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Cutwork is one of the sexiest vintage details out there. It’s also the brainchild of nuns. Go figure.

A forerunner of needle madee lace, cutwork is an umbrella term that is used for a number of different techniques – Broidery Anglaise, Renaissancee Embroidery, Richelieu and Venetian Embroidery. They all pretty much result in a similar effect, that is, a cut-out shape in linen or some other tightly woven
fabric where the raw edges are bound by satin stitches, buttonhole stitches or, in the case of Richelieu, a modified buttonhole stitch.

The basic idea behind each is also the same: work the design in stitches, then cut out the cutouts without cutting into the stitches. Cutwork originally appeared in sacramental robes and grave cloths of saints as early as the 12th century but the nuns’ know-how was kept a secret from laypeople until the 15th century when upper class ladies started incorporating the technique into their linens and altar cloths. Today, it’s used for spicing up everything from adorable baby christening gowns to racy evening blouses.

Though it looks really tricky, cutwork isn’t all that difficult to do. Though you can use a satin stitch on your zigzag machine to complete the outlines or even go nuts with your computerized embroidery machine, the directions below are for doing it the old-fashioned way – by hand! If you’re only looking to add a little flair to a neckline or other small area, the hand set buttonhole stitches will add so much class, you’ll be glad you took the time to do it the traditional way.


Sept #1 – First, you’ll want a linen or cotton-linen blend to work with. Linen is ideal because it’s slow
to unravel and you won’t even need to use a stabilizer. Transfer your design onto the fabric using an air
soluble pen. Mark an “X” on the cutouts so you don’t get confused.

Step #2 – Place your work in an embroidery hoop. Trace around the center of each design line with
two parallel lines of loose running stitches 1/8" apart. The running stitches add a little extra padding to
your buttonhole stitches.

Step #3 – Go over those running stitches with a buttonhole stitch – making sure that the business side of
the buttonhole stitch is facing the cutout area.

Step #4 – If your cutout areas are large, you’ll want to work a few “bars” across the space to hold
everything together and prevent gaping. As you are working the buttonhole stitches in step #3, take
the needle up between the two rows of running stitches, across the cutout area and back down between
the opposite set of parallel stitches. Repeat this one more time so that you have a double thickness of
thread creating a little bridge over the cut out area. Now work a buttonhole stitch back over the bridge
WITHOUT sewing into the fabric until you get back to your starting place. Bigger areas will need
several “bars” – use your judgement.

Step #5 – When everything is all outlined in buttonhole stitches, use sharp embroidery snips to cut out
the cutouts. Be careful not to cut into the stitches! (Don’t forget to breathe at this point…the tension
can be palpable!!)


  • Photo_on_2011-04-18_at_18_18_2_large

    Feb 6, 2011, 11.49 PMby SewJayne

    I’ve always wondered how the strands between the solid shapes were formed. I feel a new project coming on for this spring summer – so very now! Very many thanks.

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    Jan 22, 2011, 02.29 AMby mollyapple

    I’ve been itching to try this since I read this post earlier in the week so this morning I gave it a quick trial to see what its like, I’m hooked and will be working on improving my technique on this!

    I tried to put something together with my photos showing my progress on here, but I can’t work out the formatting so below is the link to the pics on my blog. It is a bit crude but as I said it was a trial to see if I understood the method and the instructions here are great, it was (I think!) straightforward – thank you!


  • Cali_large

    Jan 19, 2011, 04.51 PMby threadsquare

    So, so gorgeous! I have a mid-century dress with a bit of (machined) cutwork, but this is just amazing. Yes, please, on the the request for photos/tutorial :)

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    Jan 14, 2011, 02.44 PMby earthenwings

    Wow, I love that black dress with the cutout work at the bottom! Definitely inspired, but it looks so daunting! Thanks for sharing. :)

    1 Reply
    • 35323_1550195117626_1317563306_1450393_3860676_n_large

      Jan 14, 2011, 03.08 PMby eringilday

      You’re welcome! I love the black dress with the netting, too. It’s like what the wicked witch would wear to the ball. (She was always my favorite anyway!)

  • Img_20170104_052934_large

    Jan 13, 2011, 07.12 PMby Ruth Meiland


  • Caa9248654dcf02f44aa0fea4eb5e5d1c4b1c7a1_large

    Jan 13, 2011, 05.38 PMby sewinl0ve

    Too gorgeous! Thank you nuns!

