How to Railroad Cross Stitch
If you have never heard of this cross stitch technique before or have heard of it but never tried it out then I am going to explain everything you need to know.
A little heads up; the railroad method is NOT an advanced technique, and in fact is actually pretty handy to know for a cross stitch beginner, so don't run away if you are new to cross stitch!
I'll break this down into sections so if you want to skip to a specific part then go ahead and click on the section links below;
If you prefer to watch rather than read (and to see railroading in action) then pop over to my video, which will cover all the same information APART from the section on tramming.
What is railroading?
This is a technique that can be used when cross stitching to encourage your strands of thread to lie perfectly parallel to each other. Somewhat like the tracks of a railroad, you might say!
I realise that here in the UK, and in many other parts of the world, those things that trains run on are called railways not railroads, but railwaying just sounds ridiculous so let's all just get on board with railroading!
And if you want more specifics on why it's called railroading you can head over to this article.
How to railroad your cross stitches
There are a few ways to do it, and although it is most commonly done with 2 strands, you can actually do it with more than 2. Obviously it is not necessary for 1 strand!
I'll start by covering the most common method used for railroading and this one works best for 2 strands.
*Click on the image to see a larger version
In the example above the cross stitch is fully railroaded i.e. the technique is used on both arms of the cross stitch but you can half railroad i.e. do it on only the top arm of your cross stitch.
Most of the time I only railroad the top arm of my cross stitch but very occasionally I railroad both arms and you'll see why in a little bit when I talk about the benefits of railroading.
Railroading both arms can also be a good technique to use when stitching with blended threads to help both colours show evenly.
Alternative method: using a laying tool
*Please note that I used a wooden cocktail skewer for this because it's what I had to hand and I was just testing the technique but if you're doing it for real then I recommend using a proper tool or at least something that isn't going to 'fluff up' your threads like a wooden stick!
*Click on the image to see a larger version
The advantage of this method is that you can do it with more than 2 strands; as you can see in my pictures I used 3 strands.
The downside to this method is that I found it VERY time consuming! I reckon I could get a little quicker with a bit more practice but it would still take a long time.
And here's why it might not be worth it...I stitched a second block with 3 strands, and without railroading in any way, and it looks only ever so slightly neater. But it took me over twice as long to do, so much as I love a neat stitch, this didn't seem like a good time investment to me!
Benefits of railroading
1. Neater stitches
Railroading makes your stitches look neater as the strands lie parallel rather than twisted, and this gives your finished work a lovely uniform finish.
2. Better fabric coverage
Having the threads lying neatly parallel makes the stitch flatter and more spread out so it provides a denser coverage of the fabric. This often won't make much of a difference but can be useful in some situations such as when you are stitching with 2 strands on 14 count Aida or 28 count evenweave/linen. It can also be helpful if you are working with a thread that feels thinner than others, such as some unbranded threads or even some darker colours of quality thread brands such as DMC. This can be especially noticeable when stitching with dark colours on white fabric or light colours on dark fabric.
For comparison I have stitched blocks with no railroading, half railroading and full railroading;
I gave these to my husband, without telling him which was which, and he could easily pick out the one with no railroading as having obviously poorer fabric coverage and less neat stitches.
Whilst he could tell the difference between the half and full railroading, the difference was very marginal and we agreed that unless you are peering very closely at the stitching you likely wouldn't notice any difference.
One instance you might really notice the benefits of railroading is stitching with light thread on black fabric and the coverage is much better even with just half railroading;
3. Your thread will twist less
If you railroad your stitches it still helps to untwist your thread every now and then because if it gets twisted it's harder to place the needle between the 2 strands. But you will likely find you need to untwist your thread as you stitch much less often than when not railroading.
4. Can make stitching with metallic threads easier
This one might be a little subjective but I did find that the thread twisted and tangled less when I fully railroaded my cross stitches using DMC Light Effects thread.
In the interests of getting the full picture I also tested Etoile thread and it's maybe a little better coverage but I wouldn't say it was any neater.
