Updated July 9, 2019
Anita, a reader, asked: “The first and only big needlepoint canvas that I did, I think I did wrong so I am trying to get good directions now to do this one right! I am going to start a 12×12” canvas that is on stretcher bars now. Do I want to do all the small “detail” work first? Or can I stitch it row by row starting at the top? Which is easier or recommended? I think I have read that the “picture” needs to be done first! And then fill in the background? Why is this? Or am I imagining all of this and it doesn’t really matter??”
When you are starting stitching needlepoint these kinds of questions are common, they aren’t helped by the sketchy instructions included in most kits.
Although the kind of thread you’ve using can have a big effect on this, you want to stitch from the lightest colors to the darkest, not row by row. This keeps your stitching looking clean and prevents both the darker thread showing through as a shadow on the front and from getting lighter threads “polluted” with bits of dark thread.
Working row by row can make it harder to keep your stitching clean. You also can’t really do decorative stitches if you go row by row.
The size of the area or amount of detail doesn’t matter as much as the color, although sometimes you might want to add delicate details in overstiching after the main stuff is stitched.
Your question about when to stitch the background is a good one. Conventional wisdom says to leave it until the end. To my mind, this is a recipe NOT to get the piece done.
A better solution is to work on the background as you go, stitching the background near areas where you have completed the focal point. This gets you working on the background all along, so your task at the end isn’t as daunting.
This method works for most canvases. Sometimes because of subject matter or stitches used, you’ll want to stitch from back (those things farthest from the viewer) to front. This is because there is a very slight difference in how a stitch looks depending on whether it is stitched before or after an adjacent stitch. But this is subtle and probably not something for beginners to worry about.