101: Fabrics

As you already know, there is a world of different fabrics available to the stitchers today. In order to keep the information manageable, we are going to talk about the fabric types Nordic Needle carries. The different types of fabrics will be discussed in alphabetical order.

"Fabrics" are actually a subdivision of textiles. Wikipedia’s definition of textile was one of the most complete. "A textile is a flexible material comprised of a network of natural or artificial fibers often referred to as thread or yarn. Textiles are formed by weaving, knitting, crocheting, knotting, or pressing fibers together (felt)."

There is a distinction between "fabric" and "cloth". "Fabric" is the material produced by weaving, knitting, crocheting, or bonding, such as 32-count linen. "Cloth" is the finished piece of fabric that can be used for a purpose such as covering a bread basket, napkins, or a doily.

It is important to know a little bit about the weaving process before we look at individual types of fabrics. There are two distinct sets of threads that are interlaced to form the fabric, the warp and the weft. The warp threads run up and down the length of the fabric while the weft runs back and forth from side to side.

Many of you have probably seen some type of a weaving loom, whether it was a large floor loom, or a small beading loom. They all work on the same principal, where you set up your warp threads and then interlace your weft thread over and under the warp threads. You create a pattern, or a weave, in your fabric by how many warp threads you go over and under each time.

The weaving of fabric and utilitarian items such as baskets has been evolving throughout history. There is evidence of woven textiles as early as 6000 B.C. For a great time line of textile developments you can go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_clothing_and_textiles_technology

Today the majority of commercial fabrics are woven on computer-controlled looms.

Depending upon the pattern you can get three different types of weaves. The balanced weave allows the warp and weft threads to both show. Tapestry and rug weaving patterns often are weft-faced weaves where the warp threads are hidden by the weft. Some images on tapestries are created by placing the weft in only certain areas of the fabric. If the weft is hidden by the warp threads, then it is called a warp-faced weave.

Once you try your hand at weaving, you will have an increased appreciation for the fabrics available today for needlework. It can be a lot of fun and a great way to use up old clothes and scrap fabrics to make rugs and coasters. Here are some great websites that show you different types of looms you can make, along with some patterns:

Let’s look at specific materials used in fabrics.

LINEN – Linen is made from flax, which is a creamy white to light tan in color. Linen is the strongest of the vegetable fibers and has 2 to 3 times the strength of cotton. The flax fiber is smooth, so the fabric is also lint free. Linen takes dye well and it won’t fade when it is wash. Large items such as tablecloths and runners may have wrinkles when washed, but this fabric will press well. When you store your finished needlework, do not fold it the same way each time. Continual creasing in the same spot may break the linen threads over time. If you can roll the item up for storage, you will extend its life. There are names for the specific counts of linen. Cork is 18 count. Dublin is 25 ct, Cashel is 28 count, Belfast is 32 count, Edinburgh is 36 count, and Newcastle is 40 count.

COTTON – Cotton plays a huge roll in economic stability round the world. The fiber comes from the seed pod of the cotton plant and it is hollow. Cotton can hold up to 25 times its weight in water and is actually stronger when wet. This is also the reason that cotton will dye very well. Cotton does wrinkle, but it will withstand high temperatures when ironing. At one time polyester was added to cotton to make clothes easier to wash and dry. However, the polyester took away some of the ability for the fabric to breathe. Mercerized cotton is a process where cotton thread goes a sodium hydroxide bath that is then neutralized with an acid bath. This treatment increases luster, strength, affinity to dye, resistance to mildew, and also reduces lint.

SILK – Silk comes from the cocoon of the silk worm. There is a very precise science to growing the silk worm and harvesting the silk. While silk is expensive it is very durable as a fabric. China is a leading silk producer, along with Japan, India and Italy

MODALIS – Modalis is a bio-based fiber, a variety of rayon, which is more water-absorbent than cotton is. It takes dye well and is color-fast in warm water. Fabric is resistant to shrinkage and fading. Modal should be ironed after washing.

POLYESTER – Polyester is a synthetic fiber. Its stitching qualities include being resistant to stretching and shrinking, and it is quick dry and wrinkle resistant.

Inquiring Minds

We’ve had a lot of questions about fabrics, so we’ll answer some here and the rest in Part 2. If you have a question that you don’t see answered here, please let us know.

Q. What is meant by evenweave?
A. Evenweave means the fabric has the same number of threads in an inch from left to right as it does from top to bottom. Sometimes people get confused and think that the fabric will be very uniform with all the threads being the same width. That is not always the case, especially with a fabric like linen. The threads may vary in width and will cause your stitches to not be exactly the same as you stitch. However, if it is 28-count fabric, there will be 28 threads going both horizontally and vertically.

Q. People talk about the count of the fabric. Can you explain what that is?
A. The "count" of evenweave fabrics such as Aida or linen refers to the number of threads or squares per linear inch in the material. Common fabric counts of Aida range from 11 to 18 squares per inch. Linen fabric counts are based on threads per inch and can be as high as 32 threads per inch or more. So, a 28-count fabric means there are 28 threads per inch. The count of your fabric will determine the size of your finished design. Here is a wonderful on-line calculator provided by Kathy Dyer that lets you put in the stitch count of the design and will give you the sizes for several different counts.

