Practice Piece


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February 2020

A Gazillion Stitches!

Long time I didn't know what canvaswork really is about. Alone the word canvas was causing a lot of confusion. I know canvas as a normal sturdy cotton fabric, so I couldn't imagine stitching with wool in tent stitch on it. It took me some time to learn, that the stiff open weave canvas used for this embroidery technique (resembling rather Aida than normal fabric) is called Stramin in Germany.  

Then the German name for the technique ... The respective Wikipedia article was obviously written by an American author, because the title is "Needlepoint", and that is the name canvaswork got in the USA and in Canada. So the first sentence reads: "Needlepoint or canvas work ..." Following the link to the German article, we end up at the subheading Gobelinstickerei, which means tapestry work. Now Rachel Doyle, the author of the RSN Essential Stitch Guide - Canvaswork (yes, they write it in one word, and so will I) notes, that "tapestry work" is actually a misnomer, since tapestry is traditionally woven, not embroidered. Until I read her book, I was - mislead by the German name - convinced, that canvaswork uses tapestry wool only. 

Third point: the stitches. Contrary to the widespread opinion, canvaswork is not based on tent stitch alone. It knows actually a gazillion different stitches! Ok, let's not get entirely carried away: it uses a great variety of stitches

In Search of Guidance

See, all the previous techniques and styles I was learning up to now were relatively easy to come by in terms of learning materials and guidance. Cross stitch - I had a kit at home. Assisi work and Colbert embroidery - there are those wonderful old DMC booklets by Thérèse de Dillmont. But there was nothing enlightening on canvaswork, nothing I could use to learn at least a portion of this variety of stitches to gain an overview over the technique. I had surfed the free online sources, such as Internet Archive, Antique Pattern Library, On-Line Digital Archive of Documents on Weaving etc. (unfortunately, due to a pesky lawsuit, Project Gutenberg isn't available for Germans anymore), to no avail.   

So I finally decided to buy the RSN Essential Stitch Guide to Canvaswork by Rachel Doyle. And I wasn't disappointed. This book is excellent for getting started with canvaswork. There is a short outline of the history of this technique, an ample description of all the prerequisites necessary, studded with useful advises, even a chapter on making and transferring own designs and another on shading. And there are 48 stitches described so meticulously, that no questions have the right to remain unanswered. 

All You Need for Getting Started with Canvaswork

All You Need for Getting Started

After careful reflection, I decided on a stitch sampler as my practice piece, similar to the one Rachel presents in the book. A square made of smaller squares, each one showing another stitch. Since I haven't a frame - my largest hoop is the 25 cm (10") hoop of the Elbesee seat frame - I had to reduce the size of the square to 4 by 4 smaller squares of ca. 6 cm (2.5") each. The thing is, you see, that canvaswork doesn't allow to move the piece around in a hoop, because it would damage this starkly textured embroidery. 

The good news was that the 48 stitches in the book would beautifully divise into 3 practice pieces containing 16 stitches each. Such was my plan. 

Is that Normal?

I had bought canvas and tapestry wool a while ago. I had been happy to find an online shop in Germany that carries many embroidery supplies which you don't find nowhere else here. The owner of Handarbeitshaus, Ms Edith Blöcher, is such a lovely, spirited lady with an amazing enthusiasm for the art. I had a long, pleasurable and inspiring phone call with her. On her website, I read: Canvaswork is mostly done in tent stitch on open weave canvas with tapestry wool. There you have another source of my initial confusion! In regard of the lack of crewel wool in Germany, she told me that tapestry wool can be separated and this way be used the same way as crewel wool. I bought half a metre 11 ct. Zweigart double thread canvas and a nice range of DMC Colbert tapestry wool, all of which - together with the RSN Stitch Guide - you can see in the photo above.    

However, my confusion went through the roof, as I finally - having whipped through the book in no time - set out to prepare my first pratice piece. 

Is it normal that canvas is stiff as a board?  

Mounted Canvas

I had my doubts whether I would manage to mount it in the hoop, not to mention pull it taught there. Should it be washed beforehand? Can you iron it?

Mounted Canvas

Why, it was surprisingly easy to mount, and it wasn't even necessary to pull it taught, because it was already stretched tight after mounting it. So I set about stitching the first square ... and encountered the next problem.

Is it normal that tapestry wool is so thick?  

