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Needlepoint Tapestry: A Guide

Introduction

Needlepoint remains one of the most widespread styles of needlework. Most women, and a few men, have done some needlepoint at some time in their lives, often when they were young; some stitch every day. If you want to give it a try and either don't know or can't remember how, these pages are here to help you.

Needlepoint tapestry is a type of canvaswork, that is needlework stitched on canvas, usually using wool yarn. Needlework designs are available in four forms hand-drawn or hand painted, charted, trammed canvas and printed canvas.

Originally all needlepoint was worked by drawing the design onto the canvas. This was usually done by the needleworker herself either as an original design or copied from a book of patterns. Today this tradition continues in the form of hand painted canvases in which the design is carefully painted onto the canvas. Some hand painted canvases are entirely unique but most are copied from an original design. Hand pained canvases are usually sold on their own but sometimes come as kits with the yarn required for stitching the design. Unsurprisingly, hand painted canvases can be expensive.

Hand painted tapestry canvas

Victorian chart for Berlin Work, the early term for needlepoint tapestry

Charted designs date back to the early nineteenth century when the needlepoint first became fashonable, although it was called Berlin Wool Work or simply Berlin Work back then. The fashion was prompted by the development of new more colourful chemical dyes and lasted for most of the century. Charts were printed in booklets and later books and magazines and were very popular. Many books of charted designs are available and this remains the most inexpensive form of needlepoint.
Trammed canvases were developed towards the end of the nineteenth century as a way of selling complex designs without the need for the customer to count stitches. The design is stitched onto the canvas using horizontal stitches of varying lengths and colours.  The customer then simply stitches over the horizontal stitches in the appropriate colour. Because the designs are stitched by hand trammed canvases are relatively expensive. Most trammed canvases are supplied with wool for stitching the design area only so the customer is free to choose the colour of the background areas according to their taste. Most trammed canvases are made on the Portugese island of Madeira which is a centre for the manufacture of all types of embroidered goods. Trammed canvases are particularly suited to use in upholstery of antique furniture and many original Victorian designs are still available today.

Traditional trammed tapestry canvas with inset showing detail of the trammé stitches and an area of petit point

Printed canvas needlepoint tapestry canvas with inset showing printed fabric
It was not until the 1980's that printing technology developed to the stage where it was possible to print designs directly onto canvas and it remains a specialist technique as the printed design and the weave of the fabric must be carefully matched. The development of printed needlepoint canvases led to a second upsurge in interest in needlepoint which has persisted to this day. Printed canvas needlepoint is the most common form today. Most printed canvas needlepoint is sold together with the wool for stitching the design as a kit although canvases are available without wool from some manufacturers.

Materials

Canvas

Canvas was originally made from hemp, indeed the word is derived from the Ancient Greek word for hemp, Kannabis; however, today almost all canvas is made from cotton. It comes in a range of gauges or counts, usually expressed in terms of the number of threads per inch; thus 12 gauge canvas has 12 threads per inch horizontally and vertically. The most common gauges of canvas used today are 10, 12 and 14 count. Larger gauge canvas, eg 10 count, is much easier and quicker to stitch and is most suitable for beginners. Even larger gauge canvas is available and is used for making rugs and large wall-hangings.

The most common colours of canvas are white and antique, a pale brown similar to the natural colour of hemp. Use white canvas when stitching pale colours and antique when stitching darker colours. Recently manufacturers have also introduced coloured canvas - designed so that you don't have to cover the whole of the canvas with stitches but can leave some exposed in a similar way to counted cross stitch.

There are three principal types of canvas:

Mono The earliest and original form of canvas is now less often used as it is not as robust than other types. It is made from a simple weave of single threads. Several stitches, in particular half cross stitch, cannot be used on mono canvas as the yarn will pull between the threads where they cross. It is more flexible than interlock canvas and thus is particularly suited for making cushions.
Duo (or Penelope) Duo canvas is made up of pairs of thread and was introduced to give a more robust canvas than mono. The canvas has alternate large and small holes; generally only the large holes are used. Petit point is a technique in which both sets of holes are stitched with tent stitch using fine crewel wool yarn, usually for small areas where extra detail is required in the design, such as faces.

It is also used for trammed work where the design is marked out with horizontal lines of straight stitches between the small holes in the canvas using crewel wool.

Interlock The most common canvas today, it is a mono canvas in which during manufacture the warp and weft threads are either twisted or stiched through each other so that they cannot move.

Wool

Most needlepoint tapestry is stitched with wool yarn but cotton or silk are also used sometimes as too are various fancy yarns of modern synthetic fibers, usually in small areas for embelishment. The leading brands of wool used for tapestry are Anchor, DMC, Appletons Brothers and Paterna. Wool for needlepoint tapestry comes in three types, Tapestry Wool and Crewel Wool and Persian. Tapestry Wool is used as supplied and one strand is suitable for canvas between 10 and 14 guage. It is made up of several, typically four, spun fibers and cannot be split. If you use use two strands it is also suitable for the very coarse canvases used for needlepoint rugs. Crewel Wool is very fine, comprising two spun fibers twisted together. It is used as supplied for very fine canvas or in two or more strands for normal guages of canvas. Persian yarn is made up of several, typically three, strands of crewel wool twisted together. It is very versatile as it can be used as supplied or split into strands and used as crewel wool.

