In the beginning, there was the Running Stitch, and from that single stitch all the other stitch types were formed.

Running Stitch Embroidery

Putting all theatrics aside, that statement is very true. 35 years ago, when I was trained as a Schiffli puncher (on the pantograph machine shown below) we produced designs one stitch at a time. Everything from outlining objects to satin stitches to fill stitches were done with a single stitch type the running stitch! Even the creation of underlay in its various types was constructed one stitch at a time…

Simply put: although today running stitches are mainly used for embroidery techniques like underlay, outlining, detail and redwork embroidery designs… EVERY stitch type in existence stems from the basic running stitch.

I know the thought of creating designs that way may seem to have been mind-numbingly boring, but the truth is it was anything but that! Every aspect of an embroidery design and each movement on the pantograph had to be thought out carefully to produce visually pleasing designs that were also production friendly.

schifflie embroidery machine

It’s important to realize that the theory behind the simplest stitch type in existence is now present in all the automated stitches that our software creates today. Keep in mind that machines are now far more precise than the Schiffli looms of yesteryear. (Side note: Want to see live footage of the Schiffli machine above in action? Click here to watch a brief video on our history in the embroidery industry.)

Considering that the Schiffli looms at that time had been manufactured in the 1930s and 1940s, they didn’t move with nearly the precision or speed that today’s machine frames do. This is mainly because these looms embroidered on 20 yards of fabric at a time.

One of the most important things I had to take into consideration as a Schiffli puncher was to ensure the machine always had adequate movement (minimum stitch length of 1.5mm) and never stitched in the same place more than once. Why? Because this creates what we call embroidery birds nests. Click here to learn how to avoid embroidery bird’s nests.

Schiffli loom embroidery

Having the loom stitch in the same place was a lot more of a critical issue compared to one you might experience nowadays. Currently, if you see a machine stitch in the same place multiple times you might get a little worried that you’ll create “hard” stitches on your machine, which could potentially lead to ‘birds nests’/thread breaks. Although thread breaks are very irritating and no one really enjoys re-threading a machine, in the old days it meant potentially creating hundreds of thread breaks simultaneously. I’m sure you can imagine it was pretty nerve-wracking. Plus, take into consideration we used rayon thread back then which is nowhere near as strong as polyester thread (which is currently the most popular & used thread of choice).

Basic Rules of the Running Stitch:

Slowly but surely, my rules of working with the running stitch evolved over the years to adapt to today’s software and technology.

Instead of 1.5mm of movement between thread penetrations, it is now .5mm. I do consider .5mm to be in the red/danger zone as when your machine stitches as the mass of the thread and needle is approximately .3mm. Too many .5mm stitches close together will eventually create hard stitches and unfriendly or distorted designs.

I like to consider 1mm of movement the yellow zone, it will get you out of the danger zone, but for the most part, I’m always trying my best to create 1.5mm of movement between stitch penetrations. 1.5mm is what I like to call the green zone and it truly promotes production friendly designs with minimal hard stitches.

running stitch stitch lengths

There is a difference between the maximum stitch lengths of a running stitch depending on if you’re stitching on a wearable or non-wearable item. The maximum for wearable items is 7mm, any longer and the stitches could snag if you were to lean against any rough objects, like a brick wall. The maximum for non-wearable items is 12.1mm, if you go over 12.1 your machines trimmer will activate and cause your machine to stitch out “invisible embroidery”!

Having the Right Tools for the Job:

Now, this is where having the right software can be a huge advantage. Wilcom’s Hatch has implemented a feature I’ve used within my commercial platform for decades. While creating your embroidery designs, the software has a setting within its stitch processor that automatically removes short stitches. If the program sees any duplicate stitches within .3mm of each other, it will automatically remove them from the stitch file (or design) that you embroider out on your machine. This is an incredible built-in safeguard and is one of just many reasons why Wilcom is one of the most respected software company in the embroidery industry. Click here to download a FREE 30 Day trial of Hatch, we even include bonus educational videos to get you playing with the software right away.

Seeing as we’re now familiar with the running stitches minimum and maximum stitch lengths, we still have to keep in mind how stitch lengths are affected by the type of fabric the design is being sewn onto. This is especially relevant when it comes to underlay stitches (which once again are running stitches).

For example; the underlay stitch length on a cotton fabric would be significantly different when being applied on terrycloth. The shorter stitch length applied to cotton would simply disappear into the knap of the terrycloth making the underlay ineffective. This is another example of where Hatch’s intelligent and intuitive stitch processor would take over. Think of it like using the autopilot on an airplane! With the click of a button, you can change fabric types, thanks to the fabric assist tool. The fabric assist tool will automatically change the stitch length of the underlay as well as the type needed for the specific fabric you’ve chosen. The best part is, there’s no magic wand involved… It’s just embroidery magic!

