June 1st, 2008

The Needlepoint Beginner: How Do I Start Stitching?


Help for the aspiring needlepointer's first project


girl embroidering fabric with a smile

You saw someone doing it on a park bench in the blissful spring air. You remember your mother stitch-stitch-stitching, while on the phone, or in the doctor's waiting room. Yesterday, your friend proudly showed off her latest masterpiece, framed neatly on the kitchen wall. Whatever it is, you want some too! How does a complete beginner start needlepointing?

Presenting our Needlepointing Tutorial for Beginners. Read on and see how easy it is to take up needlepointing. Introduce yourself to one of the most relaxing and rewarding hobbies that's been around for hundreds of years.

Choosing a Canvas

Visit a local needlework shop or surf the Internet for a needlepoint canvas you like. Think about what you want to do with it: Will you frame it as a wall hanging? If so, where would it would go - home or office? Kitchen or living room? This would influence the choice of subject and style of the canvas. If you will finish it as a pillow, or as a garment such as a belt, think about patterns and colors.

Needlepointing is an enjoyable and entertaining pastime that can enrich your life and reduce your daily stress. It would be a shame to drop it just because you got started with the wrong project, so choose wisely.

TIP: If this is your first experiment with needlepointing, consider a small canvas with fewer colors. Also, don't start with a fine weave, try to find a canvas that is 14 count or less. This will reduce the number of stitches you will need to complete the piece, and you'll finish it quickly with minimal investment. When you're done, you'll know whether needlepointing is for you.

Don't be tempted to begin with a pretty canvas you fell in love with. If it's a big canvas or the colors are complicated, it can take a very long time to finish. This may lead to you getting discouraged, or feeling frustrated. Large and complex projects can be daunting even to seasoned stitchers with years of experience. Someone I know received a rather large canvas for her twelfth birthday. She is turning forty-two and still hasnít finished!

For a more extensive treatment of the ins and outs of shopping for a needlepoint canvas, see our article Finding the Perfect Needlepoint Canvas.

Matching Threads

DMC Pearl Cotton 155

Beginners are most comfortable with pearl cotton thread. This is slightly more expensive, but it is worth it since it is easier to work with.

Floss ó usually made from 6 strands of fiber ó is more flexible. You can thin it by removing some strands, or thicken it by adding some. You can also combine strands to produce a mix of color. This works well for a variety of situations.

The best-known brand name in the thread business is DMC. Often you will see canvases or charts with color codes that are secific for DMC threads. If you can't find the color you like, there are plenty more brands; for example, The Gentle Arts is a very good choice. Another popular brand, Kreinik, sells excellent metallic threads, which work very well for canvas images that contain glass, gold or silver.

As your journey in needlepoint technique progresses, you will discover more creative ways to use threads. For example, metallic threads to stitch stars in the sky, or variegated green thread to do a grassy meadow.

TIP: Some canvases have a color palette along the side, which you can use to match colors. You may prefer to choose your own colors based on personal taste, and also by considering where the piece will be displayed. For example, if a floral-themed canvas is dominated by red, pink and orange flowers, you might substitute blue, lavendar, and light yellow if that combination suits you better.

Getting Comfortable

Get all your needlepointing accessories together. You'll need the canvas, thread, small scissors, stitching needle, and a small bag to hold it all. The best needle to start with is a #20 tapestry needle. Buy a few so you will be able to continue working if one gets losts or falls between the wooden slats on the deck floor.

Find a place that's comfortable and well lit. Have a seat and relax. Minimize distractions. Take a deep breath. Ready to begin? Good, let's take the plunge.

TIP: Some needlepointers take the point of view that you must use a needlepoint frame or stand to do good work. A needlepoint frame is a wood contraption that holds your canvas taut while you work. This has the advantage of protecting against canvas warping.

If you will be taking this stuff with you everywhere, on the bus, train, in the car, up and down the stairs in your home, to the hairdresser, whatever, the bulk of extra equipment will make it harder. As to the warping problem, your framing service will do a decent job of blocking the completed work.

Preparing the First Stitch

Examine your canvas and select an area with a large expanse of one color to start with. This will help you practice getting into the stitching flow.

TIP: Start with darker colors and finish with the lightest colors. Your hands constantly rub against the threads as you work. You want to avoid getting the lighter colors dirty, so the less time they spend exposed the better.

