Sometimes referred to as canvas work, needlepoint is a type of embroidery that dates back to the ancient Egyptians. Traditionally done by stitching wool yarn through a stiff even weave canvas, the craft these days uses different types of thread—from silk and cotton yarns to ribbons and metallic cords—to create different textures.
Though it can sometimes be confused with cross-stitch, needlepoint has a wide variety of stitches, as opposed to the single stitch used by cross stitchers. Different stitches can be used depending on the coverage needed and how durable the final piece needs to be.
Durability is often key, as needlepoint came into wide popularity during the 17th century, when upholstered furniture became fashionable—in fact, it’s remained in use ever since, as it’s still used for household items like pillows today. These days, needlepoint is often used to decorate accessories like belts, purses, keychains, jewelry, and eye glass cases in addition to wall hangings. The final result is like a tapestry, but done with a needle instead of a loom.
Within needlepoint, there are a few subcategories. These are based on the number of holes per inch in the canvas. Petit point is needlepoint done on a small scale, typically on canvas with 16 to 20 mesh holes per inch. This type of needlepoint uses a tent stitch on silk gauze and was very popular in the 18th century.
If the canvas has between 8 to 16 squares per inch, it’s called gros point, while canvas with fewer than 7 holes per inch is called quick point. The important thing to remember is that the more holes per square inch, the more detailed—and time-consuming—your design will be.
Just as hand embroidery is making a comeback, more and more people are finding needlepoint a relaxed and satisfying outlet for their creativity. Let’s look at all the things you need to know to give the ancient craft a try for yourself.
Canvases can be hand-painted with a design, which can then be used as a guide for stitching. Alternatively, they can be left blank for freestyle needlepoint or used with a pattern for counted stitches. The canvas comes in a variety of stiffnesses and colors. Plastic canvas is great for beginners who are looking to practice their stitches, while mono canvas is perfect for hand painted projects.
Wool yarn is the traditional thread of choice for needlepoint, though silk yarn is frequently used in contemporary needlepoint. For small petit point projects, crewel yarns are often used. This fine wool is perfect for the detail needed and can also be great for blending. Persian yarn is the most common thread used. Paternayan is a popular brand. It can be purchased in hundreds of colors and is 3-ply, which means it can be separated to the thickness desired. Tapestry yarn, which cannot be separated, is thick and gives great coverage when working in gros point.
Additionally, you’ll need to purchase tapestry needles (which have blunt ends) and something to secure your canvas. Needlepoint isn’t typically stretched in hoops like other types of hand embroidery, due to the size and stiffness of the canvas. It’s more common to use stretcher bars or scroll frames and even lap stands for large projects.
Basic Needlepoint Stitches
While there are over 150 needlepoint stitches, most are variations on a few basic stitches—a long stitch that covers more than one square or a tent stitch that covers one intersection of threads. In fact, many beginners to needlepoint can get fantastic results using just three variations of the tent stitch. We’ll take a look at each basic stitch, but if you are looking for advanced techniques, watch this YouTube playlist by Sarah Homfray Embroidery or pick up the Plastic Canvas Stitch Dictionary.
This simple stitch will be familiar to cross-stitchers, as it’s one half of the X used in that technique. The half stitch moves from bottom left to top right of each square and is best used for small areas in one color. While the half stitch doesn’t use a lot of yarn, it also doesn’t provide great coverage. But, as it’s one of the easiest stitches to learn, it can be a good starting point for beginners.
The continental stitch provides great coverage, and is the most used of the basic tent stitches. As it can distort the canvas, it’s best not to use it for large open areas, but rather for outlines, details, and small background areas. The continental stitch is very durable and your resulting needlepoint should last a lifetime when it’s used. How do you create a continental stitch? Watch the video below for a demonstration.
This tent stitch moves in diagonal rows up and down the canvas and is used for large coverage areas because it distorts the canvas the least. It also provides great stability thanks to the alternating warp and weft threads it lays over. Watch this tutorial to see how to make the perfect basketweave stitch to firm up your needlepoint.
Now that you have your basic stitches down, here are some needlepoint kits to help you start your next project.