Candlewick Embroidery

In researching this technique, it is generally agreed that it was created in America by the women who traveled out to the wild and untamed west. The first traders along the way carried a few basic sewing necessities, just enough to mend a pair of britches so they might last another season. The adventurous women were who went west had to bring what they could in a covered wagon or on a pack animal. That didn’t allow for extras or for fancy things, but, like their ancestors, they wanted to create things to add a bit of comfort to their lives. Perhaps they also stitched for therapy, to keep their minds on other things than their predicament. Here is an example of a sod house. This one was pretty fancy because it had two windows in it!

Can you imagine being out in the absolute middle of nowhere with my family, living in this tiny structure? Neighbors were hours away. Towns took days to get to. Wild animals, wind, dust, and creeping critters were your only visitors. People lost their minds in these conditions. Stitching had to help ease fears and loneliness while providing clothing and linens for your family.

That brings us back to the fact that nice fabrics, threads, and notions were not available on the prairie for quite a while. Humans can be very resourceful when the need arises. Our stitcher looked around her sod home to find something she could stitch with. Most women squirreled away bits of fabric from other projects, or a few good pieces from a worn out dress but thread was a different matter. Homespun fabric can be "unwoven" and the threads used for sewing, but it uses up a lot for embroidery work.

One item that every household tried to have had on hand was candle supplies. Candles were critical for life on the prairie. Read more about Colonial Candles in this short article by Love to Know Candles.

The common dipped candles used a cotton fiber as a wick. Women discovered that this wick could be used for sewing as well, thus the name Candlewick Embroidery. While this cotton wick was available, it was probably costly and therefore, not available in great quantities. So, the distinctive open look of this technique was created. The design is often outlined in a series of knots rather than filled in with satin stitches or embroidery. It is considered to be in the family of whitework, since it was usually unbleached cotton wick on unbleached muslin fabric. The knots are placed relatively close together which eliminates a lot of unused thread being carried across the back of the fabric.

It is believed that because of the scarcity and/or expense of materials the Colonial Knot was created. The French knot was a mainstay of embroidery, but it took more thread to create and did not hold up as well under repeated washings. The Colonial Knot is also called the Figure 8 Knot because it is made by looping the thread around the needle, which creates an actual knot. Read more about knots in this article.

Does this technique actually take less thread? Let’s find out. WARNING: If math boggles your mind, skip down to the Stitching Basket! A simple tulip design was drawn that measures approximately 3" x 3" and was outlined with 53 dots. Using a 110" length of DMC size 8 White thread, doubled over in a milliners needle, two tulips were stitched. The first tulip was stitched with a two-wrap French Knot. There was a 4.5" tail left (9" of thread total). Next an identical tulip was stitched with the Colonial Knot. There was a 14" length remaining (28" total). Doing some math, for this design each Colonial Knot took 1.5" while the French Knot took 1.9" (the Colonial knot used .78 the length of the French Knot). That was a significant difference but the two-wrap French knot made a larger knot on the design.

Another comparison was done of a one-wrap to a two-wrap French knot. Using a 36" piece of thread doubled over, ten knots were stitched. The 2-wrap knot had a tail of 6.75" while the 1-wrap knot had a tail of 9.75". The spacing between knots along the line was not the same as the tulip, so the thread used per knot was a little less. The key figure here was the thread used for the 1-wrap knot was .73 the length of the thread used for the 2-wrap knot. (Interesting that it was really close to the .78 difference between the two tulips.) A 1-wrap French Knot and the Colonial Knot do appear to be about the same size.

So, what was concluded from this very informal experiment is that a 1-wrap French Knot and a Colonial Knot take about the same amount of thread. But if the stitcher usually does 2 wraps for the French knot, it will take approximately 25% more thread to do the design.

Here is my the stitched experiment. The top tulip is the 2-wrap French Knot and the bottom one is the Colonial Knot. The threads to the right of the top tulip are the 10-knot French Knot test.

Work Basket

It is easy to get started on your first Candlewicking project. You just need a few materials:

  • Unbleached cotton muslin or you can substitute with Trigger cloth
  • Candlewick thread which can be substituted with Cordonnet or DMC Pearl Cotton. Actual candle wicks come in a variety of sizes but the thread commonly used for candlewick embroidery is 100% cotton with 4 strands wrapped side-by-side on the card. This particular package from my stash is a 2-ply strand. It also comes in 3-ply. One strand of this thread best matches a size 8 pearl cotton of a size 20 Cordonnet.
  • A large sharp embroidery needle or chenille needles such as in this John James Pebble set (7043B)
  • A water erasable pen
  • A light box to transfer the design
  • A pattern, design from a magazine, something you remember sewing, or something from nature. You might try this book 200+ Fun and Funky Designs for Embroidery
  • A frame or hoop

How to Do Candlewicking

Find a design that you are interested in. For example, you can take a line drawing and place dots for where you want the knots along the line. You want the knots to be close enough for your thread to travel along the back of the fabric.

Cut your fabric so there is at least a 2" all the way around your design. You will need more than 2" depending on how much white space you want around the design and how you plan to finish it.

Using the light box, transfer the dots on to the fabric with your fabric marker. Once you are sure you have all the dots in place, remove the fabric from the light sources.

To keep your tension even, place the fabric in a hoop or on a frame.

If you have a pattern that calls for 4 strands of the candlewick thread, you can thread two strands and double them over the needle to create four strands. The one thing that is not agreed on is putting a knot at the end of your thread. References were split about 50/50. Half of them said it was okay to use a knot at the end of your thread. The other half recommended using an away knot or to lay down a tail of thread on the back at least an inch long and to stitch over the top of it.

The stitches usually consist of the Colonial Knot, back stitch, and sometimes a satin stitch. Mary Corbet has a great tutorial showing you how to create a perfect Colonial Knot.

The more modern designs are incorporating embroidery and crewel work often in colors. The A-Z Book of Whitework has a section on Candlewicking. This text mentions a woven form of Candlewicking which is thought to pre-date the Colonial era style.

If you want to practice your knots, my Vintage Valentine’s Day Heart pattern is available on line. This article tells you about French and Bullion Knots as well as Colonial Knots.


Sally C. sent this tip after reading the article about glue:

"Regarding today’s subject, glue, I have a tip to pass along. If a drop of Fray Block or Fray Check is put on the back of a button on the thread that holds the button to the fabric, it will not come off thereby eliminating the problem of lost buttons or the problem of sewing on the found button. I had one mother tell me…she put Fray Check on all the buttons on everything she was sending to college with him as a preventative measure."

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

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