What Needlepoint Stitch To Use?

A beginners guide to choosing decorative needlepoint stitches and planning your canvas.

There is no right or wrong way to stitch a needlepoint canvas. Even seasoned needlepointers try stitches only to rip them out and try again. As you gain experience, and practice using a variety of needlepoint stitches, you will start building up a 'database' of favorite stitches and an innate knowledge of where and what stitch to use.

What follows in this blog post are some general tips for how to decide what needlepoint stitch to use, as well as some resources for where to find different types of needlepoint stitches.

1. Less Can Be More.

You do not need to cover your canvas in decorative stitches—less is usually more. Needlepoint Tent stitches (Continental and Basketweave) are the most-used stitches for a reason – they add a lovely smooth texture and they fit in everywhere.

Use a Tent stitch for faces, detailed areas, lettering, and anywhere where a decorative stitch does not have the space to play out.

Decide which parts of your design will most likely require a Tent stitch, and then plan decorative stitches around this to enhance the canvas. Decorative stitches are there to draw the eye (more about that later) and add some realism, texture, or movement to a design, but they should not overwhelm a canvas.

2. Decide what needs to stand out.

What is the most important element or elements on your canvas? What is the feature(s) you want to emphasise? This is where you might place the most decorative or striking stitches so that they draw the eye to the main element(s) of the design.

In this Shakespeare Silhouette design we wanted his clothes to stand out, so we used some interesting decorative stitches to adorn them and kept everything else fairly uniform.

Shakespeare Silhouette needlepoint design with decorative needlepoint stitches

A Balloon Stitch and Diagonal Scotch Stitch adorn Shakepeare's clothes.
The background is Skip Tent stitch.

If possible, stitch the less important stitches first so the stitch or stitches you will use for the central elements, or the elements in the foreground, will be placed last and will sit slightly on top.

3. Small Stitches For Small Spaces.

A stitch pattern needs space to develop. Some stitches will fit in very small spaces e.g. Upright Cross, Brick stitch, Scotch stitch, but others require room to establish their pattern.

Small needlepoint stitches

This Reindeer needlepoint kit is filled with small needlepoint stitches.

If you are looking for stitches that fit in small spaces there are plenty of examples online, and on Pinterest. Just type "small needlepoint stitches" into the relevant search engine. We also have a blog post with Three Little-Known Needlepoint Stitches for Small Spaces.

When it comes to large areas and backgrounds, you open up a whole world of stitch potential. We have a blog post on Easy Needlepoint Background Stitches that go anywhere, and this would be a good place to start. Plus, we have a blog post with three super-fun needlepoint background stitches. There are endless possibilities when it comes to filling in large backgrounds, and this is usually where you can have more fun.

Decorative needlepoint stitch for a background

4. What Direction Are You Headed?

Consider the direction of the stitch. If you are stitching water or sky, look for a stitch with flow or direction. Stitch books are often laid out with chapters on stitches that have directional movement. You can also use a search engine to search for “stitches for water”, or “needlepoint stitches for sky”. Gain inspiration from others—look at stitched canvases on websites and on Pinterest to see the stitches that other stitchers have used to give movement to a feature on a canvas. We also have a blog post on Needlepoint Stitches for Sky.

Conversely, you don’t want to imply movement on objects that don’t move. Square and straight stitches tend to block movement and are good for buildings, borders, and geometric shapes. Once again, needlepoint stitch books are usually laid out to direct you to straight stitches, or stitches that don’t have a directional flow. And, here is a blog post on Needlepoint Stitches for Borders that has ideas for square and straight stitches.

Knots, and stitches that layer, add the most texture. A French knot for example has a 3-D effect and is great for hair, beards, and flower centers.

French knots on a Butterflies needlepoint kit

French Knots add texture to the flowers and butterfly
on this Butterflies needlepoint kit.

The Rhodes stitch creates a lovely raised circle and is good for wheels and anything else that is round. (We have a blog post with three great stitches for round objects). Conversely, a Satin stitch is long and straight and has a very smooth appearance, so it is a good choice for buildings, clothing, and anything else you want to look smooth and congruent.

We suggest you develop a repertoire of  6-10 stitches that you use regularly and get to know well. You can still build on this with each canvas by considering what shape, flow, or texture is needed, and then look for a stitch that might create this. If you can’t find one, it doesn’t matter. You have your solid favorites to fall back on—and when in doubt, use a Tent stitch.

4. Try Before You “Buy”

If you’re not sure whether a stitch will 'work', use the spare canvas on the outside of your design to try it out. Or, stitch a few stitches on your canvas and leave them there while you fill in around it. This will give you a few days (or weeks or months) to consider these stitches while you complete other parts of the canvas. Then you can assess how it all comes together. If you decide the stitch you initially chose doesn't work in that area, you can easily replace it without having to rip out an entire area.

And, speaking of ripping out, every stitcher needs to do that from time to time, and we have a tool kit to make ripping out easier...

Essentials Needlepoint Tool Kit

The Essential Needlepoint Tool Set


5. A Good Book is a Good Investment

Have one or two good needlepoint stitch books in your library. Searching the internet for stitches is great, and it’s a good way to get inspiration from others, but a needlepoint stitch book is the best way to search for specific stitches or stitch qualities.

We recommend you own a book that contains all the basic types of needlepoint stitches, and then you can invest in books with more specialized stitches when you are ready.

Two basic needlepoint books we like are...

 SharonG's Needlepoint Stitch Sense

SharonG's Needlepoint Stitch SENSE is packed with information and is sized to take traveling. Find out more.

For a prettier book that is not as portable, but is filled with How To Needlepoint information as well as decorative stitch ideas with color photographs, you can't go wrong with Emma Homent's Needlepoint Stitch Directory which is available on Amazon. You can read our review of it here, or find it on Amazon here.

Needlepoint Stitch Directory book


6. Keep A Record

A stitch journal is a good way to keep notes on the stitches and threads you use on all the canvases you stitch: what you liked or didn’t like, sketches of stitch diagrams, hints for how and where to use particular stitches. You will always have a handy record of your favorites.

Stitch JournalStitch Journal

In summary, when deciding what type of needlepoint stitch to use, consider the following:

  • How large is the space you are filling?
  • Is it a central feature or in the foreground of the canvas (stitch it last if you can).
  • Does the object or feature move (in real life) or have a directional flow?
  • Browse websites and Pinterest to get inspiration from other stitchers.
  • Consult your reference books.
  • Put a few stitches in either on the edge of your canvas or where you want to try the stitch and see if it works, always being prepared to rip it out to try something else.
  • Document your choices in your stitch journal.
  • Have fun and know you will get better with practice.

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