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Canvaswork Techniques

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Canvaswork Techniques

by Isela de Bari

Canvaswork is the term referring to 16th century needlework done on canvas Today, we refer to canvaswork as “needlepoint”, but this is an American description. If you used the term needlepoint during the Middle Ages, you would be referring to lacemaking with a needle. Like the word embroidery, canvaswork is often confused with the word tapestry, which refers to a woven design. Perhaps that confusion stems from the fact that Elizabethan needleworkers were copying European pictorial tapestry designs onto canvas. Flemish woven tapestries, especially those depicting human figures and those skillfully woven with silk and metal threads, were expensive, admired, and coveted.

Further inspired by the colorful carpets coming out of Turkey and the printing of herbals and bestiaries, Elizabethan England quickly adopted canvaswork. Not only was it used to train young girls in needlework, but also to decorate great manors. Inside these manors, canvaswork decorated bed hangings, wall hangings, bed canopies, head cloths, curtains, bed testers, kneeling pillows, seat cushions, table carpets and cupboard cloths. Keep in mind that there were more hard benches than upholstered chairs in Elizabethan England, and the bedroom was in and of itself a state chamber in a noble’s home. So warmth, grandeur and comfort were major household concerns of the wealthy that inspired the production of such canvaswork.

Canvas during the Middle Ages was more akin to a soft linen fabric, than the mesh canvas we use today in needlepoint. An excellent photo of this evenweave linen fabric is shown on Page 30 of Mary Gostelow’s The Complete Guide to Needlework Techniques and Materials. Often this canvas was so fine that several hundred stitches could be worked per square inch with silk thread (e.g., Bradford Table Carpet). Linen canvas (AKA lynnen cloth) has been described in books as “heavy”, “stout”, or “coarse”, although it was made from the superior hemp plant (as opposed to flax) and was not a rough textured cloth.

The late 16th c. wall hanging known as the Banquet of Lucretia was worked on “stout” linen using both woolen and silk threads in tent stitch, the basic stitch of canvaswork. The wool stitches were worked in colors of “three blues, three creams, three greens, two reds, brown, light sepia, lilac and black” The silk threads used were “light blue, green, white and yellow.” Colors such as pale orange and shades of pink, blue-green and yellow were not uncommon in canvaswork. By using silk thread, the linen canvas could be worked in brilliant colors, in a variety of shades, and in very minute tent stitch, referred to as petit point by the French. Metal thread was used for detailing and for outlining as found couched around needlework slips.

Slips was the 16th century term for flowers worked in silk or wool (mostly tent stitch) and then cut from the linen canvas and applied to another fabric, often velvet. Santina Levey noted in her study of the Hardwick Hall textiles that Mary Queen of Scots outlined her slips with black stitches before she filled in the colors. Besides flowers, insects (worms, butterflies, dragonflies, etc.) and animals (many grotesque and not realistic) were lifted from the popular bestiaries and engravings and copied onto the canvas.

It was also not uncommon to find human figures needleworked on canvas and then cut out and applied to such luxurious fabrics as velvet. This “cut-and-apply” method created a rich effect with the silk and metal thread against the velvet. Secondly, it was much easier and quicker to needlework linen then directly on velvet. The cushion known as “Fancie of a Fowler” serves as a fine example of this process, as well as a study of late 16th c. Elizabethan costuming. The professionally worked figures were done in silk and metal thread featuring Bess of Hardwick and members of her family, mostly in tent stitch and upright gobelin stitches. The figures, once worked, were then cut out and applied to purple velvet. It was also not unusual to find such “cut-and-applied” canvaswork combined on the same ground fabric with appliqued fabric work and other surface embroidery techniques.

No different than earlier professional embroideries, craftsman skilled in painting and design often created the designs for the canvas and then left it to the professional embroiderers to do the needlework. Although canvaswork was not out of the framework of being worked by amateurs, the mere size of some pieces and the detailed design and fineness of stitches indicate that professional craftsman and embroiderers were employed.

Referred to as needlework rather than embroidery, 16th c. canvaswork employed a repertoire of various stitches, starting with the turkey-work stitch (not to be confused with carpets imported from Turkey). This early canvaswork stitch was used to imitate the Middle Eastern method of making carpets. Instead of using the fingers to twist knots, the English used a needle on canvas by “making a series of loops, securing each one as you went along, with a form of back stitch, and then clipping the whole thing afterward to form a pile.”

