Some people stitch anything from card-sized designs to enormous tablecloths or sheets without any hoop or frame. I have long since learnt that unless a project is less than 2 inches or so across, I simply can’t do it, and even then I prefer to have it hooped up. This might be seen as rather wasteful of fabric, since a small project requires relatively more spare fabric in order to fit into a hoop, but it does make my stitching so much more comfortable that this is one extravagance I am willing to indulge in. (Incidentally, my preference for using hoops combined with my dislike of placing a hoop over areas already stitched may well explain why very few of my designs are larger than will fit comfortably inside a 12″ hoop. For any that are I use my Millennium frame.)
So a hoop I must have, whatever the project. But what sort of hoop? There is a bewildering variety out there! Quite apart from the size, which in my case is more or less dictated by the size of the design, there is a choice of materials, shapes and thicknesses. Hoops come in wood, stiff plastic, flexible rubber, bamboo, and several other materials; they are usually round, but can also be oval or square; and they can be narrow or deep.
I’m not aiming for completeness here, so there will be types of hoop I don’t mention in detail, or indeed at all. For example, I have occasionally used spring tension hoops, which consist of a very springy metal inner ring that squeezes into a plastic grooved outer ring and are often used for machine embroidery; I may even have one lurking in a drawer somewhere. But I would never choose them now, because I found the tension so high that it sometimes distorted the fabric, and the background almost always puckered when I took the project out of the hoop after completing the stitching. Then there are Q-snaps, which some people swear by; more of a frame really, but generally held in hand like a hoop, and made from chunky plastic tubes to which the fabric is attached with plastic clips that look like tubes with a bit missing. As I say, some people love them, but I found them too heavy, and too chunky to hold comfortably. I will leave detailed descriptions of these types of hoop to people who enjoy using them and have therefore used them a lot more than I have.
The most usual hoop, the one which many embroiderers start their first needlework with, and which many of us remember from the workboxes of grandmothers and great aunts, is the wooden hoop. They have a tightening screw on the outer ring (the one with the gap at the top), which can be done up by hand, or with a screwdriver for serious tightness. I have found most wooden hoops to be prone to “sagging” after a while, so you have to keep pulling the fabric, but this may of course be because I didn’t tighten the outer ring enough; I’m still experimenting with that. Binding the inner hoop apparently helps with tension; I have not yet tried this (but see below). And some people prefer their fabric slightly slack, so they can use the sewing method of stitching, where the needle goes in and out of the fabric in a single motion, and isn’t taken right through to the back. Wooden hoops work well for this.
Two variations on the wooden hoop are the square and the deep hoop. The former is square-ish rather than square, for perfectly understandable practical reasons. I find them useful mainly for square designs (and many of my designs are square) as you can get away with a smaller hoop (and therefore less fabric) compared to fitting a square design in a round hoop.
Standard hoops tend to be about 1cm deep, give or take a millimetre. You can get deeper ones, ranging from 5/8″ (a little over 1½cm) to 7/8″ (about 2¼cm). The two I bought from the RSN shop are exactly 2cm. The advantage of the deeper rings is that they grip more of the fabric, so that once you’ve got the tension you want, it’s more likely to stay like that.
My collection of hoops tends to have several sizes of each type, but I have only one of the type shown below, and I think it came in a collection of embroidery materials donated to me by a lady whose elderly relative could no longer stitch because of arthritis. It is a stiff plastic hoop with a lip on the inner ring, intended to grip the fabric more firmly and prevent slipping. It works just fine, but because of the lip any adjustment to the fabric by a quick and gentle tug is impossible, which means it languishes in my hoop drawer unloved and unused. I really should pass it on to someone who does like it!
The type of hoop I use most of all is the flexi-hoop. These consist of a stiff inner ring and a flexible rubber continuous outer ring – no gap at the top. They usually come provided with a decorative metal hanging loop (which sometimes tricks people into trying to use it for tightening); flexi-hoops are meant as much for display as for use in the stitching process. Because the outer ring is continuous, it cannot be tightened; but because it is made of flexible but fairly tight rubber, it generally doesn’t need tightening. To me they are invaluable for small to medium projects where I want the fabric good and taut. As with all hoops, the bigger the hoop the more easily the fabric loses tension, and when you get to the 8″ hoops the fabric is slightly looser, but I find it still compares favourably with the tension on wooden hoops. Although they seem to be made to be used once as a stitching hoop and then as a display frame for that particular project, you can actually use them again and again as a working hoop without the tension becoming noticeably less over time. Some of mine have been in use for at least five or six years and are still going strong.
One type of hoop which I first met only recently is the bamboo hoop; it came with a Kelly Fletcher kit, and I like it very much. It holds the tension well (even when pulling a needle with four strands through top and backing fabric, which can take a bit of tugging) and it is incredibly light, which is nice and easy on the hand that holds it. I liked it so much that I got a set of 12 small ones to use in workshops besides my usual flexi-hoops.
Like a lot of things in needlework, the choice of hoop comes down to personal preference. If weight (or rather, lack of weight) is important, bamboo is a good choice. Flexi-hoops keep fabric nice and taut, but can’t really be slackened off if you temporarily want less tension on the fabric, for example when doing bullion knots or any other stitch where the stabbing method of stitching is impossible or less suitable. Deep hoops grab more of the fabric and are therefore less prone to sagging, but I find them a bit less comfortable to hold, and so use them only when tension is really important, for example in goldwork. Even then I prefer to use them with a stand or clamp rather than in hand. Standard (narrow) wooden hoops are easy to find and good value, and allow for both tautness and slackening off. My advice would be to buy or borrow several types of hoop (preferably all the same size) and work on a single project for a bit using each one of them in turn. That will tell you more about the right hoop for you than any number of reviews can (useful and informative though they may be).
And finally a slight digression; it’s still hoop-related, though, so I’ll allow it . Recently I received an email about the Medieval Embroidery retreat I’ll be attending at Coombe Abbey. It gave details about when to be there, lunches and tea breaks (very important!) and a list of things to bring. Among them was a hoop, which they recommended should be bound. Until now I have never bound a hoop in my life, but many very experienced embroiderers say it is A Good Thing and worth the effort, so this was the perfect time to give it a try. I got some cotton twill tape and set to. And after a long time and some (moderately) bad language, all I can say is: unless the effect is really really noticeable, never again! I know that once a hoop is bound it stays bound for years, if done well, but my goodness what a fiddly job. I may of course have been doing it wrong (despite watching Sarah Homfray’s instruction video and reading Mary Corbet’s blog post on the subject) but I found it impossible to get the tape to lie completely flat. Still, here it is – I’ll let you know after the retreat whether I will ever bind another hoop…