A Stitch in Time: The Cretan Stitch

The Cretan stitch derives its name from Crete, the largest Greek island in the Mediterranean Sea, home to one of the oldest civilizations (dating from at least the time of Homer’s Odyssey, around the eleventh century b.c.) and a rich legacy of embroidery.

Deanna Hall West Jun 26, 2018 - 7 min read

A Stitch in Time: The Cretan Stitch Primary Image

stitch in time photo by Joe Coca

The Cretan stitch derives its name from Crete, the largest Greek island in the Mediterranean Sea, home to one of the oldest civilizations (dating from at least the time of Homer’s Odyssey, around the eleventh century b.c.) and a rich legacy of embroidery. The fresco designs from the ancient Minoan palace at Knossus on Crete, excavated during the latter portion of the nineteenth century, are seen on centuries-old as well as modern day embroidered skirts and jackets. The Cretan stitch continues to decorate the bright clothing and household linens of Crete.

The Cretan stitch is a close relative of the feather stitch (see PieceWork January/February 2003) and is considered by some to be simply another variation of the feather stitch; more than a few references diagram them similarly. The distinguishing characteristics separating the feather and the Cretan stitches, however, are the placement and length of the legs relative to the width of the stitch itself. The placement of the stitches forms a characteristic central plait that may vary in width even within the same motif.

cretan stitch

Left to right: Figures 1, 2, 3.

The Cretan stitch also is known as the longarmed, stacked, or Cretan feather stitch, as well as by additional names other than those referring to the feather stitch: Persian, fish, and quill stitch (worked in a vertical straight line only; see Figure 3). In France the Cretan stitch is known as the Persian stitch because it has appeared on so many Persian embroideries. By the middle of the seventeenth century, English stitchers had added the Cretan stitch to spot and band samplers.

Work the Cretan stitch alternately side to side with the needle always pointing from the outside of the motif inward, and stitch it either horizontally or vertically. The amount of material you pick up with the needle and the position of the needle itself create dramatic variations in the stitch’s appearance. Just a few of the many interesting variations are diagrammed here.

Cretan Stitch

Left to right: Figures 4, 5, 6.

The open Cretan (Figures 1, 2) has space between the stitches, that allows the ground fabric to show, and makes it look airy. The slanted Cretan or quill stitch (Figure 3) is also an open Cretan stitch, but has a modified position for the legs. For the closed Cretan (Figures 4, 5), place the stitches close together so that no ground fabric shows between them to impart a heavy appearance that may fill a motif. A stranded silk or cotton thread or yarn offers the best coverage for the closed Cretan. The Scottish Cretan stitch ( Figure 6) has bundles of Cretan stitches tied together for a rich, ornamental curved or straight-line pattern. The stitch bundles usually consist of five closed Cretan stitches but may contain fewer or more. The Cretan catch stitch (Figure 7) is a variation in which a vertical stitch alternates with a small horizontal stitch to form an attractive line stitch and may be stitched either open as shown or closed. The interlaced Cretan stitch (Figures 8, 9), also known as the interlaced band and the double Pekinese stitch, weaves the Cretan stitch over two parallel rows of stitches that may be either back or double running stitches (Figure 8) or run- ning stitches (Figure 9). Stitch the interlacing with the same or a different color or type of thread from the ground stitches, and lace it left to right. Note the position of the parallel rows of ground stitches— they are of equal length but offset from one another. The knotted Cretan stitch (Figure 10) creates a zigzag line with the added texture of the knots, each of which must be tightened somewhat firmly before continuing on to the next step. The crossed Cretan stitch (Figure 11) is a complicated stitch best worked on a relatively small scale with a fine thread to accentuate the spidery appearance. The triple Cretan stitch (Figure 12), also known as the French Cretan stitch, is a lacy line stitch that is similar to the open Cretan stitch but has additional loops. The insertion Cretan stitch (Figure 13) easily joins two separate pieces of fabric together.

Cretan Stitch

Left to right: Figures 7, 8, 9.

The threads and fabrics for the Cretan stitch and its variations are virtually unlimited. Choose a weight and tensile strength of the thread appropriate for the background fabric, stitch size, and visual effect desired. It’s easier to work the Cretan stitch on evenweave fabrics because you can follow the individual fabric threads to keep the stitches in proper alignment; good choices are evenweave linen and canvas. On nonevenweave fabrics such as wool, cotton broadcloth, and shantung silk, it’s helpful to mark the vertical stitching guidelines lightly with a pencil or water-soluble pen. The red dashed lines on some of the stitch diagrams indicate these markings.

Cretan Stitch

Left to right: Figures 10, 11, 12.

The Cretan stitch and its multiple variations may be worked as a border, line (straight or curved), or filling stitch. It adapts easily to varying widths, although if the shape to be filled is very large, consider stitching several rows side by side instead of a single massive row.

Figure 13.

Figure 13.


This eighth installment of Deanna’s stitch tutorials originally appeared in the March/April 2003 issue of PieceWork, along with instructions for a stunning Jacobean crewel design and much more. Deanna is PieceWork’s needlework technical editor; she previously was the editor of The Needleworker magazine. Stay tuned for more stitch tutorials from Deanna in the weeks ahead! Read the entire "Stitch in Time" series!

Featured Image: Scissors and needle case courtesy of Loene McIntyre. Photo by Joe Coca.