Excursions into needlepoint

I’ve been binge listening to Fiber Talk podcasts recently, and one of the types of needlework that is often discussed (at least in part because both Gary and Christine are into it) is needlepoint. Now I understand from their discussions that American needlepoint is somewhat different from English/Continental needlepoint, and uses many more types of stitches and threads. As they were talking about Jessica stitches with Debbie Rowley I thought, “I’ve done Jessica stitches! I’ve been doing needlepoint and I didn’t know it!”

Of course many stitches are what you might call cross-over (I feel I ought to insert a cross stitch pun here) or multi-purpose, in that they can be used in several styles or techniques of needlework. French knots for example crop up in freestyle, ribbon and counted embroidery, and probably some other styles as well. And so with the Jessica, although I would say that you’re unlikely to see it outside counted work. Mine were used in the Hardanger piece Treasure Trove, framing padded circles of metallic kid leather.

Needlepoint, however, seems to be defined by its ground fabric, which is canvas. Years ago I inherited some 18 point canvas (i.e. 18 holes to the inch), and I must have intended to do something with it because one square piece has been cut from it and the edges bound (well, stuck) with masking tape. I have no idea what happened to the project I meant it for. At more or less the same time I bought some Congress cloth, which is a 24 count canvas; that’s the one I used for the Necessities Sampler which now adorns one of my stash boxes, and I also tried out some Hardanger on it.

Necessities Sampler on Congress cloth

Now as I was looking for something in the many needlework folders on my computer, I came across a small design I must have saved to my Inspirations/One-Day-I-Will-Get-Round-To-This folder years ago.

Now where did I find this design?

As you can see it is actually stitched on fabric, not canvas, but I thought it would be the perfect little thing to refresh my acquaintance with canvas work. I dug out the 18 point canvas and the Congress cloth (in cream and black) and picked some Appleton’s crewel wool for the former, and Carrie’s Creations overdyed stranded cotton for the latter.

Trying out threads and canvases

I decided to start with the canvas, as it would be a bit easier on the eyes and they are giving me a little trouble at the moment. Unfortunately I decided against starting in the middle with the Rhodes stitch, which would have “anchored” the various parts to each other, and having done one of the Amadeus stitches (the blue fan-like shape in the corner) I then got so carried away with the rhythm of the double herringbone that I took it too far. Equally unfortunately I carried the threads to continue from the left-hand row of herringbone to the right-hand one, which will therefore also have to be unpicked. I couldn’t quite face that, so switched to stranded cotton on black Congress cloth.

Appleton's crewel wool on 18-count canvas

Yes. Black. Which is not easy on the eyes. But it does make those bright colours pop smiley. And having learnt from my canvas experience and started with the central Rhodes stitch, I then managed a fair bit of work in the doctor’s waiting room!

Waiting room progress

It was finished at home, and inspected by the resident feline. I think she approved. It’s hard to tell sometimes.

The finished project inspected by a feline Lexi approves. I think.

The next day I finished the canvas version as well, and it’s interesting to see how different the two are, when (apart from a little variation in the herringbone stitch) they are identical and stitched in very similar colours. Perhaps it’s my preference for smaller things, perhaps it’s that striking contrast of the jewel colours on black, but I definitely like the Congress cloth one best.

On 18 point canvas On Congress cloth The same motif on 18 point canvas and Congress cloth

Even though I don’t think I’ll ever get into needlepoint to the extent of doing a large project, I enjoyed these small snippets; there is something almost mesmerising about the rhythm and repetition-with-variation of these stitches – quite meditative, really. Some of the needlepoint stitches I’m discovering may well find their way into future counted designs, but even if they don’t, I’m just having fun with these! Well, apart from unpicking several rows of double herringbone stitch with the Appleton’s getting thinner and flakier all the time… in fact in the end I cut my losses and started over again on a fresh bit of canvas (shh, don’t tell anyone).

