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What is Canvas Work?

By Rebecca Cartwright
Updated Feb 05, 2024
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Canvas work is a type of counted-thread embroidery in which yarn is stitched through openwork canvas. In the United States, it is often called needlepoint. Traditional canvas work has uniform stitches covering the entire surface of the material and a colored design provides the visual interest. Ancient examples of similar work exist, but modern canvas work began in the early 1800s when new synthetic dyes provided brightly colored yarns for needlework.

The canvas for this type of embroidery is a mesh formed of intersecting horizontal and vertical strands. Yarn is drawn through the holes in the mesh and laid across the intersections of the vertical and horizontal threads. Almost all canvas today is cotton, though plastic canvas is sometimes used. The most common style of canvas is interlocked, which has the horizontal and vertical threads sewn or twisted together at each intersection. Some stitchers prefer an alternative canvas style, opting for either mono or duo canvas, which do not have interlocked intersections.

Types of canvas are classified by the number of holes per inch in either direction, which is determined by how far apart the strands forming the mesh are. This measurement is the “gauge” of the canvas. Ten gauge canvas, for instance, has 10 holes per inch both vertically and horizontally. The most common canvas gauges in use today are 10, 12 and 14.

The yarn traditionally used for canvas work is wool. Tapestry yarn, the standard type used, is formed by twisting four strands together. The strands can be separated to make the yarn smaller or two lengths of yarn can be used together, depending on the gauge of the canvas being worked.

Almost all canvas work stitchers use a purchased design for their work. The least expensive designs are available on charts which use a grid to represent the canvas and symbols to stand for the colors. Printed canvasses have the colors placed on the canvas where the corresponding yarn should be stitched. The most expensive and accurate premarked canvases come hand painted or have the design prestitched with running horizontal stitches called tram stitch.

Traditional canvas work has the yarn stitched diagonally across each intersection of the canvas, covering it with a smooth, even, yarn surface. The best stitch technique for doing this is the basketweave stitch, which works back and forth across two rows alternately. Basketweave stitch covers the canvas completely and is sturdy enough to stand up to continued use of the finished product.

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Discussion Comments

By gravois — On Dec 21, 2011

My mom does needle point all the time but I have never heard it called canvas work.

She is really an artists in her own right. She spends lots and lots of time working on each piece and she agonizes over all the details.

Her work is really ambitious as well. She does not just stitch bible verses and home sweet home messages. Her designs are often very complicated and strange. She made me one of a castle on fire. My sister has one of a cat catching a bird out of the sky. They are all really cool. Most people might be embarrassed to show off their mom's needlepoint but not me.

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