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Needlepoint is a form of counted thread embroidery in which yarn is stitched through a stiff open weave canvas. Most needlepoint designs completely cover the canvas. Although needlepoint may be worked in a variety of stitches, many needlepoint designs use only a simple tent stitch and rely upon color changes in the yarn to construct the pattern.
The degree of detail in needlepoint depends on the thread count of the underlying mesh fabric. Needlepoint worked on fine canvas is known as petit point. Due to the inherent stiffness of needlepoint, common uses include wall hangings, pillows, upholstery, holiday ornaments, purses and eyeglass cases.
The roots of needlepoint go back thousands of years to the ancient Egyptians, who used small slanted stitches to sew up their canvas tents. Howard Carter, of Tutankhamen fame, found some needlepoint in the cave of a Pharaoh who had lived 1500 years before Christ. Modern needlepoint descends from the canvas work in Tent Stitch, done on an evenly woven open ground fabric, that was a popular domestic craft in the 16th century.
The development of needlepoint was influenced in the 17th century by Bargello, and by shaded Berlin wool work in brightly colored wool yarn in the 19th century. Upholstered furniture became fashionable in the 17th century, and this prompted the development of a more durable material to serve as a foundation for the embroidered works of art.
Embroidery that is not needlepoint often uses soft cloth and requires an embroidery hoop.
Because it is stitched on a fabric that is an open grid, needlepoint is not embellishing a fabric, as is the case with most other types of embroidery, but literally the making of a new fabric. It is for this reason that many needlepoint stitches must be of sturdier construction than other embroidery stitches.
"Needlepoint" is not synonymous with all types of embroidery. Needlepoint is often referred to as "tapestry" in the United Kingdom and sometimes as "canvaswork." Needlepoint differs from true tapestry, which is woven on a vertical loom. Needlepoint is stitched on canvas mesh. When worked on fine weave canvas in Tent Stitch it is also known as "Petitpoint". "Needlepoint lace" is also an older term for needle lace, a historic lacemaking technique. When referring to handcrafted textile arts which a speaker is unable to identify, the appropriate generalized term is "needlework".
Berlin Work (also spelled Berlinwork) refers to a subset of needlepoint, popular in the mid-19th Century that was stitched in brightly colored wool on needlepoint canvas from hand-colored charts.
The threads used for stitching may be wool, silk, cotton or combinations, such as wool-silk blend. Variety fibers may also be used, such as metallic cord, metallic braid, ribbon, or raffia. Stitches may be plain, covering just one thread intersection with a single orientation, or fancy, such as in bargello or other counted-thread stitches. Plain stitches, known as tent stitches, may be worked as basketweave, continental or half cross. Basketweave uses the most wool, but does not distort the rectangular mesh and makes for the best-wearing piece.
Several types of embroidery canvas are available: single thread and double thread embroidery canvas are open even-weave meshes, with large spaces or holes to allow heavy threads to pass through without fraying. Canvas is sized by mesh sizes, or thread count per inch. Sizes vary from 5 threads per inch to 24 threads per inch; popular mesh sizes are 10, 12, 14, 18, and 24 (Congress Cloth). The different types of needlepoint canvas available on the market are mono, penelope, interlock, rug and plastic
- Mono canvas comes in the widest variety of colors (especially 18 mesh) and is plain woven, with one weft thread going over and under one warp thread. This canvas has the most possibilities for manipulation and open canvas. It is used for hand-painted canvases as well as counted thread canvaswork.
- Penelope canvas has two threads closely grouped together in both warp and weft. Because these threads can be split apart, penelope sizes are often expressed with two numbers, such as 10/20.
- Interlock Mono Canvas is more stable than the others and is made by twisting two thin threads around each other for the lengthwise thread and "locking" them into a single crosswise thread. Interlock canvas is generally used for printed canvases. Silk gauze is a form of interlock canvas, which is sold in small frames for petit-point work. Silk gauze most often comes in 32, 40 or 48 count, although some 18 count is available and 64, 128 and other counts are used for miniature work.
- Rug canvas is a mesh of strong cotton threads, twisting two threads around each other lengthwise forms the mesh and locking them around a crosswise thread made the same way; this cannot be separated. Canvases come in different gauges, and rug canvas is 3.3 mesh and 5 mesh, which is better for more detailed work.
- Plastic Canvas is a stiff canvas that is generally used for smaller projects and is sold as “pre-cut pieces" rather than by the yard. Plastic canvas is an excellent choice for beginners who want to practice different stitches.
Frames and hoops
Needlepoint canvas is stretched on a scroll frame or tacked onto a rectangular wooden frame to keep the work taut during stitching. Petit point is sometimes worked in a small embroidery hoop rather than a scroll frame.
Commercial designs for needlepoint may be found in different forms: Hand-Painted Canvas, Printed Canvas, Trammed Canvas, Charted Canvas, and Free-form.
In Hand-Painted Canvas, the design is painted on the canvas by the designer, or painted to their specifications by an employee or contractor. Canvases may be stitch-painted, meaning each thread intersection is painstakingly painted so that the stitcher has no doubts about what color is meant to be used at that intersection. Alternatively, they may be hand-painted, meaning that the canvas is painted by hand but the stitcher will have to use their judgment about what colors to use if a thread intersection is not clearly painted. Hand-painted canvases allow the stitcher to give free range to their creativity with threads and unique stitches by not having to pay attention to a separate chart. In North America this is the most popular form of needlepoint canvas.
Printed Canvas is when the design is printed by silk screening or computer onto the needlepoint canvas. Printing the canvas in this means allows for faster creation of the canvas and thus has a lower price than Hand-Painted Canvas. However, care must be taken that the canvas is straight before being printed to ensure that the edges of the design are straight. Designs are typically less involved due to the limited color palette of this printing method. The results (and the price) of printed canvas vary extensively. Often printed canvases come as part of kits, which also dramatically vary in quality, based on the printing process and the materials used. This form of canvas is widely available outside North America.
