Friday, April 8, 2011

Carol Asks, Jane Tries to Answer

Last time Carol asked THE question facing everyone who stitches painted canvases without a stitch guide--how do you know whether the stitches you've chosen for a piece are the correct ones? Let me quote Carol again:

One of the things I've noticed about your blog is that you do a ton of test stitching. You stitch, deliberate, tear out, try something new, all with the goal of figuring out what "works" and what "doesn't work."

I don't know what that means.

When something "works," is it purely an aesthetic thing--simply what looks good to my eye? Or is there some sort of mathematical formula that is followed to figure this out? Is there a secret society of fabulous needlepointers that you ask (clearly I haven't been invited to join that group yet)? Or is it a gut instinct--when it happens, the stars align and you just know?

What a terrific thought-provoking message, Carol! This is an important topic, although not one that has many answers. I’ll do my best to explain how I choose stitches and hope it explains my process coherently.

Stitchers come in all sizes, shapes and interests. One of the things that so intrigues me about needlepoint is that there is something for every taste. Painted canvases come in all styles. You can do very cartoonish pieces that resemble a 1st grader's work or realistic painted scenes that are so gorgeous you could frame and display them unstitched, plus there is everything in-between. There are holiday themed designs, religious canvases, designs especially for kids, abstract patterns, ethnic canvases, and those with sly humor especially for adults. There are designs intended to be made up into purses, belts and shoes. You can find just about any style of painted canvas designed for a whole range of uses.

There are many ways of stitching painted canvases, too. You can do all tent stitches, you can use fancy stitches, you can use light coverage stitches, you can cover your canvas thickly with ribbons and crystals and beads and wire. Or not! One can stitch a piece in several ways  depending on whether it is meant to be used as upholstery, for a Christmas stocking or ornament, for a picture, a purse or just for fun.

The problem with this diversity is that it becomes hard to create a formula for what will work for a particular canvas (especially since often several directions will work equally well). That's one reason Bonnie and I do a Canvas of the Month when we have time. She and I take turns choosing a certain canvas and we both independently figure out how to stitch it. It's always interesting to see what we decide to do the same and how we diverge on the same piece. (If you want to see some of our virtual stitching, search for "Canvas of the Month" on Blog.)

There's not a rule to mastery of what is correct for a canvas, although there are guidelines. SharonG's new book (SharonG's Simply Essential Needlepoint Stitch Explanations) talks a bit about this topic in the introduction. Her book is really about choosing the right texture and directional flow for various sections of your canvas. Anyone interested in this topic should buy her SENSE book as it will be very helpful.

Another guideline is to use light colors that come forward for a design's focal points and dark colors that recede for the background and less important things. I have found quite a few designs where this isn't helpful, particularly on painted canvases where the colors are chosen already, but it is another useful guideline.

As Gay Ann Rogers mentions in her article (see yesterday’s posting for the URL), it is often helpful to choose stitches that are the same shape as the area they are supposed to fit inside. That’s one reason Sandy Arthur’s new book Shapes of Needlepoint is so popular. Folks instinctively understand that putting triangular stitches inside triangular shapes works well in many situations and Sandy's book is meant to help people find all sizes of triangle, square, rectangle and circle shaped stitches.

Because I personally like realistic designs, I try to choose stitches and threads that mimic how things look in real life. If the thread and stitch I choose to stitch a tree trunk looks like a real tree trunk, then that part is right. The Stitches for Effect series of three books come in handy here because they have classified a huge number of stitches as to the type of effect they give (fur, clothing, snowflakes, etc.).  However, this isn't much help for abstract or very cartoonish canvases  which don't have to have realistic effects to be effective.

I also often choose a stitch that is related to another stitch I've chosen already. Using similar stitches produces harmony in a design because the variations on one theme unify a canvas.  This doesn't work on all designs because sometimes you want one area to be really different, however.

I rarely plan out each and every part of a canvas before I start stitching. There are too many possibilities in my head. I have to work them out on canvas to decide among them. But that is a personality thing. If you find it easier to stitch something in your head before you ever thread a needle, then do so. I'm not that way at all but there's no reason you have to copy my way of working.

