Saturday, February 25, 2012

Open Stitch Pattern Difficulties

As a needlework teacher, I get asked a lot about where to stop and start threads and how to carry travel threads in an open stitch pattern.  So let’s take a look at just such a pattern.  I have created a stitch pattern from the Canterbury Cathedral Aisle vault.  It is a beautiful pattern and it will create many different looks depending on your thread choices.  
Here is a picture of the pattern I developed.  We will start with the first step in this blog post and will follow with the next two steps in future posts and I will discuss how to determine where to start and stop threads and how to carry the travel threads so they will not be seen.

Canterbury Cathedral Aisle Vault Pattern

Here is the stitch diagram for the first step: the gold crosses, or diamond shapes, depending on how you look at it.

I used Kreinik #4 Very Fine Braid #102, pearl gold on 18 count lt. blue canvas
With an open canvas design, knowing where to anchor threads is always an issue, and this is how you determine the location of your waste knot.  First, you want the angle of the start of stitch 1 to be the same as stitch 3 which is slanted in the same direction on the front canvas.  This is a very important concept to stitching - the angle the thread on the back of the canvas makes with respect to each stitch should be consistent, this angle affects how the stitches look on the front of the canvas.  I will cover this more in depth in a future post, but for now, this is enough to get started with this stitch.  The angle you want your thread at prior to bringing your needle up at the place marked 1 on the diagram is shown by the red dot below:

So place a waste knot diagonally off to the lower left, keeping to the true diagonal of the canvas.  This will help you see how the first stitch should lie, so when you cut that knot off you will remember that the thread should be anchored in the direction the thread lies.  If there are stitches to the left of the pattern, then cover the waste thread before cutting the knot off.
OK, that works if there are stitches to the left of stitch 1, or there will be after future stitching.  But what happens if there are no stitches there?  Then the starting thread must be anchored behind the actual stitching of the open canvas pattern.  Which means you will need to have the thread lie directly behind the stitches on the front side of the pattern.  Open patterns are not very good at holding the ending threads (especially with correct tension), because they are not very dense, so another means of securing the threads is necessary.  Also, metallic threads tend to be thicker threads and do not always hide well behind the stitches on the front of the canvas.  
So here is how I handle the ending threads, it is a multi-step process:  
  1. Begin with an away waste knot (I leave about 4 inches for this technique) as before.  When Step 1 is complete, cut off the waste knot, this thread will be called the thread end.
  2. Use a sharp needle and either 1 strand of floss or sewing thread, place a knot in the end of this thread, I’ll call it the sewing thread.  Run this thread through the metallic thread end on the back (as in inside the metallic thread) for about an inch.
  3. At the end of this run, stitch 3-4 buttonhole stitches through the thread end, piercing the thread.
  4. Whip the thread end to other metallic threads on the back of the canvas, make sure the tension on the thread end is taut.  Pierce some of the metallic threads on the back of the canvas so the end thread won’t wiggle sideways.
  5. Place 3-4 buttonhole stitches in a metallic thread on the back of the canvas and run the sewing thread through the metallic thread on the back for about an inch.  This way the ending thread will not loosen and be seen from the front.  Pull the sewing thread taut and cut at where it comes out of the metallic thread.  Cut off any remaining thread end.
  6. Cut the knot in the sewing thread from step 1 by pulling the knot taut and cutting the thread where it enters the thread end.
  7. With this method, the angle of the starting thread will look more like stitch 2 (a backstitch), which is OK because it will keep the hole where stitch 1 starts clean (i.e., it will wrap around the lower canvas thread.)
The same technique is used when you end your thread.
As for travel threads for Step 1.  I am using a running stitch/backstitch method of stitching which will hide the travel threads behind the threads on the front of the canvas.  Two items to keep in mind:  first, starting and stopping at the edge of the area you are stitching is preferable, it is easier to anchor those starting and stopping threads; and second, this method needs to be stitched with consistent tension on the running stitch part and the backstitch part.  Many people have a very taut backstitch but the running stitch is a little more loose.  This shows on the front by a little bit of raised running stitch.  So watch the tension - practice will help and knowing that this happens does as well.
If all of this seems rather like a lot of work - it is more work than starting and stopping threads when using a stitch that fills an entire area (called a filling stitch.)  However, the open canvas patterns can be truly beautiful and you’ll be so much happier if you can’t see any threads that should be hidden on the back.
Do I use this technique all the time?  No, sometimes I am lazy.  However, I can tell the difference when I look at it.  If you want to submit a piece in a judged exhibit, take the time to do the more time consuming method.  I’m a needlework judge, it makes a difference.
Next time I will cover Step 2.


  1. Hello! I found your new blog through lovely Jane of Chilly HollowPoint. This information is great! I do 16th/17thC silk/goldwork, and having done medieval Calligraphy and Illumination work in the past, I plan to do a study on what in C&I are called "diapers" but in embroidery are the sort of open work that you show above.
    A beautiful pattern, btw!

    1. Thank you for your kind comment.

      I did research on architectural patterns found in medieval English Cathedrals and hope to share some needlepoint patterns I developed from these patterns, one of them being the Canterbury Aisle vault pattern.

      We call many of the open work patterns diapers as well, but they have to have strong diagonal elements in both directions. They are very interesting and very popular in medieval work. I did find the repetition of the same patterns found in architecture also in illumination and embroidery during the medieval times.

  2. Is there a similar technique that can be used when working an open stitch design with either that very very very fine Kreinik cord or blending filament?

    Running a piece of sewing thread through either of those seems fairly impossible.

  3. I would use sewing thread or 1 strand of cotton floss and use the technique outlined in the post about securing it. It is more difficult with fine cord or blending filament.

    1. Oops, the post I was referring to, which explains about securing with sewing thread or cotton floss is a about Thread Shadows. Basically, use the same color of thread as the canvas, then whip the cord or filament to the back of the stitches, use a few buttonhole stitches to secure it more tightly then run the thread along the back in the direction of the stitches (so if it comes loose it will slide further underneath those stitches.) If it should come undone more, it is the same color as the canvas and should not be noticeable.