Congress cloth Hardanger and freedom to vary

Does Hardanger have to be stitched on Hardanger fabric? If you have ever browsed Mabel’s designs (or those of many other designers), you’ll know that the answer to that is “no”. In fact, when Hardanger embroidery started there was no Hardanger fabric. As long as the fabric is an evenweave, and as long as you can find threads in suitable thicknesses, you can use whatever you like, from 14ct afghan fabric to 55ct linen (I’ve seen the pictures to prove it, but haven’t been brave enough to try it myself). Even so, the fabric of choice of Nordic Needle’s Roz Watnemo has always struck me as unusual – Congress cloth.

Why unusual? It’s not the count; at 24 threads to the inch it’s perfect to use with perle #5 and #8. But it’s not a fabric – it’s a canvas. That means it’s very stiff and also quite open, both of which seemed to me unsympathetic to Hardanger. My main questions were: if the weave of the fabric is relatively open, will there be enough contrast between it and the cut parts? Won’t the stiffness make it harder to cut, and practically impossible to tuck in the cut ends? Will the stiffer threads have enough “give” when working bars, for example when pulled together in a wrapped bar? There was really only one way to find out. Try it.

To my surprise, it worked. Of course it shouldn’t really have surprised me – if an experienced Hardangerista like Roz Watnemo swears by it, it’s unlikely to be impossible. Even so, I hadn’t expected it to stitch up just as quickly as on my usual fabrics.

Hardanger on Congress cloth

So how did the experience differ from my normal stitching? And will I use Congress cloth again? To begin with the first question, for one thing the material is much stiffer. You couldn’t use a hoop if you wanted to, I think. But then, you don’t need it, as tension is not really a problem with such a stable material. With a small snippet of a project like this, not having to use a hoop is quite an advantage, as it saves on material – you can stitch in hand on a little off-cut, rather than having to use a 5″ square to fit a 4″ hoop (note to self: must try a 3″ one to see if it will do; perhaps if I work “in the well”?). Not sure how I’d like to stitch anything big on this canvas, though I suppose a roller frame would work if you didn’t want to stitch a large project in hand.

Cutting was fine, the squissors coped beautifully with the stiffer threads, but as predicted, poking in the cut ends is more difficult on Congress cloth than on Hardanger fabric or Lugana (looking at pictures of Congress cloth Hardanger projects online I didn’t find any without visible cut ends). They do eventually bend back on themselves, but they are more likely to unbend again and poke their annoying little heads through the stitches. Working the bars was much easier than I’d expected: the canvas had enough “give” to allow me to pull the threads together. And finally, the look of it. That is to a great extent a matter of taste, but for me the weave is just too open – too much of the coloured backing shines through, making the contrast with the cut areas less striking.

Congress cloth vs Hardanger fabric

The answer, then, is no, I won’t be using it again; at least not for Hardanger. But it was an interesting experiment to try, and I can see it would be a useful material for building up 3D Hardanger shapes such as Christmas ornaments.

As I was stitching the patch for the last of my sixteen bookmarks yesterday, I suddenly realised that I’ve completed the wrapped bar/sunburst models needed for potential kits (except for the pink and turquoise versions as I had only one tag of each and they’d already been made up with woven bar/dove’s eye patches). This means that I am now free to stitch any future felt-tag-bookmarks-for-charity with whatever backstitch motif & bar & filling combination I’d like to use. To celebrate I finished number sixteen with picots smiley.

A picot felt bookmark

When I’ve ordered some more tags I’d like to try personalising one or two by stitching initials underneath the patch (chain stitch, probably). And stitch a few with the little baptism cross – being rectangular rather than square it would look good on the rectangular bookmark, and both good causes I am stitching for (Dunchurch Baptist Church's new building, and the Elijah Gambia foundation) are Christian, and likely to attract a fair number of fellow Christians to their charity sales. It looks like I’ll have plenty of enjoyable little projects to keep me occupied even if I don’t get round to my larger designs – and of course the annual Christmas Craft Event is looming, so I need to think up a project for that as well!

PS Two of the bookmarks are now in the hands of bibliophile friends who have promised to test-drive them ruthlessly. We’ll see how they stand up to the treatment…