However, I rely on my inner voice that says "I like that" or "that's not right" as my main guide to what I choose.  I think everyone has this inner voice.

SharonG herself says that if it looks right to you, it is. That's not a formula one can follow slavishly but it points toward the real way to judge if a section you have stitched works or not. It has to satisfy your inner sense of what you want your canvas to look like. Actually I've been surprised that four of the five volunteers who I've worked with on problem canvases on Blog told me that they have an idea or two already about what they want their canvas to look like. The challenge has been to get them to express what they want so we can come up with strategies to achieve this within the limitations of the threads they have available and how the original design was created.

I believe now that most stitchers have some idea of what they want for that canvas they love.  The sticking point is that they don’t have knack of putting that idea into a needle and stitching with it. So how do you learn that?  I believe conversations with other stitchers really helps one articulate your ideas.  If you don't have other stitchers to talk areas over with, try analyzing your canvas to yourself and try to come up with ways to make that work.

I cultivate my inner sense of what works and what doesn't by stitching a lot of painted canvases, reading all the NP magazines cover to cover, talking to other stitchers and examining their work posted on the Internet. Because I have a good visual memory, often I'll remember how someone else did a background or hair or something else when I am stitching a similar piece. I keep an eye on Melissa Shirley Designs or Amy Bunger or Robin King or Pat Miller on Facebook as they often shows off bits of their works in progress.  I study Ruth Schmuff's Not Your Grandmother's Needlepoint blog religiously to study Ruth's ideas.  I read all the blogs I can find and know which ones do the sort of canvases that I like to do so I can study what those folks are doing carefully.

I also am willing to try things that may or may not work and rip them out when they don't work. Ripping out a mistake is a better learning experience than you'd think! I'm trying to talk about what I chose and why on Blog as it helps other folks understand my choices, but I often have trouble articulating why I have picked what I did. I operate on instinct and listen to my gut.  When ideas pop into my head, I act on them.

Which isn't helpful to you at all, Carol. Perhaps the vague guidelines above will help you. It's not magic but it isn't math either. There's no formula to follow that will tell you 100% of the time what works and what doesn't. I think about the guidelines I mentioned above but for me personally, I decide what I like and don't like by listening to my inner sense of design.

You just need to listen to that voice. I hope working on the Gold Fish you will start to hear what it tells you. I think you have already done this without realizing it. After all, you have chosen the background colors and threads yourself, told me just what you want the dangling seaweed to be made of, and picked crystal sequins over the hot fix crystals I recommended. If that's not listening to your inner sense of "rightness" for your design, I don't know what is!

I encourage everyone who happens to read this to talk about how they choose stitches for their painted canvases (or for the counted canvaswork pieces they design) in the Comments section below.  If you can't comment, just email me at chillyhollow at hot maildot com and I'll post your comments for you.  Thanks.

Written by Jane/Chilly Hollow Blogging at and at


Donna said...

Wonderful post. Terrific. As soon as I get my printer fixed, I'm printing this out!

As someone who has yet to tackle a large canvas that is not already kitted, I have a question about quantities. With so many amazing thread choices out there and colors that can vary from batch to batch, how do I know how much thread I'll need? It seems to me that sometimes this is tied to your stitch choices. Any help on this one?

The Chilly Hollow Needlepoint Adventure said...

Interesting question, Donna. I have a large stash of threads and I tend to use 30-40 different threads on each canvas I stitch, which means that I rarely use more than one card / spool / skein /packet of anything. What I think I do when I start picking threads for a canvas is see how much of one color is on the design. If there is a lot of background in reds, for example, I check my stash for those shades. If I don't have those reds, I buy one them but one skein only. There is no rule that you have to use just one thread per stitch, you know. HOWEVER, I fall in love with realistic canvases that have a lot of shading, not big blocks of color, and I do a light of light coverage stitching. You have to buy more than one of a color if you have large solid areas of color. In that instance I would buy what I knew would cover that area all in basketweave, trusting that if I ran out I could buy more. It's not an exact science, I know, but that is what I came up with off the top of my head. I am not an exact person and I don't stitch many counted canvaswork pieces where the exact amount you need is always spelled out. I don't worry about this much, in other words, which is no help to the folks with personalities who do consider this closely when they start stitching. Sorry.