On a Trammed Canvas the design is professionally stitched onto the canvas by hand using horizontal stitches of varying lengths of wool of the appropriate colours. The canvas is usually sold together with the wool required to stitch the trammed area. The stitcher then uses tent stitch over the horizontal lines with the tramme stitches acting as an accurate guide as to the colour and number of stitches required. This technique is particularly suited to designs with a large area of mono-colour background as such areas do not require tramming, reducing the cost of the canvas and allowing the stitcher to choose the background colour themselves. The Portuguese island of Madeira is the historic centre for the manufacture of trammed canvases.
Charted Canvas designs are available in book or leaflet form. They are available at book stores and independent needlework stores. Charted Canvas designs are typically printed in two ways: either in grid form with each thread intersection being represented with a symbol that shows what color is meant to be stitched on that intersection, or as a line drawing where the stitcher is to trace the design onto his canvas and then fill in those areas with the colors listed. Books typically include a grouping of designs from a single designer such as Kaffe Fassett or Candace Bahouth, or may be centered around a theme such as Christmas or Victorian Needlepoint. Leaflets usually include one to two designs and are usually printed by the individual designer.
Free-form needlepoint designs are created by the stitcher. They may be based around a favorite photograph, stitch, thread color, etc. The stitcher just starts stitching! Many interesting pieces are created this way. It allows for the addition of found objects, appliqué, computer-printed photographs, goldwork, or specialty stitches.
While traditionally needlepoint has been done to create a solid fabric, more modern needlepoint incorporates open canvas, techniques which allow some of the unstitched, or lightly stitched, canvas to show through. Some of these techniques include "shadow" or "lite" stitching, blackwork on canvas, and pattern darning.
Needlepoint continues to evolve as stitchers use new techniques and threads, and add appliqué or found materials. The line between needlepoint and other forms of counted-thread embroidery is becoming blurred as new stitchers adapt techniques and materials from other forms of embroidery to needlepoint.
Mary, Queen of Scots, Marie Antoinette, Queen Elizabeth I, Princess Grace, Martha Washington, American football player Roosevelt "Rosey" Grier, and actresses Mary Martin and Loretta Swit have all been avid stitchers.
Martin released a book titled Mary Martin's Needlepoint in 1969 that cataloged her works and provided needlework tips.
Grier released a book titled Rosey Grier's Needlepoint for Men in 1973 that shows Grier stitching and samples of his work.
The American Needlepoint Guild has established a Princess Grace Award (Needlepoint) for needlepoint completed entirely in tent stitch. This award is not formally associated with the Princess Grace Foundation  which presents the "Princess Grace Awards".
The American actress Sylvia Sidney sold needlepoint kits featuring her designs and she published two popular instruction books: Sylvia Sidney's Needlepoint Book (1968) and The Sylvia Sidney Question and Answer Book on Needlepoint (1975).
Most commercial needlework kits recommend one of the variants of tent stitch, although Victorian cross stitch and random long stitch are also used. Authors of books of needlepoint designs sometimes use a wider range of stitches. Historically, a very wide range of stitches have been used including:
- Arraiolos stitch
- Brick Stitch
- (Victorian) Cross Stitch
- Encroaching Upright Gobelin stitch
- Gobelin stitch
- Hungarian Ground stitch
- Hungarian point stitch
- Mosaic stitch
- Old Florentine stitch
- Parisian stitch
- Random Long Stitch
- Smyrna stitch
- Tent stitches - Basketweave, Continental and Half cross variants
- Upright cross stitch
- Whipped flower stitch
There are many books that teach readers how to create hundreds, if not thousands, of stitches. Some were written by famous stitchers, such as Mary Martin and Sylvia Sydney. However, the most popular and long-lived is The Needlepoint Book by Jo Ippolito Christensen, Simon & Schuster. First published in 1976 by Prentice-Hall, the nearly 400-page text has been continuously in print and was revised in 1999; over 350,000 copies have been sold.
- e.g. Fasset, Kaffe Glorious Needlepoint 1987 London, Century Hutchinson ISBN 0-7126-3041-4
- e.g. Lazarus, Carole & Berman, Jennifer Glorafilia - The Ultimate Needlepoint Collection 1996 London, Elbury Press ISBN 0-09-180976-2
- e.g. Russell, Beth Traditional Needlepoint 1992 Devon, David & Charles ISBN 0-7153-9984-5
- e.g. Gordon, Jill Jill Gordon's Tapestry Collection 1997 London, Merehurst ISBN 1-85391-636-6
- The first recorded use of the term needlepoint is in 1869 as a synonym for point-lace (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary 1973. Oxford University Press). Isabella Beeton’s 1870 Beeton's Book of Needlework does not use the term Needlework, but rather describes “every kind of stitch which is made upon canvas with wool, silk or beads” as Berlin Work.
- Martin, Mary & Mednick, Sol Mary Martin's Needlepoint 1969, Galahad Books ISBN 978-0-88365-092-9
- Swit, Loretta A Needlepoint Scrapbook 1986 ISBN 0-385-19905-8 / 9780385199056
- American Needlepoint Guild Incorporated
- The Tapestry Kit Collection: Recommended Stitches
- e.g. Gordon, Jill Take Up Needlepoint 1994 London, Merehurst ISBN 1-85391-330-8
- e.g. Russell, Beth Traditional Needlepoint 1992 Devon, David & Charles ISBN 0-7153-9984-5
- Christensen, Jo Ippolito, The Needlepoint Book, 1999, New York, Simon & Schuster ISBN 0-684-83230-5