You can tell how much trouble I was having when stitching with the Light Effects thread and no railroading because full railroading usually roughly doubles my stitching time and with the metallic thread it only added a teeny bit. That's because I had so many snags, knots and tangles when not railroading, so it was definitely a less frustrating experience when railroading.
If you find stitching with metallic threads a bit of a nightmare (and who doesn't?!) then check out the tips in my article How to use Metallic Threads to Cross Stitch.
Downsides to railroading
The main thing that puts stitchers off using this technique is the worry that it will slow down the stitching process. This is very true. If anyone tells you that it won't really add much time once you get used to doing it, I would be very sceptical, as this is definitely not the case for me.
Sure, I got quicker at doing it, but even now when I am well practiced at it, railroading just the top arm takes me around 50% longer, and railroading both arms takes 100% longer...yep, it takes DOUBLE the time!
If you are desperate to stitch as much as you can as fast as you can then railroading may not be your jam because it will slow you down.
One other potential downside is that you need to be a little bit careful as you place the needle between the strands to make sure you don't catch them with the needle or put the needle into the thread itself. This is something that really won't be a problem once you have used the technique for a little while, but it's something to watch out for.
Is it worth railroading?
I'm sorry to say, but I can't answer this one for you!
What I will say is that it's worth trying out for yourself, and also worth persevering a little with because although you'll find it slower and frustrating at first, it soon becomes a habit. I actually have to force myself not to railroad now, for example if I'm test stitching a part of a new pattern that won't ever be seen by anyone!
If you are a pretty neat cross stitcher then you really might not notice that much of a difference when railroading. There are also other ways to improve the neatness of your cross stitch, and you can find these in my article 16 Tips for Neat Cross Stitching.
So, there are 2 ways to look at this; either you subscribe to the 'cross stitch is not a race and I'd rather my stitches looked neater even if it takes longer' or you belong to the 'I don't mind if my stitches could be a smidge neater I would rather get more stitching done'
Neither of those are right or wrong...but you are going to have to pick!
Trammed Cross Stitch
I had never heard of this before researching for this article and it is a general embroidery technique, but one that you can use for cross stitch as an alternative way to get better coverage, so I thought I'd include it here for interest.
*Click on the image to see a larger version
In the example shown I have stitched the base line horizontally but this can also be stitched vertically.
Here's how it compares with a row of standard cross stitches;
Compared with standard cross stitch using 2 strands, the tramming technique uses a bit more thread and takes a bit more time but definitely increases the fabric coverage and the plumpness of the stitches.
It may also make the cross stitch a little sturdier so if it is going to be an item that is used e.g. a bookmark, then you may consider this a bonus.
I've compared the trammed cross stitch with the same 2 samples from earlier using 3 strands;
This clearly shows that if your goal is to get better fabric coverage, then increasing from 2 strands to 3 strands would give you a better result than tramming with 2 strands whilst using the same amount of extra thread, and if you don't railroad it, it's also quicker.
To sum up...
If your goal is simply to stitch as much as you can (totally understandable!), then don't bother with railroading or tramming!
If you want lovely neat and even stitches then railroad just the top arm. This is the perfect compromise for me; I'm ok with it taking a little longer to get very nearly perfect stitches most of the time.
If you want to get better coverage with thin threads or on lower count fabrics such as 14 count Aida or 28 count evenweave/linen then consider using 3 strands, or maybe fully railroading with 2 strands. [Don't forget that using 3 strands can add extra time compared with 2 strands because you can't loop start!]
If you want the absolute top notch most perfect finish for yourself or for a competition then railroad both arms, AND use 3 strands for lower count fabrics.
I also think that threads vary hugely in how they behave and sometimes you have ones that lie perfectly without even the bother of railroading and some that seem determined to be as obnoxious as possible and definitely need a little railroading encouragement to lie nicely. So, it's impossible to give a 'one size fits all' answer, and you may like to adapt how you stitch according to the threads and fabric you are using.
If you haven't tried railroading then do give it a whirl, and let me know what you think.
Until next time, happy stitching!