Updated January 7, 2020.
Until fairly recently, a stitcher had a choice of two colors for needlepoint canvas — white and tan. Congress Cloth came in a few more colors. So you were pretty much left with stitching your background. In the early 90’s Zweigart introduced colored canvas, so now we have lots more options, but even now I find myself searching and trying to figure out ways to get different colors, or different effects for the backgrounds of my needlepoint.
Being somewhat lazy by nature, this doesn’t always mean stitching the background, even on painted canvases. So I have tried many things: dyeing my own canvas, pattern darning, doing needlepoint on cross stitch fabrics. If you are thinking backgrounds before you start stitching try something different — putting a layer (or two) of transparent fabric over the canvas and stitching.
With care and careful selection, this is an outstanding way to add pale or intense color to your needlepoint background.
Hints for Using Fabrics
Virtually all sheer fabrics can be pierced by a regular tapestry needle, so you do not have to use sharp needles.
Cut your piece of fabric bigger than the total area of the design, as in the picture above, and baste along the edges with a contrasting color of thread. If you are basting in the margins of the canvas, it is probably best to leave this stitching in place. Otherwise you will need to take the basting out after you have secured the fabric with other stitches. In some fabrics this might leave holes.
Transparent fabrics come in four basic types: chiffon, lame, organdy, and net. Chiffon ravels very easily and you will need to make sure you cut generous margins and baste firmly. Cutting the fabric with pinking shears is a good idea as well. Tissue lame is a semi-transparent version of the metallic cloth called lame. because it has shiny mylar threads in it, you may need to use a sharper needle. it ravels somewhat. Organza is a thin, stiff sheer fabric, often used for ruffles. Net or tulle is like those bath puffs, a woven net of fabric. It comes in different sizes, the smallest, softest sizes (tulle and illusion) are best.
Make sure the selvage (more thickly woven edges of the fabric) does not show inside the design. It is unsuitable to show on the face of your work, although it makes an excellent stabilizer for the edges of these fabrics.
You might think about using Fray Chek for the edges of your fabric to prevent ravels, but treat the fabric before you put it on your canvas and make sure it is dry. This product may not work with all fabrics or all needlepoint threads.
I buy my fabrics at a local chain crafts store. You will generally find these kind of fabrics in the bridal area or where the more formal fabrics can be found. You might also think about other sheer fabrics like lace or gauze.
Times near Halloween often have a larger supply of these fabrics in unusual colors, so this can be a good time to stock up.
You can also find tulle on spools or in already-cut sizes in the bridal department at craft stores. There are also websites that specialize in tulle.
Any needlepoint technique can be used to secure the fabric to the canvas. All techniques will work with any of the types of fabrics discussed.
My first experiment was with striped chiffon. I secured it to the canvas with cross stitches. Lining up the stripes so they match the design and doing the crosses in a coordinating color, would add a subtle but interesting background. Even with the light fabric there is good color coverage. You could make it more solid by putting a coordinating color of paper or fabric behind the canvas when finishing.
You can also often find chiffon in metallics, prints and patterns. Think about how you might do a needlepoint with a leopard print background.
Chiffon is most commonly found in solid colors. You can add another layer of texture by using a blackwork pattern throughout the background over the chiffon, as in the picture above. Use a color similar to the color of the chiffon to make a subtle and unusual statement. Be careful as you stitch to make sure the fabric stays flat and doesn’t pucker. This will leave noticeable folds in the fabric.
Sometimes you can find sheer fabrics with patterns stamped on it. These make great backgrounds. You could make the attaching stitches almost invisible by using a matching color of thread and stitching only on the motifs.
Tissue lame is the proper name for very thin, highly metallic fabric. Because of the metal threads in it, lame is somewhat stiff and extremely shiny. It also has, to my eyes, avery harsh, modern look, so I would be careful about where I used it. If you wanted the stitching to show, use randomly spaced star stitches to attach it.
Organdy is one of my favorite fabrics, I love it nice starched feel and the light airy texture. Because it is such a transparent fabric it lets the canvas show through, giving it a subtle wash of color. With a colored fabric, you can treat the fabric as the only background, stitching the main part of the design on top of the fabric. It’s an easy and effective background.
Illusion is a soft, fine net often used for wedding veils. At the fabric store it came in a wide variety of colors, and is usually called tulle when it is colored. The picture at the top of this article uses pale gold tulle. It looks best doubled giving a stronger color. With one or two layers, if you look at the background head-on, it is invisible, but at an angle, there is a wash of color. More layers would intensify the color, but would not make it harder to sew. If you choose to use illusion or tulle, pick a color which is considerably darker than your desired effect and experiment to see how many layers you need.
Another great thing about fabric for backgrounds is that the solid look of the fabric creates a great contrast to your stitching. It is lower than any stitching, so it retreats, and the solid texture creates a completely different look.
Enjoy the wide variety of fabric out there and try it for your backgrounds.