by Isela de Bari
Canvaswork refers to needlework that covers the whole
surface of canvas with stitching. Today, we refer to canvaswork
as "needlepoint", but this is an American term. If you
used the term needlepoint in the Middle Ages, you'd be
referring to a type of needle-made lace.
Canvaswork is also confused with tapestry, which refers
to woven design. Perhaps the confusion stems from the fact that
Elizabethan needleworkers enthusiastically copied European tapestry
designs onto canvas. Flemish woven tapestries, especially those
depicting human figures, skillfully woven with silk and metal
threads, were expensive, admired, and coveted. Canvaswork "tapestries"
were an affordable home-made imitation.
Especially in Elizabethan England, canvaswork was extremely
popular. Not only tapestries, but herbals, bestiaries, woodcuts,
and colorful carpets coming out of the Middle East were sources
for canvaswork designs. Canvaswork decorated the interiors of
great manors such as Hardwick Hall: bed hangings, wall hangings,
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 that the bedroom
was a "state chamber" or semi-public space in a noble's home.
So warmth, grandeur and comfort were major household concerns
of the wealthy, and inspired the production of such canvaswork.
Medieval and Elizabethan needleworkers did canvaswork on a
variety of fabrics, not just the heavily stiffened open "canvas"
we have today. Sometimes the foundation fabric was so fine that
hundreds of stitches could be worked per square inch (for example,
the Bradford Table Carpet). Fine silk gauze, linen in many weights
from light to heavy, and stouter canvas made of hemp fiber (the
word "canvas" comes from "cannabis," the Latin name of hemp)
were all used.
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 three blues, three creams, three greens, two
reds, brown, light sepia, lilac and black, a typical palette.
The silk threads used were light blue, green, white and yellow.
Shades of pink, blue-green and dull gold were also common in
canvaswork. By including both wool and silk thread, the linen
canvas could be worked in brilliant colors and a wide variety
of shades. Black silk and metal threads were used for detailing
and for outlining.
Rather than working an entire piece in tent stitch, many projects
(like the cushion at the top of this page) used "slips."
These were flowers, beasts and other isolated motifs worked
in silk or wool (mostly tent stitch) on canvas or linen, then
cut out and applied to a background fabric, often satin or velvet.
Santina Levey notes in her study of the Hardwick Hall textiles
that Mary Queen of Scots outlined her slips with black before
she filled in the colors. (Above: slips possibly worked by
Mary at Traquair House) Flowers, worms, snails, butterflies,
dragonflies, deer, fish, lions and other animals (many grotesque
and not realistic) were lifted from popular bestiaries and prints
and copied onto the canvas. Such "cut-and-applied" canvaswork
could also be combined on the same ground fabric with appliqued
fabric work and other surface embroidery techniques.
Human figures could be worked in the same way. This "cut-and-apply"
method created a rich effect with the silk and metal thread
against the 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. This professionally worked
cushion was done in silk and metal thread, picturing a lady
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.
Embroiderers, both professional and amateur, often employed
craftsmen skilled in painting and design to create and mark
the designs for the canvas. Although canvaswork was done by
amateurs, the mere size of some pieces and the detailed design
and fineness of stitches indicate that professional embroiderers
were often employed. Bess of Hardwick complained (or boasted)
about all the hard work she had personally put into her hangings,
having "never more than two embroiderers in her employ."
Canvaswork employed a repertoire of various stitches.
Inherently strong, the tent stitch was used to imitate
woven tapestry by working it evenly across each intersection
of the canvas. Tent stitch looks like half of a cross-stitch
and is an excellent choice for designs on seat cushions,
kneeling pillows, etc.
Since the evenweave linen ground for canvaswork is completely
covered, other "coverage stitches" include upright gobelin
and brick stitches (very popular in Germany), long-armed
cross stitch, and plait or plaited braid. Stem, satin
and sometimes even chain stitch are used as detail stitches
A bit more challenging was "turkey-work" (not to be
confused with carpets from Turkey). This "tufted" stitch
was used to imitate the middle-eastern method of making
carpets. Instead of the woven-in knots of true car-pets,
the English used a needle on canvas to make a series of
loops, securing each one with a form of back stitch, and
then clipping the whole thing afterward to form a pile.
It is a mistake for needleworkers to think that the
counted, geometric stitches named above and used in 16th
century canvaswork were not used earlier. The Victoria
and Albert museum has a tent-stitched purse from about
1450, and several altar frontals done in the 13th and
14th centuries in parts of Germany were embroidered on
coarse linen, using linen and silk threads and counted
geometric filling stitches. Erica Wilson also notes that
on the Hildesheim Cope, the entire linen background was
worked in brick stitch. Schuette & Christensen feature
a color plate (#VI) of the late 12th century Bell Chasuble,
worked mostly in long-armed cross stitch.
Worsted wool thread was the commonest material used
for canvaswork in the 16th century. Today, needleworkers can
- Paternayan's Persian wool - 3 stranded, easily divided,
use 2 strands for canvaswork; easiest to work in 30 inch lengths.
- DMC Medici and Broider-Wul, which are both
single-stranded 100% wool in muted shades. Broider-Wul is
hand-dyed. You can't use lengths much longer than 18 inches,
since it frays easily; use 2 strands for most canvaswork.
- DMC or Anchor Tapestry wool - single thread, larger
in diameter, doesn't tangle, nice colors.
Silk threads that today's needleworkers can purchase
- Soie d'Alger - 7 stranded, divisible, and available
in almost 600 colors;
- Soie Gobelin - 2 ply filament silk;
- 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 provide
good coverage of the canvas.)
100% linen canvas can be purchased today and is available
in 13 or 17 mesh. Since linen canvas or imported evenweave linen
can be expensive, ranging from $12 to $25 per yard on up, most
people experimenting with canvaswork tend to buy one of the
following types of cotton canvas:
- Mono needlepoint canvas - single thread canvas available
in 10, 12, 13, 14, 16, or 18 mesh, OR
- 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
size, i.e. number of holes per inch, whereas imported linen
is measured in terms of counted threads per inch (hence, 14
count, 18 count, etc.).
Needles: The best needles for canvaswork are "tapestry"
needles, which have blunted points, long enlarged eyes, and
come in sizes ranging from 13 to 26, though you're most likely
to find sizes 22, 24 and 26. You may need the smaller size blunt
needles if you are working with silk or metal threads. Note
that one manufacturer's "size 24" needles may not be the same
Frames ($10-50) or stretcher bars ($4-10) are not an
absolute requirement for doing canvaswork, but they do reduce
the need for blocking, and they help prevent distortion of needlework
Levey, Santina M. Elizabethan Treasures: The Hardwick
Hall Textiles. Harry N. Abrams, Publishers, New York,
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.
Schuette, Marie and Müller-Christensen, Sigrid. A
Pictorial History of Embroidery. Frederick A Praeger,
Publisher, NY, 1964.
Hughes, Therle. English Domestic.