Needlework Fabrics 101

If you’ve been cross-stitching for a while and you want to try other needlework techniques, you may not know where to start. Needlepoint, Hardanger, embroidery—what is the difference between them? What are they stitched with? And what are they stitched on? Read on to learn more.

Needlepoint Basics

In its most basic form, needlepoint has been around for hundreds of years. Also known as canvas work or tapestry, it is similar to cross-stitch in that its stitches are counted and worked on a canvas with an open weave.
Needlepoint can be stitched with a wide variety of strong fibers, including wool, perle cotton, embroidery floss, and silks. But it is the stitches themselves that are the building blocks of the technique. A needlepoint design can be made up of a single repeating stitch or created with many stitch types. The stitches typically cover the canvas in solid stitching, resulting in a strong and sturdy piece. With a stiff canvas, thick fibers, and solid stitching, needlepoint pieces lend themselves well to useable items that will experience a lot of wear and tear, such as pillows, rugs, and purses.
Stitched on a rigid canvas, the most common types include mono, double mesh (also known as Penelope), interlock, and plastic. Regardless of what you stitch on, always store the canvas rolled or flat, as it cannot be ironed if it gets wrinkled. 
Mono canvas is comprised of vertical and horizontal canvas threads that are evenly woven, making it a good choice for any pulled work. The evenweave canvas is commonly available in 10, 12, 13, 14, and 18-mesh (though it can be found in mesh counts up to 56).
Double mesh canvas (or Penelope canvas) is just as it sounds: a double mesh. Made up of pairs of vertical and horizontal threads, this canvas works well for needlepoint designs that include portions stitched over one thread (petit point) and others stitched over two threads (gros point). The double pairs of threads strengthen the canvas, making it ideal for functional items. This canvas is most commonly found as 5/10 and 10/20- mesh (the first number is the count for over-two threads, and the second number is the count for over-one threads). 

Interlock canvas is named for its horizontal threads that “interlock” (wrap) around the vertical threads. Due to the two thinner threads that make up the interlocking horizontal threads, this canvas is lightweight, making it better suited for smaller, framed pieces. It’s available in 10, 12, 13, 14, and 18-mesh.
Plastic canvas is plastic mesh with square holes, and perforated plastic is plastic mesh with smaller round holes (similar to the perforated paper often used in cross-stitch). Both are useful for functional items, as they are strong yet flexible. Due to their plastic composition, they won’t unravel, making them perfect for items with unfinished edges. Plastic canvas is available in a variety of shapes in clear 7 and 10-mesh. Perforated plastic (sometimes referred to as plastic canvas) is sold in several colors of 14-mesh.
One additional category of needlepoint fabrics is printed and hand-painted canvases. While blank canvases are widely available and useful with charts sold individually or found in magazines and books, many kits include printed or painted canvases (which can often also be purchased individually). They don’t usually include a chart, but rather a color legend—simply stitch the colors onto the canvas following the printed or painted design.

Hardanger Necessities

Named for a region of Norway, Hardanger began as a type of whitework. Traditionally stitched in white or cream threads on white or cream fabric, the technique has since been modernized with the use of high-contrast fibers and fabrics. Technically pronounced “har-dung-er,” it is a form of cutwork, as it incorporates open areas where the threads have been cut and removed after being surrounded by stitches.
Hardanger stitches are usually geometric and/or symmetrical and can be worked alongside counted or specialty stitches. Many stitches include drawn thread and hemstitching techniques, which can be combined with cutwork to imitate lace. The delicate nature of this combination lends well to use on doilies, pillowcases, and table linens.
Combining the use of heavy threads (usually a perle cotton #5) with lighter threads (perle cotton #8 and/or embroidery floss), Hardanger designs typically have a layered or textural look. This also means they require a slightly stiffer or heavier fabric than cross-stitch, as it needs to hold up to the weight of the threads and the tension of the stitches. While it can be worked on cotton evenweaves and linens, there is a fabric devoted to the technique. Called Hardanger fabric, this 100% cotton 22-ct. evenweave is available in a variety of colors.

Embroidery Essentials

While those unfamiliar with needlework might call anything hand-stitched with thread on fabric “embroidery,” this is not the case, as cross-stitch, needlepoint, and Hardanger would be included (these are counted thread work).
Also called surface embroidery or free embroidery, there is historical evidence that today’s embroidery techniques have been around for thousands of years. Instead of a chart, a design is transferred or printed onto the fabric and then stitched, though you can also work the stitches freehand, following a chart or designing as you go.
With the stitches worked independently of the weave of the fabric, embroidery leaves a lot up to the stitcher—stitches can be worked in any shape and size, with a variety of fibers, and on a wide variety of fabrics. These lack of constraints make it a natural choice for embellishing clothing, handkerchiefs, and home linens, and also for personalizing or monogramming a gift. And with a plethora of stitches to choose from, the possibilities are seemingly endless.
Embroidery itself includes many different categories, including crewelwork (traditionally using crewel wool on linen, but now often incorporating other fibers and fabrics), ribbon embroidery (traditionally done in thin silk ribbon), goldwork (using gold-coated wire that is couched in place), candlewicking (using off-white thread and knotting techniques on off-white fabric), and shadow work (using medium-tone fibers on the wrong side of light-colored lightweight fabric, then viewed through the fabric). While different techniques use different fibers, many designs can be worked in wool or wool blends, linen fibers, cotton floss, perle cottons, thin ribbon, silk or silk blends, and metallics.
One draw of embroidery is that the techniques do not require an evenweave fabric. The use of sharp needles allows you to use almost any fabric (though those with closely woven threads work best). Still, you can embroider on evenweave or linen that has a high count (usually 32-ct. or higher). While great for counted work, lower counts are too coarse for embroidery and make it difficult to create smooth outlines. Possible fabrics to use include cotton muslin, silk or silk blends, linen or cotton fabric, evenweaves, or patterned fabrics.
When choosing your fabric, keep in mind that some designs require certain weights of fabric—large projects such as wall hangings require a heavier fabric to stand up to the weight of the stitches, while small projects like handkerchiefs can be worked on more delicate fabrics. And if you’re trying a new technique or stitch, try it on a scrap piece of fabric first, as any ripped out stitches will usually leave visible holes in the fabric.