Q. Sometimes I see fabric sold in "fat quarters". What is a fat quarter?
A. This is a standard measurement, often used by quilters, to define some pre-cut fabrics. For example:

  • Fat 1/8 = 13 x 18 inches
  • Fat 1/4 = 18 x 26 inches
  • Fat 1/2 = 26 x 36 inches

Some companies package their fabric in Stitcher’s halves (approx. 27" x 36") and Stitcher’s quarters (approx. 27" x 18").

Q. Is there a standard way to purchase fabric?
A. That depends upon the company producing and selling the fabric. At Nordic Needle, most of our fabrics are sold off the bolt which means you buy the number of inches you need for the shortest side of your project. Some companies pre-package their fabric into standard sizes. Some custom cut the fabric for your project, and you pay by the square inch. For example, a piece that is 8 inches by 12 inches is charged at the price calculated for 96 square inches (8×12). This can get expensive because often they factor in their employee’s time to cut the fabric as well as the bits of fabric left over.

Q. The fabric I get off the bolt has finished selvages, should I cut them off?
A. It is your choice whether to cut off the finished selvage I leave the selvages on my fabric because they are not going to interfere with my design and it keeps the edges from fraying (if I had cut the finished selvage off).

Q. How many inches extra of fabric should I purchase for finishing?
A. This will depend on what you are stitching and how you want to finish it. Many of the designers give a recommendation. First consider your type of stitching and whether you are using a frame, hoop, or stitching in hand (without a frame or hoop).

  • For Canvaswork you are going to need enough fabric to tack it or put it in your frame of choice.
  • For Hardanger, you want enough to be comfortable stitching the edges of your piece.
  • For cross-stitch, how much do you need to fit it into your frame?

Then you also need to think about how you are finishing it.

If you are planning on having it framed, you need to decide how many mattes you are going to use and how wide they will be.
If it is being finished into a pillow or fob, how much fabric do you want as a border?

A general rule of thumb is 3 inches ON EACH SIDE. So if your design is 8 inches by 10 inches, you would add 6 inches (3" per side) to each dimension making your piece 14" x 16".

Meet the Manufacturers

Zweigart: "Although Zwiegart & Sawitzki recently celebrated their 120th Anniversary, their history dates back much further. In 1877, Paul Zweigart and Julius Sawitzki merged, producing top quality fabrics and canvas with knowledge and experience that has been passed down through many generations, compiling an impressive total of 355 years of experience. One example of their success occurred in 1890 with the development of the first Aida cloth and throughout the years, their superior finishing techniques and strict quality control have helped them in their quest for success. Their two mills, one in Germany and one in Switzerland, currently produce over 800 different items, including afghans, plain weaves, linens, damasks, stitch band, pre-finished items and needlepoint canvas, which are then distributed to 128 countries." Read more about the company on their website: http://www.zweigart.com/content/main.php?page=history/index.php&nav=main.php

Ubelhor of Austria: This family business was founded in 1948. The company is shaped by a region of Austria with a history in the textile industry. They have 26 full-time employees and is lead by the third generation of family. Among the fabrics they produce are Hardanger, Aida, and popcorn .

Wichelt Imports, Inc.: Sometimes you will see the Wichelt name connected with fabrics. They are a wholesale company specializing in premium quality fabrics, linens and towels, stitchery accessories and hardware. In 1970 Ray and Joyce Wichelt started Wichelt Imports, Inc. in the basement of their home in Stoddard, Wisconsin by importing German gift items and Norwegian yarn for knitting and embroidery. One of the companies that Wichelt Imports brings us is Permin of Copenhagen – Danish Art Needlework.

The Carl J. Permin Company started in 1854 in Copenhagen. Carl J. Permin has subsidiaries in Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands and Germany and is represented in the rest of the world by dealers. The Permin Company employs about 80 persons plus a major numbers of home workers. They have a free graph available each month. Here is their latest offering http://www.permin.dk/Default.aspx?ID=21

Charles Craft, Inc.: "On January 1, 1967, Charles Buie, Jr. acted on a life-long desire to start a small business. With a college degree in textiles and 13 years experience with a leading textile manufacturer, Buie opened the doors to the North Carolina company." Charles Craft is well known for their pre-cut fabrics and prefinished accessories. They offer free designs for their prefinished craft items. http://www.charlescraft.com/freedesigns.html

DMC also manufactures a variety of Aida, linen, and evenweave fabrics.

In Part 2 we will look at some of the companies that use these base fabrics to give us the gorgeous hand-dyed and painted fabrics.

Onto the Fabrics

There are a lot of fabrics on the market that we don’t carry, so this list is limited to those we carried at the time. Next, what is the best way to list them – by types, by manufacturer, by name? Alphabetically by type seemed to be the best way.

