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Welcome to the Lovely World of Needlework!

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

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.

For instance, Page used our neon machine sewing thread from Mettler to hand embroider her beautiful Felt Flower Winter Wreath pictured above.

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

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

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.

As far as tools go, crewel is very similar to traditional cotton embroidery. All you need to get started is an embroidery hoop, needles and very pointy scissors.

Counted Cross-Stitch

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.

The tools for cross-stitch are the same as for embroidery; you'll need an embroidery hoop, embroidery needles, and some pointy scissors to take out mistakes if need be.

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

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

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46 Responses to Welcome to the Lovely World of Needlework!


  1. Laura L says:

    Thank you! I've wondered about all of these categories — such a fabulous post!

    I'm trying to find that stunning Partridge in a Pear Tree crewel kit on purl's site and not having luck — perhaps it's sold out?

  2. Rebecca says:

    You gals are AWESOME for listing all this info. I dabble here & there with needlework projects but had no idea there were such a variety of pretty options! Thank you, thank you!

  3. la chio says:

    genial!!!!!!!! gracias por tan detallada clase de bordados!!!

  4. I'm in awe… First I was struck by the beauty of the Partridge in the Pear Tree embroidery and I got more and more excited while I scrolled down this most complete, informative and delightful post.

  5. Cerise says:

    This was my favorite blog post yet! So many examples of projects and all the fabulous embroidery threads you have out there! Thank you for re-inspiring me to get back to my needle work!

  6. carla de leon says:

    i love this post! very informative… most importantly, the embroidery work featured here are exquisite! xoxo (www.carlasdeleon.blogspot.com)

  7. Thea says:

    Always exciting – I love the variety and reworking the old into the new and finding new ideas. It is very inspiring. Absolutely wonderful

  8. ewenique says:

    molly,

    this is such a well written and inspiring introduction to the needle arts. as someone who has been thinking about the needle arts for a while, this piece has given me the impetus to begin already.

    i am quite keen on blackwork and wonder if this is something you carry at this time? – my local "embroidery garden" caters for an older clientele and so have very limited designs that appeal to me. i know that if purl soho stocked blackwork, they would have a more up-to-the-minute collection (if indeed such a thing exists).

    anyway, good job on the article and warmest wishes to you all.

  9. Rebecca says:

    Simply amazing is all I can say, I used to do needlepoint, embroidery and cross stitch . I have a stash of dofferent threads that would make the devoted stitcher jealous. I went on to different projects like knitting and crocheting, with some quilting, completely ignoring the true art of stitching. You truly have inspired me to bring out those projects and finish them . I always look forward to your newsletters keep them coming,

  10. saara says:

    Wow, what a great package! I just started embroiding yesterday, this was just great for me, thanx!!!!!

  11. Lucy says:

    All these are so beautiful! Embroidery and sewing, I have to pick up these two skills!

  12. CraftyRachel says:

    I am so pleased that you are bringing back the art of crewel embroidery! My mother has been doing crewel for years and when my sisters and I were kids she made us Christmas stockings in crewel. The kits are virtually impossible to find these days. Thanks!

  13. tante sophie says:

    … this is a tour de force in all things needlepoint … thank you for gathering it all into one HUGE fabulous post on the purlbee … merci mesdames … ina and gumby … the dog that tante sophie has …

  14. Alison says:

    What a great piece. I think Purl (if it isn't already) needs to think about publishing a book of all its wonderful projects and crafting advice blog posts. I know I would buy it!

  15. Laura L says:

    Thank you! I've wondered about all of these categories — such a fabulous post!

    I'm trying to find that stunning Partridge in a Pear Tree crewel kit on purl's site and not having luck — perhaps it's sold out?

  16. This post was wonderful, I learn a lot, and I just re start learning embrodery last week, so this came perfect, thank you.

  17. purl bee says:

    Hi Laura,
    We did in fact sell out of this kit. If you'd like to be notified when we get them back in please send us an email at the following link and we'll let you know!
    http://www.purlsoho.com/purl/contact

  18. Cathe says:

    This makes me so happy! Embroidery is my favorite. I agree this is the best post ever. I'm so inspired and love everything you have shown, so much care and detail, it is lovely!
    Thank you!

  19. Josie says:

    WOW, what a great post. – so clear , well written and totally inspiring.
    I agree with Allison this would be a great book. Incidentally, I just got my copy of More Last Minute Gifts and LOVE it.

  20. Avice says:

    Too, too tempting for a Monday. Thank you for the lovely virtual stroll, as well as the glimpse of the Charley Harper bird "in situ."

  21. Linda says:

    I'm always excited when I receive an email from you. It's my excuse to go and sit in my favorite chair with a cup of tea, and take some time to soak in the charm of The Purl Bee and Purl Soho. This posting was awesome… so informative and inspiring. Being a "Jack of all Crafts" but a master of none, I am truly inspired to start stitching again.

  22. Danielle says:

    This is so informational! It really makes me want to start learning how to do it and complete a vintage farm kit! Maybe this year's fall project.

  23. rebecca says:

    I loved this post, and I don't even embroider! I've thought about it though, and you guys are tempting me :)

  24. Wow – this is great news. I've been waiting (and waiting) for more of the current craft/yarn/sewing world to pick up on crewel and stitchery. You might want to check out my book – Colorful Stitchery (Storey Publishing) because I think you guys might like my projects.

    Congrats on the new store and I will stop by next time I'm in NYC.
    Kristin

  25. margaret says:

    Fab post! I'm in the middle of needlepointing a belt for my husband, my first attempt at a large needlepoint project. Wish I could attach a photo cause I am rather proud of my handiwork. With about three quarters of the belt complete, I am now contemplating my next project and you ladies have given me way too many to choose from. Thanks for feeding the addiction!
    Margaret

  26. waterrose says:

    I'm so glad that I stopped by your blog tonight. What a wonderful post detailing all the different needlework methods. I love them all!

