Updated October 8, 2019.
Stitching a painted canvas looks so easy. The colors are picked out for you and all you need to do is add threads and stitches — so why is it that so often we are not happy with the results?
Since I discovered painted canvas (in the early 80’s) I’ve stitched hundreds of them, I even dream about canvases, threads, and stitches. As a result I’ve figured out some guidelines for stitching them which make it easier to do.
First, I think about threads. Your canvas gives you color, but not texture. And for any given color a number of threads exist in different textures. For me, I try to pick a thread with a texture similar to what the object is in real life. For example snow, should be a white or clear sparkly thread. My favorite for this (and for stars as well) is Nordic Gold in white from Rainbow Gallery. I like this lightness of the thread, it’s softness and it’s sparkle. For hair, I like Rainbow Tweed because it has some variation in it and has just enough furiness to look realistic.
The texture of the thread determines how easily it will be noticed on the finished canvas. Furry or fuzzy threads are always seen first. Metallics are just slightly less noticeable than furry threads. The more matte a thread is, the less obvious it is. So the same color thread in pearl cotton, floss and Silk & Ivory will be most noticeable in pearl cotton and least in Silk & Ivory.
Once you have picked out your threads, double check that you haven’t picked out an attention-grabbing thread for an area which should be in the background.
I’ve learned by trial and error, I don’t know of any books which really spell this out.
Then I look at the canvas. Every canvas should have some areas of Tent Stitch in it. Sometimes the choice is made for you, for example faces almost always look best in Tent Stitch. Tent Stitch gives the eye a place to rest and is the neutral texture in needlepoint. It’s kind of like zero on a number line.
Once I know where Tent Stitch will be placed, I can then rank other spaces as being higher or lower than those areas. Lower spaces should have flatter or more open stitches. For these I use stitches such as T Stitch, or techniques such as Blackwork or Pattern Darning. For example, I almost always use Pattern Darning for skies, because the flatter stitch makes the sky look more open and bigger.
The places which will be higher will use stitches with more texture. This is the hardest part of picking stitches for needlepoint. The stitches you pick should be small enough to have three repeats of the stitch in every direction. This is enough for the eye to distinguish the pattern. Fewer repeats and the stitch can be mistaken for other stitches or the design can look confused. Even experienced stitchers get this wrong.
There are two major exceptions to this rule. One is stripes. By their very nature stripes won’t have three repeats in all directions in an individual stripe, but the whole stripe pattern should be repeated, if it isn’t, pick a different stripe pattern. The second is accent stitches. There are lots of these, such as Eyelets, Rhodes, or Jessicas. Accent stitches, most of which can be expended easily, should be sized so a single stitch fits in an area. Most of these stitches draw attention to themselves and having partial stitches in these looks jarring. Change the size or the stitch rather than use partial stitches for accents.
I think another big challenge in needlepoint is adding texture to very small spaces. One easy way to do this is by picking threads with different textures, but often this does not go far enough. Then you should have a repertoire of stitches which only take up one or two threads. Some of the stitches I use again and again are Tiny Knitting (columns or rows of Continental and Reverse Continental), Needlepoint Cross Stitch (cross stitch over one intersection), and open versions of Tent Stitch. I have a great book (available here) that has over a hundred great stitches for spaces like this..
For finding stitches for particular effects, I mostly rely on my own experience. I look for stitches which have a particular shape. I use stitch dictionaries for ideas. And I’m always willing to pull out an area off if it does not work. On a piece I worked on in 2007, I stitched a blackboard. I ripped it out twice. The first time it was because I thought the thread (#12 pearl cotton) was too small. The second time, using #8 pearl cotton, I felt the stitch, Skip Tent, was too directional. I’m now stitching it in T Stitch and like the result.
Remember, these are guidelines. There can be great needlepoint which breaks the rules. But you should know what rules you are breaking and have a good reason to do so. If you start with this process, then when you divert from it, you will know why and where you are going.
If you like my approach to hand painted canvas needlepoint, I can write a custom stitch guide for you. My guides are complete and are customized to your stitching level and your tastes. I take into account your likes and dislikes and your ideas for the canvas. This kind of customization has not be available before at such a reasonable price. If you are interested in getting a free quote for a guide, fill out the stitch guide request form.
This article originally appeared in my friend Pierrette’s blog as part of a virtual book tour I did in 2007. It is no longer available and Pierrette gave me permission to reprint it here. Pierrette is a marvelous stitcher and is currently showing off her lovely work at My Stitching Gallery. A big thanks to her.