Canvaswork vs. Needlepoint

Whether you say “poe-tay-toe” or “paw-taw-toe”, they both refer to the same rooty vegetable, and generally people understand what you mean no matter how you pronounce it. Can the same thing be said about “needlepoint” and “canvaswork”? Today we will discuss why they are not interchangeable.

Just like a potato can be cooked several ways, baked, boiled and fried, so can canvaswork. Canvaswork is a counted-thread embroidery where the thread is stitched on canvas or another sturdy fabric. There are several types of canvaswork which include Berlin work, petit point, bargello, and needlepoint.

Needlepoint is the oldest form of canvaswork. There are examples from as early as the 1500’s. Textiles were found among the many treasures uncovered in King Tut’s rooms.

King Tut

King Tut’s Tomb

Earlier designs were stitched with dyed wool thread to create patterns and depth.

The next phase of needlepoint came along when ladies had time to spend stitching for decoration. Their stitching turned a piece of canvas into a sturdier fabric for upholstery. This type of stitching became popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. Tiny slanted stitches provided more durability than long, large stitches. This technique is called “Petit Point”, which is French for little stitch.

Petit Point

Petit Point Brooches

One big difference with this technique compared to the others is the type of fabric which is used. The mesh needs to be small, for instance a 40-count silk gauze, or a canvas called “Penelope”. Penelope has a special weave so that it has two weft and warp threads close together. Normally designated as 10/20, it means that if one stitch is made in the section it will be a 10-count fabric. If the stitches are made in the four small segments it becomes a 20-count fabric.

Perhaps you have heard the term “Gros Point” which means big stitch. These are stitches made on the same piece as the petit point. If your piece does have both stitches, do the petit point first and then fill in with the gros point.

Victorian Needlepoint Cushion

Victorian Needlepoint Cushion circa 1900

Petit Point

Petit point uses a slanted stitch, which can be worked in three different ways. All three different methods create stitching that look the same on the front, but have drastically different patterns on the back. The three stitches are basketweave, half cross stent, and continental tent.

Basketweave is stitched in diagonal rows up and down the design. The unique basketweave pattern shows up on the back side. This is a great stitch for large areas and does not distort the base canvas.

The half cross tent stitch is worked in straight rows or columns. But the way it is stitched, the stitch goes over only one fabric thread on the back. This stitch uses the least amount of thread, but the final project is not as sturdy.

The continental tent stitch is probably the most common. It also is worked in straight rows or columns. The back will have diagonal stitches going over two canvas threads. This is a very good stitch for a piece that will have a lot of wear, like a foot stool or carpet.

Slanted Stitch Sampler

Slanted Stitch Variations on 14 count canvas


Bargello is the next form of canvaswork. In the 17th century, canvas stitches became vertical and would typically go over four canvas threads. This method is more symmetrical with styles including Florentine, Flame, and Hungarian Point.

Bargello Flame

Chair with Flame Pattern Upholstery

There are many pieces on display in museums including the Bargello Museum in Florence, Italy. Works by Empress Maria Theresa of Austria are display in the Hungarian National Museum.

Maria Theresa

Empress Maria Theresa of Austria

This technique became “obsolete” as other stitching styles gained popularity. In the 1960’s there was a revival when bargello exploded with the modern designs enjoyed today.

Berlin Work

Berlin work evolved as a technique for stitching with wool on canvas. Several new developments in the 1830’s made this very accessible to most stitchers. There were improvements in the dyeing process, so now stitching wool was available in many more shades. This gave pieces more depth and definition.

Berlin Work

Wool Needlepoint Cushion in Berlin Work

Previously, a stitcher would hand draw a design on their canvas and then start to stitch, without any guidance. Then an ingenious pattern maker in Berlin began printing black and white patterns. The stitcher colored the patterns and then used the gridded pattern to stitch from, much like the patterns of today. These popular project sheets were inexpensive and soon became available around the world. At this time in history, “Berlin work” was synonymous with canvaswork.

Its popularity continued to grow as the work was showcased at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and in magazines such as The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. Respected reference books like Beeton’s Book of Needlework (1870) defined Berlin work as “every kind of stitch which is made upon canvas with wool, silk, or beads”. Canvaswork is not mentioned, showing how universally accepted Berlin work had become.

Victorian Beaded Needlepoint Panel

Victorian Beaded Needlepoint Panel

In the late 1880’s Berlin work died out due in part to the Arts and Crafts movement. Designers didn’t change their styles to reflect the current trends and people stopped buying the patterns.

Before looking at contemporary canvaswork, it is not technically correct to use “tapestry” when referring to canvaswork. A tapestry is a woven piece, not a stitched piece. Yet, as often happens, there are exceptions to that rule, such as the Bayeux Tapestry.

Bayeux Tapestry

Part of the Bayeux Tapestry

One thing that ties all the earlier techniques together is that the entire fabric surface is covered in stitches. Not so with modern canvaswork. The American Needlepoint Guild defines needlepoint as “any counted or free stitching worked by hand with a threaded needle on a readily counted ground.” That really opens up the technique.

Today the background fabric can be part of the design, thus the need for colored canvas.

Another distinction is the number of stitches used in a design. There are hundreds of stitches and variations to choose from. Today’s Canvaswork designers give you a variety of styles and stitches to choose from.

Canvaswork really has not had a time period when it was not in vogue. That may be due to the number of famous people who have stitched through the centuries. Mary Queen of Scots and Marie Antoinette have many surviving examples. Princess Grace enjoyed stitching as well, and the American Needlepoint Guild has a special award for a piece completed entirely in the tent stitch.

Portuguese Carpet

Portuguese Needlepoint Carpet circa 1950’s

One stitcher who surprises people is Rosie Greer. This football player really enjoyed canvaswork and he even published a book in 1973: Rosie Greer’s Needlepoint for Men. Recent celebrity stitchers include Loretta Swit and Taylor Swift who have stitched needlepoint gifts for friends.

So, in conclusion, canvaswork is the ever-evolving and over-arching term used to describe this style of stitching, and it includes neeplepoint as one of its very loved and practiced styles throughout history. No matter what it is called though, the results and the practice are the joy of any embroidery technique. If you are a canvaswork or needlepoint stitcher, then you are helping to continue and shape these techniques, and are part of the evolution of this historic stitching style.

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

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