I learnt to sew years before I learnt to knit, and I still enjoy hand-stitching. It’s meditative and I love how the feel of the fabric changes as you stitch. Over the years I’ve done many different types of hand-stitching from free-style embroidery to cross stitch to needlepoint to blackwork to dressmaking (by hand for dolls only!).
In the UK, all-over canvas work is often referred to as “tapestry”, although the correct name is needlepoint. I was introduced to needlepoint by one of my grandmothers. She was an enthusiast who had needlepoint pictures all over her house. So, I think that it must have been her who bought me my first kit; a landscape with horses printed on a canvas; the yarn colours were a bit crude, but that did not put me off. Now, there’s something quite addictive about this type of canvas work. You decide you should stop for now, but then you think, I’ll just finish this length of yarn; I’ll just finish this row; I’ll just start a new colour, and so it goes…
So, what exactly is needlepoint? It is a type of counted thread embroidery worked on a stiff open-weave fabric known as canvas. Only one type of stitch is worked, usually “tent stitch”, sometimes “half-cross stitch” and the stitches cover the canvas. In contrast, a true tapestry is woven, not stitched. Maybe the confusion arises because both can be used to make wall-hangings, which to a non-stitcher would look quite similar.
There are different ways of buying needlepoint designs.
- Canvases are sold with the design printed on them. A square of colour represents a single stitch. However, it can be difficult to know which colour yarn to use if the print is not correctly aligned with the canvas, or if the printed colours are not sufficiently distinct.
- Some canvases are “trammed”. On these, the design is indicated by horizontal stitches made using the correct colour yarn, so it easy to know which colour yarn to use. The stitcher stitches over the trams in the same colour yarn. The disadvantage is the price.
- A third possibility is to buy a blank canvas and follow a chart, in which a coloured square represents a stitch. There are no problems with print alignment, so it is clear which colour should be used for each stitch. However, stitchers need to count carefully if they are going to work in unconnected areas.
I have tried all three approaches. The horse needlepoint I mentioned earlier was printed. I inherited a couple of part-done Scottish landscapes from my grandmother; these were trammed, were in really beautiful colours, and were easier to work than the printed canvases. I have also made a couple of cushions following charts from “Glorious Needlepoint” by Kaffe Fassett. One of these is the pear cushion shown at the beginning of this post, and the other is a plum cushion; dare I admit it, it is stitched but not yet made into a cushion! I prefer following charts to using a printed canvas, since it is more precise, and I like precision! However, I know charts are not for everyone! In “Glorious Needlepoint” there are also photos of cushions with apples and cherries, but alas no charts! These were produced in kit form by Ehrman Tapestry, and I was lucky enough to be given both for Christmas; actually not this Christmas, but quite a few years ago – I’m on a mission to complete some unstarted or unfinished projects!
I’m always excited when I begin a new project, particularly one with colour and yarn. Lots of yarn in beautiful colours! The first thing to do is to cut off the right-hand side of the canvas, which you use to make a shade card by attaching a short length of each yarn to the appropriate coloured square. This is a clever idea and a necessary one since there are eight different greens!
The design is printed on the canvas. Where to start? I wanted to start with the yellow; there’s not much of it and it is such a cheerful colour. However, I realised that it would be easier to start with the small patch of mint green in the centre of the yellow, then work the odd taupe stitches and after this fill in the gaps with the yellow. Essentially, this is easy stitching, but you do develop strategies to help break it into bite-sized pieces.
I prefer to stitch using a frame. I’ve had several and this one (the Millenium frame) from Needle Needs is the best by a long way. It’s beautifully made and a clever design, which is simple to set up; the canvas is wrapped around dowels and inserted into the horizontal bars; no stitching involved. The vertical side stretchers are inserted and the canvas tightened using wooden screws. The frame just sits on the arms of the floor stand (Necessaire floor stand, also from Needle Needs), so it is easy to turn over. I’ve also used the floor stand to support a quilt that I was hand stitching.
The design is printed on canvas. Where to start? I wanted to start with the yellow; there’s not much of it and it is such a cheerful colour. However, I realised that it would be easier to start with the small patch of mint green in the centre of the yellow, then work the odd taupe stitches and after this fill in the gaps with the yellow. Essentially, this is easy stitching, but you do develop strategies to help break it into bite-sized pieces.
Next, I started the apple’s blush. There are three shades of red, a burgundy, a scarlet and an orange-red. The colours are not so easy to distinguish on the canvas, so I started with the scarlet, the middle shade since after this the remaining two are easy to tell apart.
Once I have stitched the apple and its leaves, I shall fill in the gaps with the background colour. That is how I shall “eat this elephant”!