Shadow embroidery technique involves use of closely worked herringbone stitch on the wrong side of transparent or semi transparent ( sheer) fabrics or thin fabrics. The work looks complicated but actually it is very easy to do it. 

shadow embroidery

On the front side of the fabric the work appears as two lines of back stitches, with a shadow of the herringbone work showing through very subtly.

herringbone stitch

Other than herringbone stitch, stitches like eyelet hole stitches and stem stitch and  back stitches are used in shadow work embroidery designs. Satin stitches and french knots are used frequently in the center of the designs.In Indian the shadow  work is called chikankari. Checkout the post on chikankari work.

How to do Shadow work

shadow work

Another way to do shadow work  is to do double back stitch or reverse herringbone stitch. Some prefer this stitch to do shadow work than the herringbone stitch. Double back stitch automatically creates the herringbone stitch on the back of the design. Here you do the stitching from the front of the cloth . A back stitch is visible on the outline with herringbone stitch creating the shadow on the back. 


Choose the suitable fabric, thread and needle

sheer fabric

Shadow work is best done with fine threads. A silk buttonhole twist thread will be ideal; but the regular embroidery threads work as well.It is better and easier to use a single or double strand of thread of short length to do this work ( to avoid knots and tangles). 

Small/ medium embroidery designs are usually used for this embroidery.

 White thread on white fabric was how it used to be in earlier times but as the work evolved and times changed  colours appeared both in the threads and the fabric . But even now Light colored fabrics are usually chosen for this embroidery.

Fabric suitable for shadow embroidery – Any sheer or thin material through which colour will show through is suitable for shadow work. 

  • Fine cotton lawn and voiles
  • Organza and Organdy
  • Semi sheer muslin
  • Fine Linen
  • Batiste
  • Sheer silk
  • Georgette


Prewash the fabric, as shrinking after the embroidery is done will be disastrous.Press and then keep it on the embroidery hoop. Avoid the hoop if the fabric is too delicate. If you must use a hoop, cover the edges with cloth to protect the cloth.

Use a fine thin Size 7 or 9 needle to do this work. You donot want prominent holes in the thin cloth you will be doing this embroidery.

This embroidery looks best when you use bright coloured embroidery floss against light pastel shaded fabrics. The colours when shown through the fabric will not look as bright

Designs – Any design can be used for this embroidery. Parallel lines are needed for the herringbone stitches. Stained glass designs seems to work very well as the concept is basically the same. 

Mark the design on the back of the fabric. As you are using sheer fabric you can just place the fabric and trace the design with a sharp pencil or water soluble pen. Checkout other ways ( 9 ways) to transfer embroidery designs on to the fabric. 

Choose a design which covers a large area – As the small stitches visible on the right side of the fabric is too subtle, a large area should be covered for the design to  make an impact.

The design is marked on the back of the garment / fabric because It is easier to work the herringbone stitch there. Make sure that you use a mirror image of the design when doing this work from the back side. Otherwise you will get a design which is reversed.

Checkout the tutorial to embroider letters to learn more about reversing designs in your computer.

Do the herringbone stitch on the back of the fabric. Stitches are kept even and are usually less than 1/8 th of an inch 

Checkout the tutorial on herringbone stitch for details.When working the herringbone stitches on curved areas, do smaller stitches on the inner curves and longer stitches on the outer curve, to accommodate the curved shape. 

The running stitches which result from the herringbone stitches should be even and small for the embroidery to look good . So make sure that you are taking small even stitches always at the back and on the design line. 

At the start of the embroidery instead of knots you will have to anchor and secure thread by back stitching as knots will show up on the right side. Weaving the thread through stitches ( on the back of the design) also will thoroughly secure the thread. Waste knots are also used – waste knots are knots  made some 3-4 inches away which are then cut away and the thread is then woven through the back of the embroidery after the stitching is completed

The center of the flowers are done in satin stitches, french knots on the right side of the design.

Please note that If more strands of embroidery thread are used you will get a brighter shadow on the right side. Likewise if closely packed herringbone stitches are used you get a thick shadow.

You can do shadow applique in the same fashion – this work involves fabric pieces placed on the back of fabric and attached with tiny hem stitches or three sided Belgian stitch. Italian shadow quilting is another variation

Shadow darning

This is another variation of shadow work which involves pattern darning done on the back of the fabric. Checkout the post on pattern darning to see how it is done