One word of advice I do have when it comes to controlling stitch penetration of the running stitch with today’s software is… you need to know how left click (which are straight points) and right click (which are curves) react while creating your running stitches. I’ve found that I have far more accurate control of the exact placement of my stitch penetration when I use my left click/straight inputs. When I use the curve/right click the software tends to input more stitches to account for the curve of the objects. Here’s a quick video tutorial showing how this technique can improve the quality of your embroidery designs, click here to watch it now.

I know this almost goes against what you learned if you’re familiar with using graphics programs for print, but always remember, ink is not our medium, it’s thread which has a physical mass & weight.

The Running Stitch: Is Theory Important?

learn how to use the running stitch

I’ve always kept up with digitizing software, and I must admit that I’m simply blown away by what it’s evolved into! I wouldn’t believe you if you told me about all the capabilities of today’s software back when I first started on that schiffli loom all those years ago. Today’s software is now object-based in the same way graphics programs are.

Yes objects, stitch types and properties can be changed with the single click of a button now in embroidery software programs. Yet you still need a solid foundation of old school digitizing theory to understand what those properties are, what they do, and how to properly use them to create designs.

To clarify, in the old days I used to do details and realistic effects using running stitches as my fine tip paintbrush. The only issue is that when you want to resize a running stitch design 100% larger, it is still a running stitch and doesn’t really account for the details needed for the increase in size. So now I find myself using the automation in the software to create objects that will translate more accurately. Am I throwing away the fundamental theory I learned when I was 17? By no means! I’m adapting to the tools within the software and controlling the stitch length (running stitches) within those properties. Why work harder when you can work smarter?

object based embroidery files

I have been a Wilcom user for decades, and I’ve always thought very highly of their software. I even used Wilcom platforms when I worked in the commercial embroidery industry, running two embroidery factories while doing work for companies like Disney, Coca-Cola, and the NFL to name a few.

Two years ago, we became an official Wilcom Hatch Reseller and I know that we’ve already made a substantial impact within the home embroidery market and industry. I absolutely love explaining and showing home embroiderers the incredible advantages of working with true object-based platforms for embroidery. It’s something new and the excitement in their eyes when they see the capabilities in front of them is priceless!

manually punched running stitch embroidery design

Knowing the old school theory behind embroidery and combining it with today’s modern software allows me to embroider without limits, virtually anything is possible! I often can’t help but chuckle to myself when I hear people attempting to discredit the old school theory I was taught and call it irrelevant… Why? Because almost all of them aren’t digitizers! I wouldn’t be creating the designs I’m doing today without the theory I learned!

I consider being born when I was an incredible blessing. It was a perfect time as I got to experience the way embroidery was done 100 years ago yet also grow with the explosion of today’s modern software & technology. One thing I’m sure of is that the theory of yesterday is the foundation that empowers you to drive the software of today. Understanding the basics, even of the simplest stitch type/running stitch, is the first step to becoming an Embroidery Artist.

I even created a grand prize winning design within the commercial industry using only the Running Stitch! It took me 3 days to draw and plan and a full day to digitize… Check out the video below:

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In conclusion, the running stitch is the most basic of stitch types. Mainly used for embroidery techniques like underlay, outlining, detail and redwork embroidery designs.

It’s important to remember the rules of the running stitch and it’s stitch lengths:

Red Zone: .5mm.

The mass of the thread and needle is .3mm, remember too many stitches close together at .5mm and you’ll create a bird’s nest / hard embroidery!

Yellow Zone: 1mm

1mm is playing it somewhat safe, it will get you out of the danger of hard embroidery designs.

Green Zone: 1.5mm

1.5mm is your safest bet. As it truly promotes production friendly designs with minimal hard stitches.

running stitch stitch lengths

Maximum Running Stitch Lengths:

Remember there is a difference between the maximum stitch lengths of a running stitch depending on if you’re stitching on a wearable or no wearable item.

Wearable items: 7mm

If your stitches are any longer than 7mm they could snag if you were to lean against any rough/coarse objects, like a brick wall for example.

Non-wearable Items: 12.1mm

If you were to go over 12.1mm, your machines trimmer will automatically activate and cause invisible embroidery!

Want to learn more about the running stitch and other important basic embroidery theory? We have a FREE Embroidery Digitizing 101 Cheat Sheet Video Course that’s perfect for you. This course will give you a foundation of embroidery digitizing theory that’ll help you understand designs and what’s really happening underneath your needle! Not only will you learn more about the running stitch, but you’ll learn:

  • What goes into creating designs with basic digitizing theory
  • The theory behind the 3 main stitch types
  • Avoiding stiff bulletproof designs with density
  • Avoiding jumps and trims in your embroidery
  • and sew much more!

Click here to start your free Embroidery Digitizing 101 course now.

Enjoyed this article or have a question about the running stitch? Please leave a reply in the comments below! We love hearing what you have to say… The next step of your Embroidery Legacy starts here with ours 🙂