  27. Nikka says:

    Oh this was just wonderful!!!! I'm new to embroidery and it was such a thrill to read this. Thank you, thank you!

  28. margaret says:

    Fab post! I'm in the middle of needlepointing a belt for my husband, my first attempt at a large needlepoint project. Wish I could attach a photo cause I am rather proud of my handiwork. With about three quarters of the belt complete, I am now contemplating my next project and you ladies have given me way too many to choose from. Thanks for feeding the addiction!
    Margaret

  29. Evie says:

    Such a great post, I do have to disagree slightly with the post about cross-stitch, I would say typically it's worked on either Aida [particularly for beginners] or evenweave and then there are a range of other fabrics including Linen which can also be used for projects.

  30. Sharon says:

    You should look at Crescent Colors Belle Soie line of silk threads. Every time I buy them, I can't stop touching them. They are so amazing and the colors are phenomenal. And no I have no affliation with them….LOL. I just really love them, also their line of cotton threads are really nice. So, so easy to work with. The Weeks Dye Works can tangle easily in my humble opinion of course.
    Sharon

  31. Camille says:

    What a great introduction and education. Thank you for sharing. I can't wait to get started, if I can only choose which project to try first!

  32. Jan says:

    I am utterly shocked that you could write such a well thought out article, informative and beautiful, yet forget to mention Aunt Martha's iron on transfers (they have only been around for 80 years)? http://www.colonialpatterns.com
    They also have a new "hip" line out called Stitcher's Revolution–http://www.colonialpatterns.com/index.php?cPath=88&
    It is pretty cool and I am surprised you don't carry them already.
    The sashiko section was great–I am so excited to see an interest in this art!
    I cannot wait to visit your store on my vacation next year–Congrats on the new space!
    happy stitching and creating all!

  33. I am so excited to see y'all talking about cross stitch. This was my very first fiber love. I started doing it while pregnant with my first child 18 years ago. For years, it was my only creative outlet. I have since learned to sew, quilt, knit and crochet. I love them all so much. It has been awhile since I have cross stitched though. I think I need to pick up a new project : ) Also, those Needlework canvases from Charley Harper Designs are stunning!!!!!

  34. Lori says:

    What an inspiring and valuable resource! Thanks!

  35. Janet says:

    Great piece! Your Sashiko post a year ago got me started on Sashiko embroidery. Two other needlepoint techniques that I love are bargello and trianglepoint–both now sadly out of fashion.

  36. Susanne says:

    What a wonderful, informative, inspiring, interesting article. So many ideas, and questions answered. I am in the middle of a "LizzieKate" piece on 32ct linen. Need my magnifiers for it but it is most enjoyable.
    Thanks for the well rounded piece. Perfect reference article.

  37. Alan says:

    This is a wonderful summary of needlework techniques. The photo under cross-stitch is more of a counted-thread embroidery technique, not true cross stitch as you describe it in the text. I suggest replacing that photo. Thanks!

  38. skrapyram says:

    I have been waiting to give needlework a try, and this is what I was waiting for. Thank you!

  39. Henrietta says:

    Embroidery is my passion and it is so nice to see so many alternative projects here, I will definitely snap up a few kits for the lovely wintery nights we are experiencing in Sydney at the moment. Thank you Purl Bee!

    I did this HUMAN HAIR cross stitch for my husband's birthday which you may be interested in! http://letsgototo.blogspot.com/2009_10_01_archive.html. If anyone knows anything about this type of embroidery I would love to hear from you.

  40. Sarah says:

    I'm so excited you've started to carry embroidery supplies. I can't wait to stop by the store and stock up!

  41. Jordan says:

    I'm hoping to find out which, of all the techniques and crafts explained above, is the best for a beginner. And, when I say beginner, I mean beginner. Which would you recommend?

  42. Oh my gosh, these are all so beautiful. My favorite are the vintage crewel kits and the sashiko pillow. Love the little village. I would love to get the kit for my Mom!

    Learning crewel is another project I'll have to add to my to-do-list along with knitting. Thanks for the detailed and informative post!

  43. Zoe says:

    I have to agree with Alan- the photo under "Counted Cross-stitch" is of Counted Thread-work, rather than traditional Cross-stitch. Cross-stitch is worked in small crosses of the same size all over the pattern, with the colours and shading (and addition of backstitch) forming the design. Counted thread-work uses many different types of stitches to produce all kinds of different effects, with the only real similarity being the use of the evenweave as a "grid" to work within. This could potentially be confusing for beginners, as the two are quite different techniques and produce very different finished products! With that minor proviso, however, I'm so glad to see so many modern, fun and funky designs available for the budding embroiderer – so much better than the old-fashioned fussiness that is usual! I look forward to seeing how the collection grows.

  44. Bekah Mae says:

    Oh my gosh! I feel so inspired already. I come from a long line of women who took up needlework in all formats from crosstitching to smocking. I am a very modern type of gal and had never seen sashiko before…you may have just convinced me to jump on board. The geometric patterns are lovely. Thanks so much for posting!

  45. barbara says:

    LOVE the Charley Harper pillow and "crossstitch" or whatever you call it :) My mom used to make fun crewel decorations when I was a kid. I am bummed I didn't save all of them when she passed. Guess I'll just have to figure it out and do new ones :) Thanks for all the info!

  46. Merrill says:

    This was such a helpful post! I've been doing embroidery for a few years now, and each time I embark on a new project I learn more about this beautiful art. I've always been kind of nervous to jump into cross stitch and crewel, but this was such a motivation that I can't wait to stop by the store and pick up all the supplies :)

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