Have you ever looked at a tapestry and wondered at the time involved in making it? I have, because I have, since a child, worked with crewel, embroidery, and needlepoint. My favorite is needlepoint. Recently I was going through several boxes from my mother's yarn shop (now closed) and to my delight, found needlepoint kits!. It reminded me of my love of needlepoint.
Below is a basic description of needlepoint, as well as some helpful tips for working with a needlepoint canvas. Being a visual artist, I am naturally drawn toward creating my own canvases. I create my own needlepoint canvases, for the most part, although I also purchase them.
What is needlepoint? Needlepoint, traditionally, is the working of wool stitches into / onto a canvas material that is specifically designed for various numbers of stitches. It is an ancient art form.
The number of stitches per inch is referred to as the "mesh size". Artist (fine art painting) canvas is similar, but not processed the same way, so when purchasing canvas for needlepoint, it is best to purchase specifically needlepoint canvas. It varies in price and in generally, three different types.
Mono canvas is made up of one thread per square's side, and is very easy to work. "Penelope" canvas has squares that have one thread making up one side, and two threads on the other. This is often called 10/20 (sample size) because you can either work each thread individually (20 stitches per inch) or use the side with two threads as one which results in 10 stitches per inch. A third type of canvas in Interlock canvas. This is similar to mono canvas, but the threads interlock, which will make for a stronger, less flexible canvas.
Below is a photo of a piece of Penelope canvas. The structure of the mesh can clearly be seen.
Below is an example of Mono canvas. This sample has a commercially-printed design on it.
Detail of Mono canvas:
When you first start to work on a needlepoint canvas, there are a couple of steps that make it easier to work. These may depend on your personal preference.
Canvases may either be held in your hands, rolled up if large, or placed on stretcher frames. Stretcher frames can range from inexpensive pieces of wood that interlock (sold in pairs of two) to large standing frames with material attached to the frame. The needlepoint canvas is then pinned to the material. Another very nice frame to use is a "Q-snap" frame. These are marketed for the most part as quilting frames, but they also will easily hold a needlepoint piece. And, for smaller pieces, embroidery hoops may be used.
Keeping a piece on stretcher frames is recommended so that the mesh remains as square as possible while the canvas is being worked. Below is a photo of a 16 inch x 22 inch design that is on my standing needlepoint frame.
The canvas shown above was difficult to find, and I believe it is fairly uncommon. For this reason and others, I'm more cautious about keeping it stretched properly. The edges of the canvas have not yet been taped. The color key on the right of the canvas is typical of most needlepoint canvases. It helps the artist to pick out the colors of yarn suggested if the canvas does not come with wool or cotton as a kit.
Below is a vintage needlepoint piece that my mother had started years ago, and then, for some reason decided not to finish (She's an avid knitter, and perhaps she was knitting more than doing needlepoint). I have it now, and have decided to finish it. It is stretched on a Q-Snap brand quilting frame. The size of the piece is 12 inches x 17 inches (canvas size).
When finishing a piece started by someone else, it is important to match not only the stitch type, but the stitch tension as well. The close-up below shows how my initial stitches in the row just above and to the right of the cardinal are tighter than my mother's. Unless I re-do them and match the tension more closely, this will be very obvious in the finished piece.
Below is another vintage piece that I will finish. It is from a kit, and depicts a Native American Boy. Two interesting things about this piece: I've stretched it on low-cost "needlepoint stretcher frames" that I hammered together after obtaining the two sizes closest to the size of the piece. Being a painter of canvases, I am used to canvas stretcher frames used for fine art painting, and so I thought that getting this needlepoint stretcher frame together would be very easy. Well, it was, but I had to sand the interlocking ends and when I say "hammer together", I mean just that. But, they cost only a couple of dollars for each two-side pair, and so are very handy to have around. I taped the needlepoint piece to the frame with masking tape because I couldn't find the thumb tacks (except for two at the top). I didn't think this would hold, but surprisingly it does.
The back of the frame:
The second interesting thing about this little piece is the materials used. The background is done with white wool, and the kit contained "perle cotton" for the areas of the little boy and the flower. I've seen kits for sale that include both, and it's a reminder that different textures can enhance the needlework.
Starting to stitch
Taping the edges of a canvas is one of the first things to do prior to working it. The canvas will fray, whether it has been painted or printed with the design, and using common masking tape to tape the edges prevents this from happening. Below is a small canvas that has the edges taped.
The canvas above is one of my own hand-painted canvases. I had painted the background fairly heavily, so the canvas is slightly stiff to work with at first. This will not prevent fraying of the edges.
Needlepoint is generally worked from the left to the right. When I started working this canvas, at the top left, it had tape on it. As I went across the row, I realized the canvas edge was more uneven than I had thought, and as you can see at the top right of the photo below, I was working right at the edge of the canvas.