  • Missing

    Jan 13, 2011, 04.20 PMby shilpabhat

    loved it very much

  • Gold_large

    Jan 13, 2011, 04.15 PMby hstorm799

    Another fabulous technique to try. Thanks so much for all of the informative posts!

    1 Reply
    • 35323_1550195117626_1317563306_1450393_3860676_n_large

      Jan 13, 2011, 06.02 PMby eringilday

      You’re welcome! Thanks for reading!

  • 5196510037_0646d0f80e_o_large

    Jan 13, 2011, 03.59 PMby kelepso

    Wow! I have a small piece of linen at home I’d like to try this technique (When I have some extra time). However, I think I’ll use the machine instead of the old fashion way.

    4 Replies
    • 35323_1550195117626_1317563306_1450393_3860676_n_large

      Jan 13, 2011, 06.02 PMby eringilday

      I totally respect that choice…I think both ways are worth investigating! Don’t forget to show me what you come up with!

    • 5196510037_0646d0f80e_o_large

      Jan 14, 2011, 06.29 AMby kelepso

      Definitely! I’ll probably make a clutch or a hanky!

    • 35323_1550195117626_1317563306_1450393_3860676_n_large

      Jan 15, 2011, 04.13 PMby eringilday


    • 5196510037_0646d0f80e_o_large

      Jan 26, 2011, 06.04 AMby kelepso

      Here’s a link to see my attempt at cutwork http://www.burdastyle.com/projects/obi-cut-nobi-belt. Enjoy!

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    Jan 13, 2011, 01.43 PMby psychorat

    This is so beautiful. I think I will very soon try out some simple patterns.

    1 Reply
    • 35323_1550195117626_1317563306_1450393_3860676_n_large

      Jan 13, 2011, 03.55 PMby eringilday

      Don’t forget to show and tell the end result! I’d love to see.

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    Jan 13, 2011, 01.03 PMby ruthw

    This is a really common technique in embroidery so if you do a search on the internet you can find lots of tutorials for it. But I have to say that linen is absolutely not “slow to unravel”. Quite the opposite. Its simple weave means that it frays like crazy.

    Linen is often used for cutwork because a) it is a very old material (its use in Europe far predates the use of cotton by many centuries) and this is an old technique (which was used at least 500 years earlier than you say, but in the Middle East; b) it is very suitable for home decs because you can boil wash it to get stains out, and the most common use of cutwork is on home decs (I don’t suppose anyone was planning on washing anybody’s shroud, though!); c) it is a very long lasting fabric and the nuns used to use this “sexy” technique on altar cloths which they made and which were used for many decades – that was why it was worth putting so much work into them.

    1 Reply
    • 35323_1550195117626_1317563306_1450393_3860676_n_large

      Jan 13, 2011, 03.55 PMby eringilday

      That’s funny – I’ve always considered linen to be somewhat slow to unravel – it feels pretty stable when you are working it. I think the variations in weaves – loose or tight – are pretty broad with linen these days. I should have specified a tight weave, darn it!

      Boiling linen to get the stains out is a great idea, too! I have a few things I need to try that on.

      When I was researching this technique, I didn’t look into Middle Eastern histories, that definitely bears further research.

      Thanks for your comments, Ruth! I’d love to see some of your cutwork!

  • Portait_4_large

    Jan 13, 2011, 12.56 PMby stuffit-1

    Cutwork is such a great way to get attention to an uninteresting piece of clothing…;) Thanks for supporting my thoughts ;)

    1 Reply
    • 35323_1550195117626_1317563306_1450393_3860676_n_large

      Jan 13, 2011, 03.41 PMby eringilday

      You’re welcome, stuffit!

  • Hpim0604_edited_large

    Jan 13, 2011, 11.57 AMby amyalberici

    I love the beauty of cutwork and also crochet. It’s so ultra feminine! Thank you for this fantastic post it’s so inspiring for me.

    1 Reply
    • 35323_1550195117626_1317563306_1450393_3860676_n_large

      Jan 13, 2011, 03.40 PMby eringilday

      You’re welcome, Amy! Thanks for reading.

    • This is a question
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