Most stitchers I know are not enamoured of fastening on and off (and some, like me, therefore choose to use threads that are far too long and by doing so cause themselves more problems than if they’s just fastened on and off a bit more often…) Still, it has to be done, and recently I’ve been thinking a bit more about the various methods I use to fasten on and off, and what determines which one I choose.
First of all a confession. I use knots. At the back of my work. Drum me out of the Society of True Embroiderers if you like, but if I’m stitching a small project that will go into a padded card, standard knots will do me just fine (for fastening on, that is; I fasten off by weaving under previous stitches). Sometimes I use them in larger projects too, if I know the end product is going to be padded, and is not going to be handled or washed or generally fiddled with. So that’s the first method I use, and it is by far my favourite because it is quick and easy.
Quick and easy partly because I use a method for knotting the end of the thread which I learnt from my grandmother, and which I’ve only recently found out is known in English as a quilter’s knot or a tailor’s knot. Note about the pictures: I realised too late that the needle I’m using has a curved tip – I grabbed the first one that was about the right size and forgot that this was the one my husband bent for me as an experiment to use for ribbed spider’s web stitch. It makes no difference to the knot, but just in case it looks a bit odd in some of the pictures, that’s why .
Anyway, on to the knot. Thread your needle, then place the end of your thread on the needle’s eye. Place your thumb over it to keep it secure, then wrap the thread around the needle a few times. Push the wraps down the needle towards the eye so that you can pinch them with your thumb and forefinger, then very gently pull the needle through, and you’ll end up with a knot at the end of the thread. In effect you’ve just made a French knot without the fabric! Incidentally, the length of the tail after the knot depends on how much the thread overhangs the needle in the first step; I tend to put the very end of the thread onto the eye and so have practically no tail at all, but too little and it may undo itself. On the whole, however, this seems to be a perfectly secure way of making a knot.
However, most books on embroidery will tell you that it is better not to have knots at the back of your work. They may come undone, they may cause lumps and bumps, you may catch them with your needle – and so they advise a knotless way of fastening on. These often start with a knot, but it’s a knot that will get snipped off later, hence its name “waste knot”. Knot your thread, then start by taking the needle down somewhere along the line that you’ll be stitching so that the knot sits at the front of the fabric, then come up at the start of the design line and start stitching towards the knot. When you get to the knot, you can snip it off – but first check the back of your work! With stitches like stem stitch, the stitches at the back may not actually be covering the tail leading to the knot…
This is why a waste knot works best with stitches where the thread at the back of the work are at an angle to the tail you are trying to cover, rather than going in the same direction. The pictures below show a line of Palestrina knots being worked towards the waste knot; as you can see the stitches automatically secure the tail because of the way they are positioned.
When the waste knot method is not ideal, you can use the away knot. This is like a waste knot a long way away instead of on the design line. As before, knot your thread, then start by taking the needle down a good distance away from your starting point (the tail needs to be long enough to thread comfortably in a needle). Work your stitches in the usual way, and after four or five stitches cut the away knot. You now have a tail at the back of the work.
Thread the tail, then weave the needle behind a few stitches at the back as though you were fastening off. Snip off any excess thread and continue stitching.
And finally the method which uses/wastes the least thread of any no-remaining-knot ways of fastening on: anchoring stitches. This is the method they teach at the RSN, and which I’ve been using throughout my Jacobean Tree of Life. It has the advantage that you can start and finish at the front of the work so you don’t have to flip your hoop or frame – particularly useful when working with a cumbersome slate frame on trestles!
Knot your thread, then take the needle down either on the design line or in a nearby area that will be covered later. Work two or three tiny stab stitches (taking the needle straight up and down), then bring the needle up at the starting point. Work a few stitches according to the design, the snip off the knot. To fasten off (not shown in the pictures), work a few tiny stitches snuggled underneath your “proper” stitches or again on a line or in a shape that will be covered, bring the needle to the front and cut the thread.
On the whole this works really well, but I have on occasion found myself pulling the thread through if I snipped the knot too quickly, especially with a slippery thread like silk; so if at all possible work a few stitches before cutting the knot.
There are other starting methods out there, like the pin stitch, but these are ones I find myself returning to most. If your favourite fastening on/fastening off method isn’t mentioned here, do champion it in the comments!