3:

Pull the floss through, and it will anchor the first link of the chain stitch. 

chain stitch tutorial

Step 4:

Repeat the stitch until you complete the desired length of chain stitches. When you reach the end, loop over the last link, and take the floss down through the fabric. 

chain stitch

Chain stitch variations


Chain Stitch Embroidery Sampler

I stitched up this great sampler that I purchased from Charlotte Lyon’s Etsy shop, and it includes both chain stitch and detached chain stitch. I am hoping you can see the difference each stitch creates, with the chain stitch as linked loops and the detached chain stitch as individual loops. I used a chain stitch in yellow as one of the framing stitches. I love the way it links together to create a substantial framing line to the hand embroidery design. The detached chain stitch is both in purple and green as part of the leaves on the plants and vines. I went shorter and longer in some places to create wider or thinner leaves, to give them a realistic quality.

Chain stitch and detached chain stitch

Using the chain stitch as a outline or border

As an outline stitch, you can create new and different looking texture by changing the length of the links. With long stitches, you can create thinner longer loops, and with shorter stitches they appear more scalloped. I have used the longer version of the chain stitch as the stem of cherries.

The shorter chain stitch can be used to create a curved accent line, as I did here on an apron. This shorter chain stitch is good for letters, as it can catch the curves real well.

Some vintage embroidery machines used to only use chain stitch for letters and as a fill stitch on patches. There has been a revival of these stitches lately, as some stitchers are creating personalized patches with names in chain stitch, or filling patch designs with chain stitches.

Embroidered cherriesFilling a design with chain stitches

In order to use the chain stitch to fill a design, you would repeat the stitch right next to the first line of chain stitches. A helpful tip is to begin at the outside line, and work toward the center.

Kristin Nicholas’ class, Stitch It With Wool: Crewel Embroidery has some great tips on using the chain stitch with yarn. She also has a great book, Colorful Stitchery: 65 Embroidery Projects to Personalize Your Home, where she uses the chain stitch to fill designs. I made the cushion below using her book as a guide and filled the dots with a chain stitch. It adds real great texture to the design.

filling with chain stitchRed Pillow With Embroidered CirclesTools for chain stitch

The photos I have shared with you here show the chain stitch in both 6-strand embroidery floss and yarn, which is another great characteristic of the chain stitch — it can be stitched with any embroidery floss you decide to use. This means you can use it for small intricate designs or for larger textural designs depending on what type of floss or yarn you decide to use for your stitches.


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