The world of needlework is broad and totally inspiring. It includes embroidery, sashiko, needlepoint, counted cross stitch and crewel (like our Partridge in a Pear Tree kit pictured above), each one with it’s own beauty and charms. As Purl Soho has grown our love of needlework has grown right alongside and we now carry an extensive selection of tools, threads, needles and fabrics for embroidery, needlepoint and all the varieties in between. For the uninitiated, it can be a little daunting understanding the differences between the different disciplines, so we decided to present this overview of some of our favorite types of needlework, including the supplies and tools you’ll need to get started!
While all of these different needlework categories are different they all share some essentials, most importantly that they use the simplest of materials, just thread and fabric, to create beautiful designs. Most everyone who gets involved in a needlework project, whether it be an elaborate cross-stitch sampler or a simple embroidered bib, gets totally hooked. We highly recommend trying one or more of these techniques because we ourselves have found them all to be so rewarding. So here’s to trying new things!
Embroidery casts the widest net of all of the needlework categories. It’s an ancient art form (there are surviving examples from Ancient Egypt!) and can also be a very free and fun craft to learn as there are very few rules. By definition embroidery is any decorative stitching sewn onto fabric, however when people refer to embroidery these days they are usually talking about a handful of classic embroidery stitches such as back stitch, chain stitch, satin stitch, and buttonhole stitch sewn with a cotton embroidery floss onto any type of fabric.
Embroidery thread is called “floss” and is usually cotton. It can be separated into thinner strands depending what you are trying to achieve. Traditionally people use two strands at a time. Floss is usually smooth and tends to come in glorious rainbows of colors!
Retors du Nord from Sajou is a relatively new item at Purl Soho. It’s a 4 stranded cotton floss that comes in 96 glorious colors which you can buy individually or as an entire set (wouldn’t that make the BEST holiday gift!?) It has a matte finish and comes on the most delightful little cards which keep it tidy and ready to use!
We also have Pearl Cotton. Pearl cotton (which is also spelled Perlé cotton) is a twisted two ply cotton with a lovely shine. It comes in four sizes; 3, 5, 8, and 12. Twelve is the thinnest and 3 is the thickest. We carry size 8.
For a nice alternative to cotton we also carry 100% linen thread from Londonderry which does not need to be separated and would work well for delicate embroidery or super precise cross-stitch. It comes in 24 pretty colors with a matte finish in size 50/3; 50 refers to the thickness of the thread (50 is mid-weight, higher numbers are thinner and lower numbers are thicker), and 3 refers to the amount of plies it is made with.
As I said earlier, the great thing about embroidery is how few rules there are so you are not limited to these more traditional embroidery threads. You can literally use any thread or yarn you like to embroider.
You can also use iron-on transfer patterns for embroidery like the two from Sublime Stitching pictured above. These patterns are line drawings that can be ironed onto a fabric and then stitched over however you like on whatever fabric you prefer. The range of iron-on transfer patterns available today is really fun, from birds, to flowers, to sushi, to kitschy camping designs, just to name a few.
You can also create your own embroidery patterns by using transfer pencils and erasable fabric markers.
This is a very fun way to work. You can draw a pattern free-hand or trace something you like from an outside source. The photo above shows numbers transferred using the red transfer pencil (it’s from our Advent Calendar Project Journal). An in depth explanation of how to use these tools can be found here.
The tools and notions needed for embroidery are simple. You need an embroidery hoop to keep your fabric in place and taut as you stitch, and a pair of very pointy scissors to cut your thread and also to cut out any mistakes or things you want to change. The pair pictured here, Ciseaux Lièvre, are our most treasured hand-made scissors from Sajou. You will also need embroidery needles, which have sharp points and large eyes. It’s smart to get a pack of embroidery needles with a range of sizes so that you can determine which size is right for each project you take on.
Embroidery is a wonderful place to start if you’ve never done any needlework because you can literally learn it in a matter of hours from a book. This simple and inexpensive “How to Embroider” booklet from the trade association would be a great place to start. We also have a very basic tutorial on The Purl Bee to help you get started, you can see it right here. If you’re an experienced embroiderer be sure to check out our great variety of embroidery books right here.
Sashiko is a Japanese embroidery technique done using running stitches and thick cotton Sashiko thread (which you do not separate) as well as long Sashiko needles. You do not use a hoop for Sashiko. It’s a very simple and rewarding craft which can yield truly beautiful results! With the help of a traditional Sashiko Thimble that lays on the inside of your palm many running stitches are taken at the same time and then pulled through. We carry a wide range of traditional Sashiko stitch samplers, which are pieces of fabric with the stitch design already printed on them.
We have a great tutorial on how to do Sashiko which you can see right here, and if you’d like to learn to make the pillow shown above please click here.
Crewel, which is also called crewel work or crewel embroidery, is embroidery using wool traditionally stitched on linen. It’s an ancient technique (at least 1000 years old!) and is incredibly beautiful (and easy to do!).
We carry a wide variety of crewel yarns including this beautiful Appleton Wool Crewel Yarn. It comes in over 400 amazing colors! As it comes, it is the perfect weight for crewel, you don’t need to separate the plies. Working with a slightly fuzzy wool like this gives crewel a full, lush quality. The edges of the designs are soft and the insides fill in beautifully as you can see in the Sunshine Bouquet Crewel Kit pictured above. It’s pretty, soft quality almost reminds me of an oil pastel drawing.
