Same stitch, different looks

You can create variety within a design by using different stitches, but sometimes a different effect can be created simply by using a different weight of thread, or by changing the size of the stitch.

Take the French knot, for example. This can be a tiny little fly-speck, or a chunky sphere the size of a hailstone (not a very big hailstone, perhaps, but still). The difference in size and look can be achieved by several different means, such as the thickness of the thread, the type of thread, and the number of wraps. The thinner the thread, the smaller the knot. The smoother the thread, the smoother the knot. And the more wraps, the bigger the knot. In theory, there are no limits to the degree of variation in any of these, and you could, I suppose, work a French knot using a telegraph pole for a needle and heavy-duty steel cable for thread. It’s not something I’d like to try, but you could. There is, however, a limit to the number of wraps – too many and you end up with something more like a bullion knot than a French knot. Personally I find that three wraps is as much as a French knot will comfortably take, although I have known stitchers who could create beautiful four-wrap knots. Still, you get the idea: unlike chocolate, when it comes to wraps on a French knot there is such a thing as too much.

In the Little Wildflower Garden you can see the French knot thing in action, from tiny ones made with two wraps in one strand of cotton in the centre of the poppy, to big burly knots made with three wraps in three strands for the yellow daisy centres and some of the lavender. But what if you use a different thread altogether, like perle cotton? I grabbed a doodle cloth and some perles and here are the resulting six knots: one, two and three wraps in #8 and #5. Not my tidiest knots, I’m afraid, but they’ll give you an idea of the difference a wrap can make!

Six French knot variations

When I was designing the Round In Circles SAL, one of the things that I had to decide on was how big to make stitches. Much depends on the effect you’re after. Take the lazy daisy, for example: if you make it very long – that is to say, your anchoring stitch is a long way away from the hole where you take the needle up and down to form the loop – it will also be thin. It is almost impossible to make a long, plump lazy daisy. But keep them short and they will almost automatically form into nice wide petals, as here in Gingham Gems.

Plump lazy daisies

One of the stitches it took me quite some time to decide about was the Portuguese knotted stem stitch (yes, another spoiler alert – this is one of the stitches still to come smiley). Like normal stem stitch you can vary the length of the individual stitches making up the line; the shorter the individual stitches, the chubbier the line. This particular variation on stem stitch wraps around the stitches as they are made, giving extra texture, but the same principle applies: short constituent stitches, chunky line. And of course the thicker the thread, the thicker the line.

I didn’t really have a particular effect in mind when I started the design, so I tried four different stitch lengths in perle #5 and perle #8 simply to see which one I liked best, and also to see whether any of them were more awkward to work than others. As you can see here there is not quite such a spectacular difference in look, but enough to be worth considering what thread and stitch size give you the effect you want, especially when you look at the shortest and longest stitch sizes together.

Eight Portuguese stem stitch variations Portuguese stem stitch variations, shortest and longest

It’s a useful thing to remember that changing the look of a stitch sometimes takes no more than a change of thread, or of stitch length – so if in a particular design you’re not altogether pleased with the look of a stitch, why not do a bit of experimenting? That’s one of the wonderful things about embroidery: you can do whatever you like with your projects!

Naming a stitch

How do people name a stitch? Historically, stitches and techniques were sometimes named after the area in which they originated (or were thought to have originated), like Hardanger embroidery and Basque knot. Some were named because they resembled something, like chain stitch. I suspect that among early communities of women (it presumably would have been mostly women) who embroidered, new stitches would at first be known as “that lovely looped stitch Dorcas does” or “Martha’s variation on cross stitch” or something like that, before being given more mysterious names like oyster stitch or rice stitch. These names may not always be very descriptive or helpful in determining what sort of stitch it is or what it is likely to look like, but I suppose it sounds more attractive to say “dove’s eye” rather than “stitch that is looped around each of the four bars surrounding it”; it’s a lot quicker, too.

Although the temptation to go for fancy names can be strong, sometimes the name of a new stitch is obvious the moment you see it. What could I call this but “Y-bar”? (Well, all right, I suppose “catapult bar” would have worked too.)


Then one day I was experimenting on one of my doodle cloths and found myself with a new filling stitch. (Well, I’m fairly sure it’s new as I haven’t seen it anywhere else before or since, but do let me know if you have – even better if you can tell me the name as well.)

A new stitch

The stitch looked rather like exaggerated eyelashes, but I felt that “eyelash stitch” would be rather a silly name. What else did it remind me of? It could be one quarter of a sun, but I’d already used sunburst. Sunrise then? A bit too similar. On second thoughts, what’s wrong with eyelash stitch? It’s descriptive and memorable. So eyelash stitch it is – although in a set of four it does look rather more like a sun…

Eyelash stitch

Sometimes the question is, have I just created a new stitch, or is it no more than a combination or variation of existing ones? Can I justify giving it its own name at all? It can be quite difficult to find out whether a stitch has been done before, and if so what it is called, and if it is called the same thing by everyone. After all, what I know as “split twist” is known to others as “branch filling”, and “twisted bar” appears to refer to both a Hardanger filling stitch and something fancy done to an openwork hem, depending on which book or website you look at.

I came up against this question with what I gave the temporary name “looped V”. I’d seen similar stitches in pictures on the internet, but none of them quite like my version, so I decided I’d better give it a proper name. It has two loops and ends in a point, hence my original “looped V”, but that didn’t strike me as a good permanent name. Looped arrow? Looped point? At that stage, the diagram for it looked rather like a stylised mouse’s head with the loops and the two beads I’d added, so I briefly toyed with “mouse stitch”, but in the end I decided one bead was enough, and I didn’t think a one-eyed mouse would work smiley. For now the stitch will be known as looped arrow, unless and until I learn that it already exists and has a name. And what does it look like? You’ll have to wait for Round Nine in the Round In Circles SAL to find out!

Tidying up stitch diagrams

Although I use a computer program to create the charts I use in my chart packs, and quite a few of the stitch diagrams too, there are some stitches – most notably many of the looped and knotted ones – which I can’t adequately represent in a program originally meant for making your own cross stitch charts. So I draw them by hand in pencil, go over them in pen, erase the pencil lines, photograph or scan them, and turn them into an image which can be included in the chart packs.

So far so good. They work. They look a bit rustic, but they work.

But then one day, after I had imported one of these stitch diagrams into my photo editing program and had cropped it and fiddled with contrast and brightness and generally turned it into a usable image, I decided to see if I could tidy it up a bit. And I could. It was labour-intensive, and fiddly, and occasionally the experience ranged from frustrating to infuriating, but after the process it did look a lot better. Almost professional smiley!

One of the old diagrams for bead edging The tidied-up version

There was only one drawback: now that the new diagrams were looking so much neater, the old ones looked rather untidy by comparison. Still perfectly usable, but decidedly scruffy. I’ve tried to ignore it for a bit, but there’s no help for it – they will all have to be tidied up. And so, one or two at a time, I’m tidying. It’ll take a while, and then I’ll have to replace them in all the chart packs that contain any of the early hand-drawn diagrams, but eventually I hope to have a collection of chart packs looking a bit more sophisticated than they do now.

If you bought one or more of the chart packs containing these diagrams, do let me know if you’d like the new version when I get it done, and I’ll be happy to email it to you. On the other hand, if you feel the old drawings were more personal, authentic, artisan, in short, nicer, then do please cherish the copy you have – whichever look you prefer, both show equally well how the stitch is worked!