I knew by then that you can use practically every thread for canvaswork, but somewhere in the book, I read that at the RSN, they usually work on 18 ct. canvas with tapestry wool, so it must be possible. Now, I've got an 11 ct., so it should be even more convenient to stitch with tapestry wool? But working the first stitch - Algerian eye (the linked stitch instruction is the basic stitch - this one here is a variation of it) - where you have to push the needle up to eight times through the same hole, I noticed that I would rather have a finer thread for it. From the 5th stitch upwards, it required a lot of effort to squeeze the needle through.

Algerian Eye Stitch

Algerian Eye Stitch

To top it all, the tapestry wool wasn't separable at all, as the shop owner had stated. 

Tapestry Wool vs. Soft Cotton

Tapestry Wool vs. DMC Soft Cotton

Perhaps I should have used the DMC Soft Cotton I had left over from my embroidered mittens? But I had too few colours of it, and I was so eager to stitch with wool for the first time in my life. 

Once again, our Needle'n Thread Community on Facebook came to help me out of my confusion. I learned that the canvas doesn't need to sit taught in the hoop, tight is sufficient, and tight it was. Of course, most of the canvasworkers use crewel wool - or all sorts of other threads, but scarcely anybody stitches with tapestry wool. In the meantime, I have found an online shop in Germany indeed, Werkstatt für Historische Stickmuster, which carries Laine Fine d'Aubusson, the crewel wool made by Au Ver à Soie! So for the next project I know where to look for threads. 

As to the stiffness of the canvas, one lady in the community passed the advise of the RSN on to me to try to rub the canvas between my hands in order to soften it. I tried it, but all I got were sticky hands and a wrinkled canvas. 😄 So why not go for broke and try and wash the canvas! I threw it into warm water and ... got some kind of tulle! 😂

Sized Canvas vs. Washed Canvas

Sized Canvas (Standing) vs. Washed Canvas (Lying Inside)

I think you can stitch on canvas without sizing, too, but that might miss the point. After all, canvas gets sized to prevent distortion from the heavy stitching as far as possible. Of course, you can starch spray the soft canvas again, but then - why wash it beforehand? 🙄

Pure Stitching Bliss!

It wasn't the first time in my life, that I was struggling with a new to me technique in the beginning, and some time later, I just couldn't understand what I had been struggling with. Same here. Once I came to stitching canvaswork for good, all the initial problems disappeared as if by magic. Canvaswork became pure stitching bliss for me.

Canvaswork Stitches

First Row from Left to Right: Algerian Eye Variation, Net Stitch, Broad Cross, Raised Spot

Second Row from Left to Right: Alternating Cross, Turkish Rug Knot (not cut open), Upright Cross, Byzantine Stitch

First thing: after all the subtle, delicate embroidery I had done so far, stitching with wool was a highly pleasurable, an outright sensual experience. The colours were so radiant, the wool felt so soft and cozy, it covered the canvas so well, and - oh well - canvaswork is a counted embroidery, means you can't misdo too much. Counted embroidery nearly always looks nice.   

Turkish Rug Knot

Turkish Rug Knot, partially cut open

Second thing: I even came to value the stiffness of the canvas, because it prevents distortion as far as possible. 

Barred Square

Barred Square

Canvaswork Stitches

Upper Row FLTR: Victorian Step, Crossed Cushion, Diagonal Cashmere Stitch

Bottom Row FLTR: Plait Stitch, Flying Cross, Chequer Stitch

Tent Stitch

And the Absolute Basics: Tent Stitch

Third but not least thing: For the first time since I purchased it, I found it easy to stitch at the Elbesee seat frame. I'm not sure if that was because there was no need for using a magnifier, or was it because canvaswork is such a chunky business that it suffices to "throw the needle into the next hole from afar", so that my hand beneath the fabric had no right to miss it? 

Whatever the case, I enjoyed this canvas practice so much, that I decided to give the rest of the stitch exercises a miss. Instead I will draw up a simple design by myself for what I call "sampler" here.

Canvaswork Practice Piece

My Canvaswork Practice Piece

For some stitches, however, I would choose a finer thread. Stitches, such as plait, Algerian eye or Turkish rug knot, get really crowded when using tapestry wool. I did manage to squeeze my needle even through the most crowded hole alright, but it would work easier and look a bit more elegant had I used soft cotton, crewel wool or even six strands of floss.