Anchor Tapestry Wool
Appletons Brothers Crewel Wool
Paterna Persian Yarn

Needles

Tapestry needles have blunt points to avoid splitting the fibers of the canvas. They are sold in a range of sizes from size 13, the largest, to size 28, the finest. Size 18 is the most common size suitable for most projects. Choosing the size of needle is a balance between it being large enough to thread with your chosen yarn but small enough to pass easily through the canvas.

Stitches

There are a huge range of stitches that can be used for needlepoint. Tent stitch is by far the most common and is great for beginners, but why not try something different for a change. Trammed canvases in particular are great for using different stitches since they usually have large areas of background to be filled.

Most needlepoint is worked in a single stitch. Designs that use a wide range of stitches, using the variation of textures as part of the design as much as variations in colour is commonly referred to as canvaswork although there is no clear division between the two forms.

How many threads to use

Depending on the type of yarn you are using, the gauge of your canvas and the stitch you choose you will need to thread one or more strands of yarn on your needle. Choosing how many threads to use is a balance between being able to pass the yarn easily through the canvas and having sufficient bulk to cover the fibers of the canvas without it showing through (or grinning). Grinning is more of a problem with white canvas than with antique (brown) or a colour printed canvas. The table below gives a guide to the number of threads to use.

Canvas Gauge Stitch Tapestry wool Crewel wool Persian yarn
8 Tent Stitch 2 6 1 thread (ie 3 strands)
8 Victorian Cross Stitch 1 4 2 strands
10 Tent Stitch 1 3 or 4 2 strands
12 Tent Stitch 1 3 2 strands
14 Tent Stitch - 2 1 strand
16 Tent Stitch - 1 1 strand

Basic techniques

Many people like to use a frame when stitching but it is not essential. The canvas is sewn or clipped to the frame and then tensioned, like a drum, to give a flat sewing surface. Using a frame reduces the risk of the canvas becoming distorted but some people find them cumbersome. Do whatever you prefer!

Before beginning stitching it is advisable to bind any exposed edges with masking tape or to hem them as this will prevent the yarn snagging. It is generally advisable to begin stitching in the centre of the design and to work outward. This is particularly important when stitching from a chart as it prevents the awful situation of finding you have started too far over on the canvas and there is not enough canvas left to finish the design.

Cut your yarn into lengths of about 20in (50cm) long and thread the needle. Some people knot the yarn to start the stitch, other people sew the lose end in to the first row of stitches. There is considerable, sometimes heated, debate over the issue on using knots - again do whatever you prefer. When stitching try to keep a loose even tension. If you pull each stitch tight this will cause your work to distort which will have to be corrected later. It is perfectly possible to stitch without a frame and not need to stretch your canvas provided you keep as appropriate tension.

When you have finished a length of yarn simply thread it through a series of stitches on the back of the canvas to hold it in place and cut off the excess. When moving from one area of a colour to another either run a thread across the back of the work if it is not too far or finish the thread off and start again.

 

Finishing your work

Stretching your canvas

Some stitches can cause the canvas to distort and you should be careful not to pull your stitches too tight as this will aggravate the problem. Also, using a tapestry frame will help. However, if your canvas is distorted it can be stretched back into shape as follows.

Machine or hand stitch a narrow hem on all four sides of the canvas. If your work is only slightly misshapen it may be easier to stretch it in a dry state. If, however, it is badly distorted you will need to stretch the canvas while it is damp (although not soaked). Tack the canvas face down on to a sheet of plywood, beginning with a tack in the centre of each side (through the hem), then work outwards towards the corners, spacing the tacks no more than one inch apart. To achieve a canvas where the threads are running straight and at right angles to each other is a process of trial and error. When you have stretched the piece to your satisfaction lay a damp cloth on it and iron over it lightly. Leave the canvas tacked onto the board for 48 hours. You may then like to apply a fixing solution which you can obtain commercially, but this is probably only necessary if your work is going to be placed in damp conditions, which can cause the canvas to return to its original un-stretched state.

Making up into a cushion

You will need some backing fabric, velvet or heavy weight silk are ideal and some wadding, either a premade cushion pad or some stuffing material such as Kapok or feathers. You may also want some piping cord for edging the cushion.

Trim the canvas, leaving about one inch of unstitched canvas around the worked design. Cut a piece of backing fabric the same size as the trimmed canvas, and pin or tack the backing and canvas together on three sides, with the right sides facing. With the worked canvas uppermost, machine or backstitch on three sides and part of the fourth as close to the edge of your needlework as possible. Close to the stitching line cut diagonally across the corners and turn the cushion right side out, being careful to push the corners fully out. Hand stitch the piping cord, if used, over the centre of the join between the backing fabric and the canvas, starting at one corner of the partially open side. Once the cording has been stitched on three sides insert the cushion pad or filling. Slip stitch the open side, leaving a small gap at the corner where the join in the piping cord will lie. Finish stitching the cording on to the slip stitched seam and tuck the ends of the cord into the gap at the corner, stitching the gap closed at the same time.