LIZ said...

Nice article, Jane! Very insightful. Should be helpful to lots of stitchers.
To Donna: Your LNS should be able to help you figure out how much thread you need. Also, you can stitch up a swatch on the same mesh canvas & figure it out. Stitch a 1"-2" square & keep track of how much thread you used. Then you can estimate.

Margaret said...

Thanks Jane, you are real asset to this needlepoint business. I for one am always ripping out and I no longer feel embarrassed about it. Stitches and textures look different when actually placed on the canvas next to each other. I can see a piece finished in my head but it seldom works out that way. You just have to work at it like cooking a good meal or making a fine dress.

Good luck on buying just the right amount of thread. Some stitches take so much more than others, some stitches don't work and have to be ripped out (and and for heaven's sake don't use it again after ripping it out)sometimes you want to repeat a thread elsewhere on the canvas. It is like cookies and milk, it never comes out even.

Unknown said...

Hi Jane,
As an Elizabethan/Jacobean/Tudor stitcher, I'm wondering how much of the above applies to me.
Of course, I'm often copying directly from an extant piece, or a bit of an extant piece, but I do like to do original designs

I understand if you can't really comment. It's a bit of a different field.....

All the best,

NCPat said...

I also use my books and research stitches for painted canvas pieces. I use Stitches for Effects a lot but also a notebook from a class with Carole Lake. I read a lot of the blogs and see what others are doing with various pieces and make mental notes of the ideas I like as well. By stitching different pieces we learn on an ongoing basis....not sure this will help.

The Chilly Hollow Needlepoint Adventure said...

It is helpful, Pat. The more one stitches, the easier it is to figure all this out.

The Chilly Hollow Needlepoint Adventure said...

eRose, it seems to me that choosing stitches for any type of embroidery one will run into the same question as to whether one has chosen the "right" stitch or not. Of course if you are reproducing a chart or a stitch guide or a design already stitched, it is easier, but when you are going for a Look instead of an exact copy, you will have the same issues. I think some of the same tips will help, but I am not sure. Re-reading the above and trying to put myself in your shoes, I think most of it still applies although SharonG's book won't be of much use to you as she talks about NP stitches, not embroidery stitches.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Jane. I've been away from Blog for a week due to a family funeral and the unplanned visit of our daughters and grandchildren (which is a real joy!). And when I return I find this amazing article you've written for us on planning stitches for canvas. This is a real gem. Thank you so much for your thoughtful discussion of a challenging needlepoint topic.


Margaret said...

Buy a kit and relieve your self from pain and anxiety. A very few can fly like Ruth Schmuff and Jane Wood while the rest of us plod along to please ourselves. Its all good. Enjoy.

The Chilly Hollow Needlepoint Adventure said...

Nancy, this is all due to Carol, who knows how to ask questions! Full credit to her.

The Chilly Hollow Needlepoint Adventure said...

Margaret, learning how to pick out stitches and threads is fun. Don't be anxious, just play around. You will be amazed at what you can do! And the next time you'll be better at it and even better the time after that.

It's not rocket science, promise.

MNStitcher said...

I used to fall in the camp where if I didn't get a stitch guide or take a class with a painted canvas - it just set in my stash. I couldn't figure out where to start. Then one day I just picked a canvas, dug out my books and figured why not try! I would love to say I pick a thread and a stitch to go a particular place on a piece and then just works that way only some times. Other times I start stitching only to find the thread isn't looking the way I though it would or the stitch isn't really working the way I want it to. So I rip out and start again. Now I am usually not one to test stitch on another canvas - I just go for it on the real thing, but I am not afraid to rip out if I am not happy with the end results. My current project, I tried 8 different thread/stitch combos on the jacket fur before I found what I thought was the perfect one. And yes, after the first couple I switched to the edge of my canvas for test patches so I didn't keep ripping out and distorting the canvas - I figure that is what the canvas salvages are for!