Working at the edge like this creates a problem while working the rest of the canvas because the edge may continue to fray. After a canvas is completed, if it is not mounted, framed, or sewn into another item, over time, the edge remains vulnerable to fraying. I decided to re-tape the edge, and when this canvas is complete, I will use my sewing machine to stitch machine stitches very finely between the two rows of needlepoint stitches at the top edge. This is called "stay-stitching" in sewing, and it will help prevent further fraying of the piece. I could have also, of course, just taken that initial row out and started further down, but decided to leave it as it was and reinforce the edge later.
So, with a taped canvas, some tapestry wool, and a tapestry needle in hand, I'm ready to begin completing this piece.
The most common stitch, I think, is the Continental, or "tent stitch". There is also the Basketweave stitch, which has overlapping areas in the back of the work. This is an easy stitch that goes from one square to another, on a diagonal. There is more information and charts on different stitch types at Love-To-Know-Crafts. Several of the links there are very interesting for decorative and fancy stitches. If you'd like a quick overview of three basic stitches, you might find this scan helpful - Scovill-Dritz Needlepoint Label. It is a label that was on another vintage piece of needlepoint canvas that my mother had, and is a helpful little label.
The Cardinal piece above, that my mother started, has a straight vertical stitch in it. I'm not sure if there is an official name for the stitch, if it is the tent stitch as she knows it, if she just did it as she pleased, or if the stitch type was passed down to her. I haven't yet found an official reference for a similar stitch, and she doesn't remember why she did the piece that way. This is part of the uniqueness and often, the mystery, of vintage needlework.
The difference in stitch type in any piece will affect how the piece wears over time. Different stitches are best for different applications, such as chair covers (needing strength and durability), pillows (more decorative), etc. For my own needlepoint, I generally use the Continental stitch. It is fast and easy, and complements any design.
A very good guide for more basic information than is shown here is at Stitching.com, and is called A Guide to Needlepoint.
Kits - or, more accurately, one kit in particular: I purchased a small Dimensions brand kit of a Rose. I had thought the kit contained wool, but when I opened it, I found it contained 12 mesh canvas and cotton floss. I didn't have a problem with that, mentally picturing a nice full strand of floss as the thread. I'm sure all brands are similar, so this is not a complaint in particular with the company mentioned, but more of a "be aware of what you are buying" paragraph. After reading the instructions, I learned the floss contained in the kit was to be divided from the original 6 strands in each length, to three strands. This didn't seem right to me, and I now started to realize why I had seen some comments about kits not always containing enough floss.
It is, of course, a personal preference, but I myself, go by the tradition that the canvas should not show after working the stitches. Three strands of floss does not cover 12 mesh canvas completely, and the resulting finished piece will have a dramatically different appearance from the same piece worked with the canvas covered. Below is a photo of the package and the canvas in an embroidery hoop.
As you can see below, the kit comes with quite a bit of floss. The finished piece will be 5 inches x 5 inches. The skein on the right is one of wool. I don't have the exact color in wool to match the "magenta" in the kit, but the skein shown is close.
Below are some of the stitches. In the top left area, near the needle, are several stitches completed with three strands of floss as described in the kit. I read the directions three times, thinking I had misread the amount of strands to use. As you can see, the canvas is barely covered. It looks like more than three strands in the photo because the end thread near the needle is doubled back into the last stitch taken. I found 9 strands covered the canvas to my taste, but Stitching.com's Guide To Needlepoint / 12 mesh suggests 12 strands of floss to a 12 mesh canvas.
The larger stitches are those done in two strands of DMC wool. Again, it is a personal preference regarding the end result the needleworker desires, and for myself, I am going to continue the piece in wool, for a fuller look to the finished piece.
I also think that I will continue to buy kits for the canvas design or mesh size primarily, and assume that I may have to additionally purchase wool or floss to complete the piece.
Please check back in the future as I add to this page. Thank you!
Did you know? Using a "Penelope" mesh for needlepoint allows two choices of stitch size and overall detail results for the needlepoint piece. Using each thread, or 22 stitches per inch, allows this design to be a "Petit Point" design with smaller stitches and the appearance of greater detail. Using the mesh with 11 stitches per inch allows for perhaps a faster working of the piece, with larger stitches that result in a less detailed look, but may be more suitable for the design, depending on the final use of the piece.
Brick Covers / Door Stops -Did you know? If you don't want to make a doorstop, or if you just don't have bricks lying around, these make very nice small pillows that will go just about anywhere! Simply sew the side seams, use your own scrap fabric for a bottom, and before sewing the final seam, stuff with cotton or polyfill.
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