Friday, April 8, 2011

Carol Asks, Jane Tries to Answer

Last time Carol asked THE question facing everyone who stitches painted canvases without a stitch guide--how do you know whether the stitches you've chosen for a piece are the correct ones? Let me quote Carol again:

One of the things I've noticed about your blog is that you do a ton of test stitching. You stitch, deliberate, tear out, try something new, all with the goal of figuring out what "works" and what "doesn't work."

I don't know what that means.

When something "works," is it purely an aesthetic thing--simply what looks good to my eye? Or is there some sort of mathematical formula that is followed to figure this out? Is there a secret society of fabulous needlepointers that you ask (clearly I haven't been invited to join that group yet)? Or is it a gut instinct--when it happens, the stars align and you just know?

What a terrific thought-provoking message, Carol! This is an important topic, although not one that has many answers. I’ll do my best to explain how I choose stitches and hope it explains my process coherently.

Stitchers come in all sizes, shapes and interests. One of the things that so intrigues me about needlepoint is that there is something for every taste. Painted canvases come in all styles. You can do very cartoonish pieces that resemble a 1st grader's work or realistic painted scenes that are so gorgeous you could frame and display them unstitched, plus there is everything in-between. There are holiday themed designs, religious canvases, designs especially for kids, abstract patterns, ethnic canvases, and those with sly humor especially for adults. There are designs intended to be made up into purses, belts and shoes. You can find just about any style of painted canvas designed for a whole range of uses.

There are many ways of stitching painted canvases, too. You can do all tent stitches, you can use fancy stitches, you can use light coverage stitches, you can cover your canvas thickly with ribbons and crystals and beads and wire. Or not! One can stitch a piece in several ways  depending on whether it is meant to be used as upholstery, for a Christmas stocking or ornament, for a picture, a purse or just for fun.

The problem with this diversity is that it becomes hard to create a formula for what will work for a particular canvas (especially since often several directions will work equally well). That's one reason Bonnie and I do a Canvas of the Month when we have time. She and I take turns choosing a certain canvas and we both independently figure out how to stitch it. It's always interesting to see what we decide to do the same and how we diverge on the same piece. (If you want to see some of our virtual stitching, search for "Canvas of the Month" on Blog.)

There's not a rule to mastery of what is correct for a canvas, although there are guidelines. SharonG's new book (SharonG's Simply Essential Needlepoint Stitch Explanations) talks a bit about this topic in the introduction. Her book is really about choosing the right texture and directional flow for various sections of your canvas. Anyone interested in this topic should buy her SENSE book as it will be very helpful.

Another guideline is to use light colors that come forward for a design's focal points and dark colors that recede for the background and less important things. I have found quite a few designs where this isn't helpful, particularly on painted canvases where the colors are chosen already, but it is another useful guideline.

As Gay Ann Rogers mentions in her article (see yesterday’s posting for the URL), it is often helpful to choose stitches that are the same shape as the area they are supposed to fit inside. That’s one reason Sandy Arthur’s new book Shapes of Needlepoint is so popular. Folks instinctively understand that putting triangular stitches inside triangular shapes works well in many situations and Sandy's book is meant to help people find all sizes of triangle, square, rectangle and circle shaped stitches.

Because I personally like realistic designs, I try to choose stitches and threads that mimic how things look in real life. If the thread and stitch I choose to stitch a tree trunk looks like a real tree trunk, then that part is right. The Stitches for Effect series come in handy here because they have classified a huge number of stitches as to the type of effect they give (fur, clothing, snowflakes, etc.).  However, this isn't much help for abstract or very cartoonish canvases  which don't have to have realistic effects to be effective.

I also often choose a stitch that is related to another stitch I've chosen already. Using similar stitches produces harmony in a design because the variations on one theme unify a canvas.  This doesn't work on all designs because sometimes you want one area to be really different, however.

I rarely plan out each and every part of a canvas before I start stitching. There are too many possibilities in my head. I have to work them out on canvas to decide among them. But that is a personality thing. If you find it easier to stitch something in your head before you ever thread a needle, then do so. I'm not that way at all but there's no reason you have to copy my way of working.

However, I rely on my inner voice that says "I like that" or "that's not right" as my main guide to what I choose.  I think everyone has this inner voice.

SharonG herself says that if it looks right to you, it is. That's not a formula one can follow slavishly but it points toward the real way to judge if a section you have stitched works or not. It has to satisfy your inner sense of what you want your canvas to look like. Actually I've been surprised that four of the five volunteers who I've worked with on problem canvases on Blog told me that they have an idea or two already about what they want their canvas to look like. The challenge has been to get them to express what they want so we can come up with strategies to achieve this within the limitations of the threads they have available and how the original design was created.

I believe now that most stitchers have some idea of what they want for that canvas they love.  The sticking point is that they don’t have knack of putting that idea into a needle and stitching with it. So how do you learn that?  I believe conversations with other stitchers really helps one articulate your ideas.  If you don't have other stitchers to talk areas over with, try analyzing your canvas to yourself and try to come up with ways to make that work.

I cultivate my inner sense of what works and what doesn't by stitching a lot of painted canvases, reading all the NP magazines cover to cover, talking to other stitchers and examining their work posted on the Internet. Because I have a good visual memory, often I'll remember how someone else did a background or hair or something else when I am stitching a similar piece. I keep an eye on Melissa Shirley Designs and Artesia Needlepoint on Facebook as Melissa and Wendy often show off bits of their works in progress. I keep an eye on Stitcherie (a Ning group that Ruth Schmuff runs) and carefully examine the pieces the fabulous stitchers there post. I read all the blogs I can find and know which ones do the sort of canvases that I like to do so I can study what those folks are doing carefully.

I also am willing to try things that may or may not work and rip them out when they don't work. Ripping out a mistake is a better learning experience that you'd think! I'm trying to talk about what I chose and why on Blog as it helps other folks understand my choices, but I often have trouble articulating why I have picked what I did. I operate on instinct and listen to my gut.  When ideas pop into my head, I act on them.

Which isn't helpful to you at all, Carol. Perhaps the vague guidelines above will help you. It's not magic but it isn't math either. There's no formula to follow that will tell you 100% of the time what works and what doesn't. I think about the guidelines I mentioned above but for me personally, I decide what I like and don't like by listening to my inner sense of design.

You just need to listen to that voice. I hope working on the Gold Fish you will start to hear what it tells you. I think you have already done this without realizing it. After all, you have chosen the background colors and threads yourself, told me just what you want the dangling seaweed to be made of, and picked crystal sequins over the hot fix crystals I recommended. If that's not listening to your inner sense of "rightness" for your design, I don't know what is!

I encourage everyone who happens to read this to talk about how they choose stitches for their painted canvases (or for the counted canvaswork pieces they design) in the Comments section below.  If you can't comment, just email me at chillyhollow at hot maildot com and I'll post your comments for you.  Thanks.

Written by Jane/Chilly Hollow Blogging at and at