Most of the equipment and books we carry refer to this as Russian Punchneedle Embroidery. Almost all the reference books and websites give the same history. In the 16th century, the Russian Orthodox Church underwent a lot of change. A group referred to as the “Old Believers” split off from the Church in order to retain their old beliefs. A lot of the ornamentation used on their religious panels, vestments and clothing was done in punchneedle. Folk and Fiber website gives a more detailed historical account going back to Ancient Egypt.

So, just what is punchneedle? In general, it is a technique using a hollow needle that is threaded with a thread or fiber. When the needle is punched into the fabric, it leaves a little loop of thread on the other side. The loops are repeated to fill in a design. This group of loops is called the pile. They can be long, short, looped or even cut! Bunka punchneedle is a Japanese form of punchneedle where the design is worked from the front. We are going to be talking about the Russian punchneedle, which is worked from the backside of the fabric. This is a very easy technique to learn, and allows you great flexibility in how you work your designs. Hopefully, you will want to pick up a needle and start punching after reading this article.

Work Basket

The Punchneedle Itself

This technique requires a special needle that is thin, hollow, and varies in length. The point of the needle is pointed and very sharp. The thread goes down the length of the hollow needle and exits through an eye at the point. As the needle is punched through the fabric, a gauge on the needle (either mechanical or an added rubber tube) determines the length of the loop.

The needle is sized according to the number of strands of floss it uses. For example, a size #1 needle would use one strand of 6-strand floss, making delicate loops. A size #3 uses two to three strands of floss, while a size #6 uses four to six strands of floss.

There are a variety of punchneedles to choose from. The differences are in the materials they are made from—plastic or metal handles—and the ability to adjust the length of your loops, which determines the height of your finished design. Some punchneedles have an internal method for adjusting the length, while others have a piece of plastic that you use as a gauge. Here are some of the most popular punchneedles:

You will also need a threader made especially for the punchneedle, because the threader loop has to be really long. Here is a great beaded threader, assorted beads, 2 per package .

Hoop or Frame

It is very important to have your fabric tight in a hoop or frame. If you use a hoop, a plastic hoop with an interlocking lip will be best to hold your fabric. You will be putting pressure on the top of the fabric as you “stitch”. Some excellent choices are:

You can also use stretcher bars and tacks like Japan Brass or Corjac Tack Kit. Be sure to use a lot of tacks to keep your fabric tight.


The fabric needs to be tightly woven so that your loops will stay. A fabric that would work well is Trigger Cloth. This is a tightly woven fabric used for Brazilian embroidery. It is 65% polyester and 35% cotton. It comes in white and cream and is sold by the inch off the bolt, 60” wide. If you have a fabric you want to use but you are afraid the loops will pull out you can use a fusible woven interfacing on the back.


One great thing about punchneedle is the ability to use a variety of threads. While many people use six-strand embroidery floss, you can go on to use hand-dyed floss, pearl cotton, wools, silks, even metallic threads. Any thread or fiber that will go through the punchneedle can be used. Even 2mm ribbon can be used!

Preparing Your Design

If you buy a punchneedle pattern, it may already be pre-printed on the fabric. If not, you will need to transfer the pattern to the fabric. It is important to remember that you are actually punching from the backside of the fabric.

There are transfer patterns available, ready to iron onto your fabric, such as Aunt Martha’s.

If you have a design you want to use, try one of these methods:

  • Use an Iron-on Transfer Pencil to draw your design on regular paper and then iron the design onto the fabric. You can iron the transfer two or three times!
  • With Tracing Paper you can trace or draw a design onto the paper with a lead pencil. Then turn the paper over and re-trace the design with the iron-on pencil. Iron the design onto the fabric. This paper also works for wood, glass, plastic or metal!
  • Using a Light Box makes tracing your pattern onto the fabric easy.

It’s time to start punching!

The needle has a beveled edge and that is the front of the needle. The eye of the needle will be at the back. Thread your needle with the thread coming down from the top, leaving about an inch of thread through the eye of the needle.

The beveled edge needs to be pointed the direction you are stitching. Hold the punch at 90 degrees. Insert the tip of the needle down into the fabric as far as the needle will go.

When you can’t go any deeper, gently lift the needle back up until it is just above the fabric. If you lift it too high, it will pull out the stitched.

Drag the needle over a couple of fabric threads and punch your next stitch.

Continue doing this until your line or area is covered. If you have punched your design really tight then there should be no need for knots or glue if your project will have little wear or tear. If you are going to be washing it or are afraid it will unravel you can secure the back with Punchneedle Fabric Glue. If you want to secure just a few threads a good option would be Fray Check.

Punch the outline of your design first unless the instructions tell you otherwise. Using the color for that area, punch a single row completely around the design. Do that for all the colors and areas. You will be amazed at how crisp this will make your lines for your finished design. Here is an example we have had out in the store of a pillowcase with a punchneedle design. Sorry we do not carry this pattern.

Your stitched lines should have the stitches really close together with little white space, but there should be a little fabric showing between your rows. It will depend on your design how you stitch your lines. A lot of the designs will tell you to continue following the design around the contour, like a water ripple when you throw in a stone. Other times you may want to do rows or follow a specific pattern. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Here is a section of the pillowcase design as seen from the back.

It is possible to remove your stitches. Carefully and slowly begin to pull out the stitches from the back. Once you have removed your thread you will need to run your fingernail over the fabric threads to put them back into place. Some fabrics will take this easier than others. Your fabric can become weakened and the fabric threads will break, so you don’t want to make ripping out a habit. If you are wondering what something will look like, a suggestion is trying it on a doodle cloth before actually punching on your project fabric.

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 newsletter, visit www.nordicneedle.com.”

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