Inherently strong, the tent stitch was used to imitate woven tapestry by working it across each intersection of the canvas. Tent stitch, which first appeared in the 13th c. in combination with other stitches, looks like half of a cross-stitch and both stitches are excellent choices for working designs on seat cushions, kneeling pillows, etc. Even when these stitches were worked in a variety of directions on the same piece, they proved quite effective for the sake of appearance.

Since the evenweave linen ground for canvaswork is completely covered, other “coverage stitches” to use include upright gobelin or brick, long-armed cross stitch and plait or plaited braid. Running, stem, satin and sometimes even chain stitch are good detail stitches for canvaswork. See diagrams for the gobelin, brick, long-armed cross stitch and plaited stitch. TheFlorentine or Bargello stitch was also a popular canvaswork style of the Renaissance, but we will save that technique for another article.

It is a mistake for needleworkers to think that the counted, geometric stitches named above and used in 16th c. canvaswork were not used earlier. As Erica Wilson notes in her Embroidery Book, an altar frontal done 300 years earlier in Germany (formerly Saxony) was embroidered on coarse linen using silk threads and counted, geometric stitches. She also noted that on the Hildesheim Cope, the entire linen was worked in a brick stitch. Schuette & Müller-Christensen feature in their embroidery book a color plate (#VI) of the late 12th c. Bell Chasuble worked mostly in long-armed cross stitch.

Worsted wool thread (known as crewel in the Middle Ages) was used for canvaswork in the 16th century. Today, needleworkers can purchase: (1) Paternayan’s Persian wool – 3 stranded, easily divided, usually use 2 strands for canvaswork, easiest to work in 30 inch lengths; (2) DMC Medici and Broider Wul are both single-stranded 100% virgin wool in muted shades. The Broider Wul is hand-dyed. You can’t use lengths much longer than 18 inches, frays easily, usually use 2 strands for canvaswork; and (3) DMC or Anchor Tapestry wool – single thread, larger in diameter, doesn’t tangle, nice colors.

Silk threads that today’s needleworkers can purchase include: (1) Soie d’Alger – 7 stranded, divisible, and available in almost 600 colors; (2) Soie Gobelin – 2 ply twisted filament silk, and (3) Trebizond Twisted Silk – sold in 10 meter spools, perfect for tent stitch on 18-mesh canvas.

Note: Order the full amount of thread needed to complete a project so the entire “dye-lot” of that color matches. Experiment with threads to find the correct number of strands that will pass through the canvas easily without fraying but providing adequate coverage of the canvas itself.

100% linen canvas can be purchased today and is available in 13 or 17 mesh. Since such linen canvas cloth or even the imported evenweave linens can be quite expensive ranging from $25 per yard on up, most people experimenting with canvaswork tend to purchase one of the following types of cotton canvas: (1) Mono needlepoint canvas – single thread canvas available in 10, 12, 13, 14, 16 or 18 mesh, OR (2) Penelope canvas – double threaded, available in same mesh sizes as mono canvas, used for finer detail and durability. Both Mono and Penelope canvas are measured in terms of mesh sizeSnumber of stitched threads per inch, whereas imported linen is measured in terms of counted threads per inch (hence, 14 count, 18 count, etc.).

For canvaswork, we use tapestry needles which have blunted points, long enlarged eyes, and come in sizes ranging from 13 to 26 but most likely will be found in sizes 22, 24 and 26. You may need the smaller size blunt needles if you are working with silk or any passing metal threads.

Frames, stretcher bars or hoops are not a requirement for doing canvaswork, but they do eliminate the need for blocking and they help prevent distortion of the needlework.


Levey, Santina M. Elizabethan Treasures: The Hardwick Hall Textiles. Harry N. Abrams, Publishers, New York, NY, 1998.

Wilson, Erica. Erica Wilson’s Embroidery Book, Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY, 1973.

Gostelow, Mary. The Complete Guide to Needlework Techniques and Materials. Chartwell Books, Inc., 1982, ISBN 0890095973.

Schuette, Marie and Müller-Christensen, Sigrid. A Pictorial History of Embroidery. Frederick A Praeger, Publisher, NY, 1964.

Hughes, Therle. English Domestic Needlework. Abbey Fine Arts, London

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