Linear Thinking: Running Stitch Crafts

Linear Thinking: Running Stitch Crafts

Photography: Kate Sears

Source: Martha Stewart Living, August 2007


The simplest stitch in sewing -- the running stitch -- is also the most versatile. Usually a child's first lesson in needle and thread, this practical technique can lend a stylish touch to almost any textile in your home. All it takes is a little imagination

By sight, if not by name, the running stitch is easily the most recognizable of sewing techniques. Whether the dashlike appearance of its simple over-and-under pattern takes the form of a neatly worked quilt or shows up unevenly on a child's first attempt at a sewing project, this basic stitch unfailingly says "handmade."

Although the running stitch is, in the strictest terms, a fundamental and practical sewing stitch, it also can be used to embroider embellishments on almost any material, including patterned pieces. By combining threads and fabrics in a variety of colors and textures, experimenting with the scale of the stitches, and playing with their spacing, you can create an array of effects. Work the stitches in precise rows for a graphic simplicity that complements a minimalist aesthetic, or make them hastily in a freestyle manner to bring a stylish yet homespun effect to even the most basic attire and accessories. Your only prerequisites are an object in need of enhancing, a small length of yarn, floss, or thread, and a little creativity.

Both avid sewers and novices will find these techniques easy to master and the results gratifying. So go ahead and pick up a needle and thread -- and let this simple stitch run away with you.


1. Determine the measurements: Most lampshades, including drum-shape shades, are greater in circumference at the bottom than at the top; this means the vertical rows of stitching on the shade must fan out slightly toward the bottom to create a proportional grid. To find the right intervals for your pattern, complete the following equation before you start to sew. Measure the top circumference and the bottom circumference in inches. Divide the bottom circumference by the top circumference. (Most answers will have decimal points; you will need to round up or down. For example, 1.13 becomes 1 1/8 inch.)

2. With a disappearing-ink pen, mark a tiny dot anywhere on the shade's top rim. Using a T square or a clear quilting ruler, mark a corresponding dot directly beneath the top dot on the bottom of the shade.

3. On the shade's top rim, measure 1 inch to the left of the guide dot, and mark the spot with the disappearing-ink pen. Repeat on the opposite side of the guide dot. Measure and mark 1-inch intervals from this last mark, working completely around the shade's top rim. Repeat on the bottom of the shade using the number you arrived at in the equation above to measure the intervals. (The intervals will be slightly larger than 1 inch.) Mark a line with your disappearing-ink pen connecting the top points to the bottom ones. Mark off 1-inch intervals along that line. Make running stitches along each interval.

4. Measure 1 inch down from the shade's top edge, marking horizontal lines at about 1-inch intervals with the pen. As you move down the lamp, these marks will get wider slightly, but as long as you stay inside the vertical lines, the spacing will look the same to the naked eye. Stitch around the shade over horizontal marks. Depending on your lampshade's lining, you may have to use a sewing awl to punch holes before you stitch. (If the lining is plastic, you will need an awl.)

Wardrobe Essentials

A few well-placed stitches can transform summer staples into colorful coordinates. A young assistant may want to help.

Dress and Espadrilles

Using a water-soluble-ink pen, write a name -- or a favorite word -- along the hemline of a linen dress. Draw a starburst over any dotted letters and on the tops of the espadrilles. Using an embroidery needle and 6 strands of embroidery floss, stitch along the script. To make the starbursts, pass the needle from underneath the fabric, working from the outside to the inside of each spoke.


Using 6 strands of embroidery floss, stitch along 3 edges of a cotton bag.


Make your carryall is as stylish as it is sturdy with a simple pattern in threads of varying colors and textures. Trace circles onto a cotton-canvas bag using a disappearing-ink pen (we used a glass as a stencil); cover the entire bag, or arrange the circles randomly. Stitch along the circles, using a different thread for each (we used a variety of lightweight luminous yarns, including ones made from silk, linen, bamboo, and metallic floss).


Different versions of the running stitch can unify any assemblage of bed linens, whether you embellish an existing pattern or create a new design.

Sheet and Pillowcases

Stitch along the hem in a zigzag, rather than a straight line, to accent plain sheets and blankets. Space the stitches about 1/4 inch apart.

Throw Pillows

Back pillow: Stitch perpendicular to the fabric's stripes, working over and under alternating colors (we worked over the white stripes and under the blue ones), to form a brick pattern.

Middle pillow: Stitch at a 45-degree angle to the fabric's checked pattern, working from one corner to the other.

Front pillow: Using 3 strands of matching embroidery floss, stitch perpendicular to the stripes to make 3-inch bands at each end.


With a chalk pencil, mark evenly spaced rows down a blanket made from wool or another heavy fabric. Work long running stitches with a tapestry needle and silk or wool yarn.

Running Stitch How-to

Thread needle with about 18 inches of thread, yarn, or floss; double-knot one end. Pass needle from back of fabric to front and make a stitch. Repeatedly rock needle up and down to pick up bits of fabric at regular intervals, allowing a few stitches to collect on the needle before gently pulling it through the fabric. Do not tug on the needle or the fabric will pucker. If stitching in a straight line, the stitches and the spaces between them should be of equal length. When finished, weave needle through the thread on back of project for about 1 inch, and knot.

Glossary of Stitches

The same basic running stitch takes on different guises when you vary the direction of the stitch, the type of thread, and the weight of the fabric.

1. Intersecting grid in cotton ribbon on burlap
2. Circle in embroidery floss on canvas
3. Freestyle rows in variegated floss on linen
4. Diagonal stitches in embroidery floss on cotton
5. Quilt in sewing thread on padded cotton
6. Brick pattern in embroidery floss on cotton
7. Chicken scratch (zigzag) in floss on cotton bedding
8. Big stitches in wool yarn on wool blanket (you can also use silk)



When working with fine fabrics, such as cotton, use a standard sewing or embroidery needle. For open-weave fabrics, including linen and burlap, use a tapestry needle. For dense wool or canvas, try a heavyweight sewing needle.

Marking Pens

To trace a design on washable fabric, use a water-soluble-ink pen. For fabric that cannot be laundered, use a disappearing- ink pen (marks will vanish in 24 to 72 hours). For difficult-to-mark surfaces, such as wool felt, use a chalk quilting pencil.



Be the first to comment!