Updated September 15, 2020.
It used to be that needlepointers didn’t put their needlepoint on a frame most of the time. Certainly, this was the way I learned to stitch. I don’t think my LNS even carried stretcher bars.
At one point in I decided to make needlepoint seats for my mom’s dining room chairs. This being a big project, my dad cobbled together a stand from my old blackboard and we used my mom’s artist stretcher bars to hold the canvas.
Needless to say, none of this worked well and it was nearly a decade before I ventured into the world of frames and stands again. I only did when I saw a stand pretty enough to be furniture at a local shop. Since then I rarely do a piece that isn’t on stretcher bars.
What is a needlepoint frame?
Frames for needlework are devices that allow you to keep the canvas taut as you are stitching. They are to needlepoint what hoops are to embroidery and cross stitch.
Frames fall into two major types: stretcher bars and scroll frames. There are several variations of both.
Stretcher bars are the most common. They are sold in pairs in specific lengths, sized by inches. You measure your canvas and use the pairs of bars that fit the dimensions of the piece. There are different widths of stretcher bars, but, in general, stretcher bars of the same width will fit together no matter the manufacturer. You put the flattened canvas onto the bars with tacks or staples, stretching the canvas gently to keep it tight and flat.
There are some specialized types of stretcher bars that have special features such as Evertites and Edmunds Adjustible Stretcher Bars. These will only fit with bars of the same kind.
Scroll Bars are used for other kinds of embroidery as well as needlepoint. Rigid sides have holes in the top and bottom. The round scroll rods fit through these holes. Your needlepoint is attached to the rods and rolled up so that only the area you are stitching shows. The rods have nuts of some kind on the ends so you can roll the canvas this way. Those nuts are also used to keep the tension on the needlepoint tight.
There are also some specialized kinds of scroll bars such as belt frames or ratchet scroll frames.
Both stretcher bars and scroll frames are expensive in comparison to hoops. In addition, most stitchers build an inventory of them as they stitch more canvases. The biggest problem with scroll frames is that often the needlepoint will not be as tight as pieces on stretcher bars. Many companies have come up with various aids to help keep the needlepoint taut.
Why not use a hoop then?
Hoops aren’t used in needlepoint for two practical reasons. First, canvas is too expensive for stitchers to pay for the very wide margins needed to use a hoop. Second, moving a hoop around would crush even Tent Stitches when they are under the hoop.
Needlepoint is different from cross stitch and embroidery. In both those techniques you are embellishing a fabric that already exists, so the stitches are flatter. In needlepoint, you are making a new fabric from the grid mesh of the canvas. The thread and stitches are thicker and their intact structure is more important. The stitches will not look good when crushed by a hoop.
Why can’t I just stitch in hand?
There is no reason why you can’t, many stitchers do. Some popular teachers and authors rarely use a frame. Even so, shops recommend stretcher bars for many good reasons.
Your hands won’t cramp up from holding the canvas and the canvas will stay flat. This is a bigger problem for older stitchers and for larger canvases. But I have had my hands cramp even on ornaments.
Some techniques require taut canvas. Many specialized needlework techniques, including stupmwork, pulled threads, and beading, need a flat tight base. Needlepoint canvas that is not on a frame will never be tight enough for these techniques.
Textured stitches look better when done on a frame. When your canvas is stretched on a frame, the thread in the stitch sits flat on the canvas and both are the same size. This always happens because the canvas stays flat. When you stitch in hand the canvas may or may not be flat so the thread may be too short or too long. In either case, your stitches may look bad.
Your tension is better on a frame. Your tension when stitching in hand will have to vary constantly because the tension on the canvas varies when it is held. This can affect the look of your finished work.
Needlepoint stitched on a frame requires less blocking. One of the things a frame does is it keeps the needlepoint relatively square. As a result, your finisher’s job is easier because your needlepoint is straight. If you do your own finishing, you may find many items don’t even need to be blocked.
As you can see, using a needlepoint frame is a good idea.