If you’re curious about crewel, we carry some stunning vintage crewel kits. The crewel kits come with a preprinted 100% linen canvas, extremely detailed instructions, needles and all of the yarn and you will need to complete the project (note: they do not come with an embroidery hoop). You simply stitch over the printed designs as directed in the instructions. These kits are a fantastic way to learn crewelwork.
Most of us at Purl Soho are new to counted cross-stitch and we have totally fallen in love with it! It is an embroidery technique using the X shaped cross-stitch laid out in a grid to form a beautiful designs. The grid of printed cross-stitch patterns represent the grid of the warp and weft of your fabric. The pattern is not printed onto the fabric as it is with many other forms of embroidery so you read the grid and stitch from it much like you would knit from a knitting chart. The image above is from Stitching Inside The Box, a booklet filled with invaluable inspiration and techniques.
While the technique of counted cross-stitch is a bit rigid (and I mean that in the nicest possible way!) your choice of thread is not. You can use any thin thread you like from the luminous Trebizond Silk pictured above, which would be separated and used one strand at a time, to the more traditional 100% linen Londonderry thread, which wouldn’t have to be separated at all.
Counted cross-stitch is typically worked on plain woven linen. The size of your completed design depends upon the amount of stitches per inch in your fabric. Linen that is made specifically for counted cross-stitch is numbered to indicate the amount of stitches per inch and generally ranges from 28 to 32 stitches per inch (the higher the number, the smaller your design will be). Cross-stitch canvas is different from needlepoint canvas (which is more like an open mesh and which I will cover in the needlepoint section) so make sure not to get the two confused. In addition to the 32 count French linen pictured above, we carry some lovely hand-dyed 30 count cross stitch canvas from Weeks Dye Works in subtle neutral shades which set off colorful threads perfectly.
It is traditional to make a cross stitch sampler of the alphabet as a first cross-stitch project. There seems to be a bit of a cross stitch revival going on so there are some beautiful books available as well. We highly recommend the How to Embroider booklet from TNNA, which includes a very clear chapter on how to cross-stitch if you’d like to learn.
We love the refined beauty of counted cross-stitch and we have some exciting cross-stitch projects coming up soon on The Purl Bee, so stay tuned!
Needlepoint is the most singular of all of these forms of needlework. It’s typically sewn with a diagonal basketweave stitch on a stiff piece of cotton mesh until the mesh is entirely covered. The mesh comes in different sizes. We carry sizes 10:1, 13:1, and 18:1 meaning there are 10, 13 and 18 stitches per inch respectively. Make sure you understand the size of the mesh before you buy a canvas. It would be best to buy a larger mesh (10:1 or 13:1) if you’re embarking on your first project.
Needlepoint uses any variety of yarns and most of them are treated in much the same way. The thickness of the yarn depends on what gauge the mesh of your canvas is. If you are using a smaller 18:1 mesh you might need to separate your yarn and use one strand at a time. If you are using a larger mesh ( 13:1 or 10:1) you might use 2 or 3 strands at a time.
Needlepoint traditionally uses wool but the Trio Silk and Ivory from Brown Paper Packages pictured above is a beautiful alternative. It comes in over 180 luminous colors and its 3-plies can be separated or combined to work with any size mesh. It makes a simply stunning needlepoint piece.
Appleton makes two types of wool yarn that would work well for needlepoint. The first is the Crewel Yarn which I discussed above. It is the perfect weight for 18:1 mesh canvases. For 13:1 mesh canvases, look to Appleton Tapestry Yarn which comes in the same beautiful spectrum of over 400 colors.
Paternayan is a very traditional wool needlepoint yarn that comes in over 360 colors.
Painted Needlepoint Canvases come in a great variety of designs from delicate and pretty to graphic and fun so there is something for everyone! Above is a detail of one of our Charley Harper designs, called Rainforest Birds. Below is one of our new canvases from Crewelwork, that faithfully reproduces the scale, color and detail of a four-hundred year old original tapestry at Traquair Castle in Scotland! We love its vivid colors and the style reminds us very much of illustrations by Josef Frank.
Handpainted canvases are all meticulously hand painted to make sure that the design is placed correctly on the grid of the mesh. Stitching on a painted canvas is totally meditative and relaxing, you just use a simple basket weave stitch to sew over each colored section. You can also buy blank canvas to create your own designs!
The tools needed for needlepoint are slightly different than for the other needlework forms I’ve discussed. You need a needlepoint needle, which is blunt and has a larger eye, and you don’t use a hoop, but many people like to use a quilting frame or mini stretcher bars to keep their work in place and square while they work. You will need some pointy scissors.
You can use finished needlepoint canvases to make a pillow (for instructions click here) or frame them and hang them on your wall.
Needlepoint is one of those great meditative crafts, a bit like simple knitting. It’s easy to do and makes the most beautiful pieces! For a brief explanation of the basketweave technique you can click here, and for a more in depth look we recommend TNNA’s How to Needlepoint booklet.
A Wrap Up
Each one of these techniques is special and rewarding in its own way, from the freedom and creativity of embroidery to the delicate precision of counted cross stitch. It’s our hope that you learn to love them all as much as we do! Happy Stitching! –Molly