If your hands are very dry, you may snag the thread as you work. Moisturize daily to help keep your hands in shape.

Cut a length of thread, not too short that it would get used up too fast, and not too long, which would make it tiresome to pull all the way through.

Make a knot as close as possible to the end of the thread. This will anchor the thread at the starting point of your stitch run. (If the canvas weave is coarse, say 10 count, you might need two knots.) Wet one end and thread it through the eye of the needle. Move the needle down about halfway, and get ready for your first stitch.


An easy stitch to begin with is called Tent Stitch (also known as Continental Stitch or just regular needlepoint stitch). it is the one illustrated here.

There are a ton of different stitches to learn, and you will be picking those up as you go. A canvas will exhibit spice and life when it is composed of a variety of different stitches. Still, the Tent Stitch is the mainstay of most needlepoint works.

Picture a 2x2 grid with four squares. The right upper is northeast, left upper northwest, lower right is southeast, and lower left is southwest. It is easier to follow complicated stitches when thinking along these lines.

Start at one edge of the area you selected. In this example, you start from the left edge, making your way to the right, and then moving down and making your way back to the left.

Tent stitch, direction of first row

Begin one hole from the edge. This is the northeast hole in the 2x2 grid. Insert the needle from the back of the canvas, and pull until the knot at the end holds it in place.

You'll be pulling the doubled-up thread through the holes, and the unknotted end of the thread will slip out as you go along, leaving behind a single-thread stitch. Occasionally, the thread gets trapped and you'll need to undo stitches until you can free it. Sometimes a firm yank will dislodge it, and it will snake its way out of the holes it was sharing with the other thread.

After pulling the thread up from beneath the canvas through the hole, push the needle back down into the hole directly southwest, diagonally across from the first hole.

Tent stitch, first stitch illustration

Travel under the canvas and push the needle up into the hole directly east of the first hole. Push the needle back down into the hole southwest of that one.

Tent stitch, second stitch illustration

Repeat until you work your way rightwards to the other edge of that color. Up east, down southwest, up east, down southwest, and so on.

Now you have completed one row of pretty neat stitching and you are ready to start on the second row of stitching. This row will start from the right edge of the area, and work its way back to the left edge. Begin by pushing the needle up from beneath the canvas into the hole directly south of the last hole you descended into.

Tent stitch, first stitch 2nd row illustration

Now keep in mind that for this row, the steps are reversed. You push the needle down in the hole northeast. Continue with the hole west of the first hole and back down northeast.

Tent stitch, 2nd stitch 2nd row illustration

Don't skip a line! When you are done, every hole should be occupied by two threads: one from the upper row, and one from the lower row.

Tent stitch, 2 full rows illustration

And we are back at the edge from where we started! You now repeat until you have completely filled the area with neat stitching.

TIP: Donít let anyone else stitch on your canvas. Each person pulls the thread differently Ė at different angles, tightness, and speed. The same exact stitch looks different if stitched by two separate individuals. You may end up ripping out the area stitched by others.

If you make a mistake, you can correct by reversing your steps. Push the needle right back through the hole it just came from. Continue tracing your stitches backwards until you undo the series of errors. And get used to it Ė youíll be doing this a lot! You may be able to reuse the thread. It all depends on how finicky you are and in what shape the thread is in.

Finishing the Thread

When you near the end of the thread, or itís time to change colors on the canvas, pull the remaining thread through a few finished stitches that are close by. Cut off remaining hanging thread.

Some stitchers out there believe that the back of the needlepoint should look quite as perfect as the front. They "hide" the ends of threads by stitching them on the other side. I donít do this because I am a speed stitcher and like to finish projects quickly. No sense wasting time with something people will never see anyway.

There is also a lesson to be learned from messy backs of canvases. Life seems rough; itís full of tough journeys and hardships. But we really donít get to view the entire picture. Itís like the back of a canvas. The front side is the beautiful completed project Ė the side of life visible to God. He is stitching all those ups and downs to produce the masterpieces of what our lives really are. It's only afterwards that we get to see the front of the canvas and realize how perfect life has been all along.

Happy Stitching!

Renee Frank is an avid needlepointer, and a devoted wife and mother. She is the owner of Pepita Needlepoint, offering fresh and unique needlepoint designs that are inexpensive, easy to stitch, and blazing in color. You can contact Renee by emailing  r e n e e   @   p e p i t a c r e a t i o n s . c o m .