AIDA fabric is a 100% cotton fabric with an even weave with several threads between each hole, usually three or four. The fabric is stiff. Aida was invented by Zweigart in 1908 and comes in several counts. It was designed for counted thread embroidery, such as counted cross stitch, hardanger, and Swedish weaving. For cross-stitch you would stitch over one. This is a good fabric for a cross-stitch beginner or someone who has eye trouble because the holes are easier to see. We carry several counts.

Linen AIDA – this is 100% linen, 14 count. We have it on the bolt.

ANNE CLOTH – This is an 18-count fabric of 100% polyacrylic fabric.

CANVAS – Canvas is considered an open evenweave fabric that can be made from a variety of materials including cotton, polyester, and silk. Most of the canvas we carry is stiff. When canvas is manufactured it goes through a process to add starch (or sizing) to the threads. This gives the fabric the strength it needs for canvas or rug work. The basic canvas comes in three types: Interlock, Mono, and Penelope.

Mono canvas has a single thread warp and weft. Because of the single thread construction, the stitcher can pull it out of shape. You should work with mono canvas on a frame. It comes in a variety of colors and counts from 10 to 18. We carry the 18 count on a 40" bolt in several colors including vintage and metallic.

Interlock canvas has a double weft and single warp. Despite its two weft design, it is lighter than mono canvas and harder on your threads. It is easy to pull out of shape, so you should use a frame. This canvas also comes in count sizes of 10 to 18. Nordic Needle does not carry Interlock canvas.

Penelope canvas has a double weft and warp. You can use the pair together or split them for specialty stitches. As you might image, this is a much stronger canvas and would be great for rugs and upholstery. The sizes are limited and are shown as 12/24 or 10/20 where the first number is the group of threads in pairs per inch and the second is the count of single threads per inch. Nordic Needle does not carry Penelope canvas.

Here are some specialty canvases that Nordic Needle carries:

  • Congress Canvas is a 24-count fabric that is on a 50" bolt. It is a sturdy fabric that has a little more flexibility to it. You should use a frame.
  • Congress Cloth is a softer canvas, easily worked in hand. This fabric is one of Roz’ favorites for Hardanger embroidery. It is 24-count, 100% cotton, in a single weave, 50" wide.
  • Waste Canvas is used as a temporary canvas that is placed over the foundation fabric to provide a stitching grid. It is a double thread canvas, lightweight, and has dark blue warp threads running through it. The stitcher goes through both layers. When the project is complete, the waste canvas threads are removed by moistening them and carefully removing them.
  • Locker Hooking Canvas is a very sturdy canvas used for Locker Hooking and Rugs. It is 50% polyester and 50% cotton. There is a dark blue thread running both in the weft and warp every ten squares. This canvas is measured by the number of mesh per inch. We carry it in two pre-cut sizes and on the bolt.

Silk Gauze is a fabric that you probably wouldn’t consider to be a canvas, but it technically is. This is a very fine, lightweight, single-thread canvas. It is sold is cut pieces or already in a mat. We have it both ways.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where we will look at fabrics for Hardanger Embroidery, Swedish Weaving, Brazilian Embroidery, Punch Needle, Cross-stitch (Linens and Lugana) and so much more.

There is an overwhelming amount of information on fabrics, their history and uses.


There are some items that you might want to have in your workbasket when you have fabric questions. Here are a couple of suggestions:

Have you ever bought a piece of fabric and didn’t keep the receipt with it or tried to mark it someway, only to find when you go to use it that you don’t remember what count it is? Well, if this has happened to you, having a fabric counter in your stash is a life saver. Analyze your fabric with these magnifiers and know for sure what count you have.

The other things that are handy to have in your workbasket are tools that help count and mark your place. It never fails. If you need to go up 10 threads, count, and get ready to put your needle in, then you’re not sure if it was this spot or that one. So you re-count and make the hole a little bigger, so you don’t lose track of it, and try again. So much time can be spent counting and re-counting, sometimes to find out after several stitches, that you counted wrong! Uff da. Here are a couple of things that are useful that might help save you from the frustration of re-counting.

Count Keepers are easy to use. There are two needles attached by twisted cord to a beaded tail. You put one needle in at the place you want to count from and then count, placing the second needle in that spot. Then you can leave that needle in and when you are ready to count again and move the first needle to the next spot. They work really slick!

Counting and marking pins are similar to count keepers except they aren’t attached to each other, so they are a bit easier to move around and there isn’t a chain to get in the way of your work.

Easy-Count Guideline is a popular and useful tool. It is a bright red, fairly rigid filament that you weave into your fabric to easily mark your center lines, or even to create a more intricate gridwork. Because it is a round and rigid filament, it is easy to insert and remove.

We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!

For those interested in using this article or others published by Nordic Needle, Inc., please use this copy when referencing the information:

“The following article was published by Nordic Needle in their weekly e-mail newsletter. Permission was granted to share this article in (name of your publication). For information on subscribing to their weekly e-mail newsletter, visit www.nordicneedle.com.”

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