In Praise of the Humble Backstitch

Autumn leaf puzzle cross stitch pattern.

What would Fall, In Pieces be without backstitching?

While we’re talking about time to stitch, I’m reminded of a needlepoint website that claims needlepoint is superior to cross stitch because needlepoint is “half the work.” Oh, yeah—that’s a quote! The tent/continental/basketweave stitch is half a cross stitch and thus requires half the effort and takes half as long to do. Furthermore, the site says, backstitch is rarely employed in needlepoint, hence, less work still!

You know what’s even less work and faster? Not stitching!

I’m not sure speed and less work are good goals for needleworkers. Yet, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard cross stitchers say they hate backstitching. When I ask why, the answer is “it takes too long.”


My experience is that backstitching goes faster than cross stitching. It often follows an outline which means referring to the pattern less often and concentrating less. It’s generally worked with one strand of floss, so there are no threads to align, and each stitch has just one leg, while a cross stitch has two. So backstitching isn’t slow compared to other stitches. If other stitches don’t “take too long,” how is it that backstitches do?

And the motion is the same: the needle comes up; the needle goes down. Our heart rates slow. Our minds quiet. In this light, stitching is stitching, no matter what stitch is employed.

Fall, In Pieces cross stitch without the puzzle-piece backstitching.

Oh, yeah. It’d be Bev’s pillow! Bev put the puzzle together and chose to not do the puzzle-piece backstitching. Okay, you win…this time! This is a fine way and time to eliminate backstitching. I still like the puzzle option, of course, but I like this one, too.

What backstitch-haters mean, I think, is that the needlework seems as though it should be finished when all the crosses (or whatever stitches) are complete. Backstitching often requires going over stitches that have already been worked. More precisely, what backstitch-haters mean (I think—I’m not one of them) is, “I’m in a hurry to move on to the next project.” So, in reality, it’s not the backstitch’s fault. They get a bad rap because some stitchers are in a hurry.

But backstitches can serve a useful purpose. They smooth edges. They add detail which can make a project more intricate and interesting. As an outline, they make shapes stand out and can add depth. Stitch for stitch, I believe the humble backstitch can have more strength and impact than the more popular cross stitches. Consider a tree. A slew of brown and green stitches will convey the idea of a tree, but add a backstitched outline and some lines inside and suddenly the tree has branches and leaves. It seems more lifelike, dimensional, sophisticated, and elegant. That’s a huge gain from a few small stitches.

Hooray for backstitches!

Milky Way planets cross stitch pattern.

The Neighborhood cross stitch pattern by Funk & Weber Designs.

Once upon a time, we caved to the pressure from backstitch-haters. The Neighborhood actually boasts on the cover, “No backstitches!” We did this to appease needlepointers and backstitch-haters, but we also did this because the piece is stitched on black fabric. That dark background mimics the effect of a dark backstitched line, so I got my dark outline anyway. (Yeah, I know. Some people don’t like stitching on dark fabric, either.)

In the end, instead of choosing projects (or techniques) because of the time they will take to complete, I hope you will choose them because you enjoy the process of stitching and like the way a particular piece looks. If backstitch is part of that look, I hope you will embrace those stitches the same way you embrace the others. Really, what’s the rush? Value the time that it takes to stitch; it’s time well spent.

Backstitching Tip

Our Nut, Kate, from Baton Rouge, LA, adds that when possible, she backstitches as she progresses with the crosses, thereby reducing the “pile up” of backstitching at the end of a project. “This gives me a better feeling that the work is progressing and taking dimension, and it sparks my interest to do another section and backstitch it also.”

Great tip!

How do you feel about backstitching? Do you employ any handy tips and tricks to do them?

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