What is Needlepoint?

Not too long ago, I was intimidated by needlepoint. I stitched my first piece at the Royal School of Needlework. But when I started my second piece several years later (and came into contact with an American style of needlepoint) I was overwhelmed. I realized I had only learned several of the thousands of stitches available, and that the variety of threads is endless. When I meet a fellow needlepointer (especially if they are my age) I find they usually got started because they where taught by their mom or grandmother. Unfortunately a lot of us don't have a needlepointing grandmother - but needlepoint is a wonderful, relaxing, historic art! So I’m working on creating a series of blog posts and videos that will help you get started and get over the unknowns. 

Let’s start at the very beginning…

What is needlepoint?

Needlepoint is a type of hand embroidery. Specifically, it is a counted form of embroidery. That means it is stitched on a canvas that has designated holes for your needle to go through (think of it as a grid). Because of the grid like canvas, the stitches are (for the most part) geometric in nature.

I think the big question is “how is needlepoint different from the hand embroidery you see on Instagram, in craft stores, or in kits and patterns on Etsy?” Well, while you use some of the same materials, like a needle and floss, the stitches and background material are totally different. Typical hand embroidery can be stitched on just about anything. But needlepoint is stitched on an open weave canvas.  The stitches are limited by the holes of the grid which determines the types of stitches used. Another difference is that the entire surface area of the canvas is covered by stitching.

The application is different too. Needlepoint canvas is quite stiff, so it’s used to create pillows, home decor, wall hangings, eyeglass cases, bags, Christmas stockings etc.

Ok, let's dive into specifics.

Canvas

Today, a design is hand painted right onto the needlepoint canvas. So instead of having an instruction booklet or chart, the canvas itself is your guide and you’ll stitch right over the design.

Canvas comes in different counts or mesh sizes. Typical needlepoint canvas is 10, 13, 16, and 18 count. Each has a different amount of openness, or rather the holes are different sizes. On 10 count canvas there are 10 holes per inch and therefore 10 stitches per inch.  On 18 count canvas, 18 holes per inch and 18 stitches per inch. More stitches per inch means more detail. Other factors to consider are:

  • Time. It takes longer to stitch eighteen stitches vs. ten. So a ten count canvas will stitch up much faster.
  • Thread. To completely cover a canvas with ten holes per inch you are going to need something thick and chunky. At eighteen holes per inch, you are looking at using a thread that is more delicate and fine - something that can easily pass through a much smaller hole (which is very different visually).

By the way, I really enjoy stitching on sixteen count canvas. It stitches up faster than eighteen count but is fine enough for a lot of great detail!

Threads

There are so many gorgeous threads to choose from! The threads you use will depend on your design and its ultimate purpose.

There are silks, wools, cotton, synthetic sparkly special effects stuff, fluffy stuff, ribbon…..

How do you choose?

  • Appropriateness. If you are stitching something with a smooth surface (let's say a tea cup), choose a thread that will lay flat and well, smoothly. Silk is smooth, so is cotton and bamboo. If you are stitching an animal such as fox, use wool or something even fluffier (something that will look like fur).
  • Thickness. Depending on your canvas count you’ll need to choose a thread that will cover your canvas nicely but make it through the holes.  
  • Application. What is the final application of your piece? A pillow will get a lot of wear, probably not the best project for delicate ribbon work…something hardier like wool would be appropriate. If you’re making a wall hanging, delicate sparkly threads and ribbon are just fine.

Stretcher bars in use!

Frames

The needlepoint canvas does not necessarily need to be held in a frame during stitching but I almost always use one. Stretcher bars (a type of frame) are cheap and easy! Just grab a staple gun (or tacks) and attach your canvas. It will keep the tension of your stitching even and the grid of your canvas square.

Stitches

You have two options when it comes to stitches. The first is to stitch your entire design in basketweave (a basic stitch - take a look at the picture below). The second is to use a combination of stitches across the different areas of your canvas.

Basketweave is a traditional, small, diagonal stitch that you see often on needlepoint pieces. It gives you an optimal amount of detail. (You may have heard basketweave referred to as tent stitch. Basketweave is one of three different tent stitches. All tent stitches look the same on top but are different on the back). 

The pickup truck is worked in Basketweave

The pickup truck is worked in Basketweave

Otherwise, there are literally thousands of stitches that you can use on a needlepoint canvas! The hard part is choosing stitches that are appropriate for your design. But there are tools that will help you with this:

  • Books: There are books that break stitches up into different categories. Let's say you are stitching a flower and looking for an appropriate stitch. You wouldn't want to choose a stitch that has a pattern like a brick wall. The books listed below will have a section on stitches that work well for flowers, for grass, sky, clothing, walls, houses….and on - making it very easy to find an appropriate stitch.

Stitches for Effect Series by Suzanne Howren and Beth Robertson

Stitch Series by Little Shoppe Canvas Company

Ins and Outs

Landscapes (you can also get it as an app!)

Winter

  • Finished pieces: Again, if you are stitching a flower - find a picture of a finished needlepoint flower and see what stitches were used. Reach out to stitchers and ask! Social media is great for this, you can join a needlepoint group and get in contact with the original stitcher about the stitch you’re interested in.  (BTW, I’m not endorsing buying a canvas and finding a finished picture of that canvas and copying it stitch for stitch, that’s rude and verging on copyright infringement)
  • Experimentation: Nothing will help you more than trying a stitch for yourself. Grab a piece of scrap canvas and test it out. See if you like it, see if it fits visually, make sure it looks good with the thread you’ve chosen and the size of the area it will be stitched into. Because ultimately that’s what matters.

Instructions

“You mean I don’t get an instruction booklet like everything else in the crafting industry?” Well, sometimes.

Needlepoint is different.  It’s not a craft, it’s a needle art. BUT that doesn’t mean it's complicated or hard. The coolest thing about needlepoint is, the canvas is just the design. It’s up to the stitcher to make it as complicated or simple as they want! The entire piece can be stitched in basketweave…ONE stitch across the entire design. The same piece can be stitched using advanced embroidery techniques and many different stitches. It’s up to the stitcher.  

That being said, if you are set on having an instruction booklet you have several options.

  • Buy a kit. Your options are more limited, but there are some gorgeous kits available (I've linked a few below).
  • Buy a canvas that comes with a stitch guide. A stitch guide is an instruction booklet for a specific canvas. Experienced needle pointers will decide which stitches and threads they would put on a canvas, stitch it up, create instructions, and sell it alongside the canvas. Not all canvases have stitch guides but quite a few do. Sometimes the stitch guide is included with the canvas, sometimes you have to purchase it separately.

We got pretty specific for just an overview.  I’ll be exploring a lot more as we continue the series. If there is something about needlepoint that is keeping you from trying it or if you have any specific questions - I would love to hear from you!