Machine Embroidery: Types of Stitches and When to Use Them

Kris Daub
Published by Kris Daub | Senior Editor
Last updated: December 15, 2023
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Welcome to your guide on embroidery stitch types! Learning about the major categories of stitches, along with their distinct properties and applications, is key to successful machine embroidery. This article will equip you to recognize and digitize different stitches to take your hobby projects to the next level.

Core Stitch Types

Understanding the core stitch categories provides a foundation to build on as you advance your digitizing skills.

Running Stitch

The running stitch creates thin lines and fine detail work. It makes the least impact on fabrics of all stitch types, though it can sink on certain materials if used too densely. Some guidelines when using a running stitch:

Keep the length between 1.25 – 7mm. Lengths under 1.25mm may not be visible. Use for outlines, quilting, traveling connections between elements, accent lines, and other delicate detail work. This multipurpose stitch excels at facial features on an embroidered portrait for example. A tip when using running stitches is that doubling-up the lines can add appealing dimension for bolder outlines.

Satin Stitch

Satin stitches have a smooth, shiny appearance. They create thicker outlined shapes compared to running stitches. Follow these density recommendations when digitizing satin stitch designs:

Use a density around 0.3mm for medium width shapes under 10mm long to prevent loose top stitches. Satin makes high-quality lettering stand out beautifully since it covers the hidden foundation stitches well. A “split” satin better handles bends in letter lines or other non-straight edges.

Some applications for satin stitches include small lettering, borders like those on patches, three-dimensional puffy foam embroidery, and accent shapes over backgrounds. An insider tip for satin stitches is that a gradient style, with variable density across the design, can create some stunning visually flowing effects.

Fill Stitch

As the name suggests, fill stitches efficiently cover large background areas. The standard “tatami” fill stitch alternates rows in a brickwork type pattern. Some advice when placing fill stitch areas:

The fill works best in spaces over 10mm wide. Be aware that hundreds of motif pattern choices exist besides the basic tatami to spice up plain t-shirt designs. Experiment with options like zigzag, mosaic, swirls, or even emboss patterns.


One creative tip to try is applying gradient density fills for multi-colored backgrounds. Some key applications are background fills, blocking out fabric texture, quilted appearance on blankets, and more.

Specialty Stitch Types

In addition to the major categories, some specialty stitches deserve a place in your embroidery toolbox:

Bean Stitch

The bean stitch goes back over itself to build up a bolder outline, similar to a triple straight stitch. Some benefits of using a bean stitch are:

It creates defined shape edges with less density required compared to satin. Bean stitch handles curved outlines well without distortion since it simply overlays the existing line. Lastly, the bean stitch generally isn’t concealed by other stitching, allowing it to stand out. This gives a nice crisp edge, important for stand-alone elements like applique patches. One tip when using bean stitches on fabric appliques is to avoid cutting too close to them, as that risks damaging the applique.

Manual Stitch

As the name implies, manual stitches allow setting the length of each individual stitch placed by the digitizer, rather than automatically calculating spacing. Some uses of manual mode are:

Achieve a specific custom texture effect not possible through standard auto-generation. Mimic the appearance of irregular hand-embroidered stitches. Hide the end points of fill stitches or other stitches for a cleaner transition between design parts. Manual stitch placement trades much more time for total control over the design. But before digitizing software enabled precise manual entry, this took serious effort!

Zigzag Stitch

A zigzag stitch provides an angled satin stitch line with consistent thickness. It is normally used in borders or as a fabric overlay rather than filling larger areas. Some benefits of zigzag stitches are:

The regular right-left movement ensures even shape coverage and density across the line. Its simplicity compared to curving satins makes it a forgiving starting point to learn working with satin stitches. Use zigzag borders to give standard embroidered patches or applique edges a lively, organic edge.


One tip with zigzags is to match the placement line color to the edge color to minimize show-through on the final design.

Combining Stitches

Now that you know the stitch building blocks, let’s look at how they combine in complex machine embroidery designs:

Most designs effectively blend 4-5 stitch types…

Most designs effectively blend 4-5 stitch types to achieve appropriate dimension, texture, and detail in different areas of the project. Expect to see running stitches outlining larger satin or fill sections, framing the main design elements. Fill stitches typically work best for background areas behind unique design parts like satin lettering.

Don’t be afraid to experiment blending fills and satins to learn new artistic effects! Recognizing suitable stitches for each part of a planned design comes with practice observing embroideries and developing an intuition for stitch properties.


A tip for inspiring your creative stitch combinations is to seek inspiration from the pattern libraries published by embroidery enthusiasts. Study their approaches to illuminating the capabilities of different stitch blending techniques.

Digitizing Considerations

While learning stitches, keep these key digitizing principles in mind:

Recognize the appropriate stitches needed by considering their properties and intended uses before digitizing a new design. Seek to minimize excessive jumps between sections to reduce trim requirements and wasted machine time.

Carefully check settings like density, underlay approaches, and overall length…

Carefully check settings like density, underlay approaches, and overall length suit both the fabric characteristics and your project goals. Thoroughly test out different stitch type combinations and length adjustments digitally until the sewout of your digitized design closely matches your expectation. Seeing the final embroidered result firsthand reveals what stitch approaches worked well and which didn’t.


We covered the staples all embroiderers should know – runs, satins, and fills, along with popular options like beans and zigzags. While digitizing, remember most designs effectively blend these basic stitch types in creative ways. Pay special attention to density, trim minimization between elements, and fabric-appropriate underlay configurations.

Defining the right densities and lengths for your fabric takes testing and observation since no fixed formulas exist. But gradually developing mastery over machine embroidery stitches will unlock your ability to translate almost any creative idea into beautiful stitch artwork on fabric!