Needlepoint Embroidery

Expand your base of creative skills by learning a "new” old craft.

by Dani Yokhna
Photo by Stephanie Staton
Needlepoint can be used to make a number of different items, including purses, boxes, glasses cases and wall hangings.

If you’re a hobbyist looking to expand your craft skill set, you might consider a classic, timeless craft that has endured through the ages: needlepoint embroidery.

Needlepoint History
No one really knows when or where needlework had its beginnings, but it’s known to be an ancient craft.

Many historians believe needlework had its origins in China, where a tradition of using hair as embroidery thread is reported to date back to the Tang Dynasty, which reigned from 618 to 907 A.D. Archaeologist Howard Carter, who discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamen in 1922, found fragments of needlework among the artifacts entombed with the Egyptian pharaoh, who ruled from about 1333 to 1324 B.C.

Hobby Farm HomeOn this continent, the Anasazi people of the Southwest are said to have created cotton tapestries as early as 700 A.D. References to needlework can be found in the writings of Pliny the Elder and even in The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Many forms of needlework have been handed down through the centuries, adapting and changing according to culture, custom, and innovations in techniques and fibers. Their popularity often waxes and wanes with the times. This is true of embroidery, the art of decorating fabrics and canvases with designs brought to life using a needle and thread. And one form of embroidery in particular—needlepoint—has a following of steadfast devotees and appeals to a new generation of crafters, as well.

According to the 2009 Attitude & Usage Study of the Craft and Hobby Association, interest in needlepoint embroidery is on the upswing. The organization estimates that in 2008, there were needlepointers in 5.6 percent of U.S. households; in 2009, needlepoint participation jumped to 8.4 percent.

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It’s easy to see why: Many needlepoint projects are portable, lending themselves to pick-up-and-go projects that can fill in the wait time at the doctor’s office, sporting events or an afternoon lull before dinnertime. It’s a medium that allows sky’s-the-limit creativity, with projects as simple or as complex as the needlepointer wants them to be. And whether the project is a small Christmas ornament or an elaborate quilt inlaid with needlepoint work, the results can be striking.

What is Needlepoint?
Some people confuse needlepoint with crewel or counted cross-stitch, but these crafts are not the same. Crewel is a craft done on tightly woven fabric, usually prestamped with a design, and uses a number of different stitches to fill in the design, but not the whole piece of fabric. Counted cross-stitch is done on even-weave fabrics, such as linen, using only X-shaped stitches, whose placement on the fabric is usually counted out according to a chart, though some projects have the Xs prestamped on the fabric. With counted cross-stitch, stitching is done only on the design, not over the whole fabric. In contrast, needlepoint is worked on an open-mesh fabric called canvas, following a painted or stamped design, and the stitches typically (though not always) fill in the whole canvas.

Needlepoint can recreate the look of ancient woven tapestries, while modern techniques and materials provide ways to create stunning results. When I look at completed needlepoint pieces, I am awed by the painstaking care with which the designs came to life, stitch by stitch. There is a devoted discipline involved in slowing down the pace of one’s life to create such a work of art, something that had its roots in a time when needlework was one of the activities of daily living.

During Colonial times, needlepoint was used to create pictures, fashion accessories and to decorate upholstery fabric. Today, needlepoint can be found adorning purses, pillows, boxes, Christmas stockings, table runners, bookmarks, glasses cases and more.

Beginning Needlepoint
No specialized equipment is needed to get started with needlepoint. All you need is a canvas, a needle and yarn—and the patience that a project such as this requires. It sounds simple enough, but all canvases are not alike. The myriad choices of yarns and threads could make your head spin; however, a beginner’s needlepoint kit can ease you out of the starting gate, with your only decision being which kit to buy. Needlepoint kits can be found in needlework shops, arts and crafts stores, department stores, and online.

Some beginners needlepointers prefer not to go it alone, armed only with the directions in a kit. Julie Moberly, a craft enthusiast in Harvard, Mass., has been doing needlepoint for several years. In her opinion, it’s most helpful to meet in a class or group when you’re first learning to needlepoint. For one thing, she says, you need good lighting, and a shop that teaches classes is guaranteed to have it.

She started out learning the tent stitch, which is a basic, standard stitch, but through class she discovered, “There are hundreds of stitches, including some that give texture or convey motion.”

Moberly says she found countless creative possibilities for people who like to needlepoint: “There are lots of nice, small projects for people who like to sprint, and larger ones for people who like a marathon.”

While taking needlepoint classes, Moberly learned about kits that are available, but she says, “the majority of projects are canvases, and you pick out your own threads.”

Beyond the Needlepoint Kit
For those who would rather forgo a needlepoint kit and build their own projects, there are many canvases and threads available as well as options for which stitches to use.

Canvassing for Canvas
Needlepoint canvases come in different densities or mesh sizes. The mesh is usually woven from threads of varying thicknesses, but some canvases are made of plastic mesh. (Plastic-mesh canvases are typically better-suited to projects that require some rigidity, such as tissue-box covers or bookmarks.)

The density of a canvas is indicated by a number that corresponds to the number of stitches per inch; the higher the gauge, the smaller the weave. For example, a No. 10 canvas is one that has 10 holes per inch; a No. 7 canvas has a mesh that is coarse and open, with only seven holes per inch.

According to Randi Nelson, president of The World in Stitches in Littleton, Mass., most of the canvases in today’s market are hand-painted rather than stamped, though some are blank—preferred by people who’d rather follow a charted design or by those who would rather create their own design from scratch. She says the most popular sizes she sells are No. 13 and No. 18, because there are more varieties of threads available to suit those mesh sizes.

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