Choosing the Right Fabric

February 20, 2024

Choosing the Right Fabric


I often get asked about how to choose the right fabric for embroidery projects and for many of us who are self-taught the mystery and the magic of fabric can be overwhelming at times. The information here is my own personal view based of over 40 years of teaching embroidery and retailing needlework supplies in New Zealand. It is not however definitive and may differ from the views of others.

The first question you need to ask when choosing fabric is what type of embroidery you want the fabric for.

Secondly you need to work out its value to you. I always maintain that you should do anything with the best tools you can afford to achieve the best results. And this most definitely applies to fabric. However sometimes if the piece is a quick ephemeral thing then less expensive is fine. Or if you just want to practice a technique, then it could also be fine (but you need to be careful here because the wrong fabric for a practice could mean you don’t achieve the desired result and you have wasted your time.)  But if you are going to spend many hours on a masterpiece then the last thing you want to do is spoil the end result with cheap fabric that won’t last the distance.

I am going to talk first about surface embroidery which covers crewel work, whitework, church embroidery and any type of free wandering and trailing embroidery worked from a design on the fabric surface.

The alternative to that is counted thread embroidery which involves placing stitches in regular patterns determined by the warp and weft of the thread. These techniques include cross stitch, hardanger, pulled thread, drawn thread and other more advanced techniques like punto antico, reticello etc.

Surface Embroidery:
When talking about surface embroidery the fabric you choose will be determined by the type of embroidery you are doing. If you are doing a crewel work project with wool on linen (which is the traditional method) then you need a firm dense linen that will handle being densely stitched. If you a doing a fine thread painted piece then you need a finer fabric.
In both case we are talking about fabric that is closely woven with no discernible gaps between the thread. Ideally this fabric will be Linen (woven flax) which is a strong resilient fabric with lasting quality and beautiful texture. The most well known of these are Irish Linen and Linen Twill and Belgian linens like Legacy Linen which comes in a variety of weights and textures. There are also linen/cotton blends which work quite well for some projects and are more reasonable priced. Generally cotton fabrics don’t really cut the mustard here but can be used at a pinch, like good quality cotton quilter’s muslin. You don’t want to be getting into heavily textured fabrics like Indian Cotton as a rule.

The supply of specialty linens is New Zealand can be difficult and they are expensive. We do get similar fabrics from random suppliers that can usually fit the bill. But it really pays to understand what you are trying to achieve and then articulating that clearly to the person you are purchasing the fabric from. Most of this kind on work in done using neutral toned fabrics but with contemporary projects there is an increasing demand for coloured linens and these are generally hand dyed. Dress making linen can be used here as long as it is not heavily mercerised. There are lovely stonewashed and organic linens available now that work really well for embroidery. Make sure they are 100% linen.

To sum up:
For crewel embroidery using wool on Linen use LinenTwill primarily, but for a beginner a medium weight linen like Strathhaven or a Belgian Linen or at a pinch a linen cotton blend.

For other embroidery, i.e using cotton or silk threads use a medium to light weight linen depending on the design and density of the embroidery. Kingston Linen from Zweigart (Germany) is good for Church Embroidery and some whitework projects. Linen/cotton blends (like Natural Fibres) can be used here too. Trish Burr recommends a medium to fine linen for her embroidery projects (usually white) but you can get away with a blend here too. Sometimes a backing fabric will be required if the linen you want to use is too lightweight. That will help with stability.

Getting your design onto the fabric can be a challenge for most embroiderers. This is why we generally use a light coloured fabric as you can trace the design on with pencil using a lightbox or the window as your light source. There are other techniques like dressmaker’s carbon (not advised as it is very messy), prick and pounce (old fashioned and not readily available but look it up), tacking with tissue paper (again fiddly and messy).

Then there is WASHAWAY. The best invention since sliced bread. It is a papery film which you trace your design onto, tack it onto your fabric, work your embroidery, then hey presto it dissolves in water. BUT (and there is always a but with something so good), while it is great and easy to use especially on coloured fabrics, your fabric and threads need to be COLOURFAST as you need to put it in water to dissolve the washaway. This causes problems if you want to work with hand dyed fabrics and threads. Can be done but you need to take extra care with pre washing and other techniques, but that is all for another day.

Counted Thread Embroidery:
When we come to counted thread work this is where people can get very confused about which fabric to use. In NZ the two main counted work linens we have are Permin from Denmark and Zweigart from Germany. The higher the threadcount the finer the linen is i.e. more threads per inch. 32# is the most commonly sold and has the largest colour range in both brands.

Permin is quite a stiff linen but softens up with working. It had a round thread which means the holes can sometimes appear larger. It is generally a bit more expensive than Zweigart. Zweigart is a softer linen with a flatter thread and so the threads might seem closer together but there are still the same number of threads per inch. Zweigart also produce the cotton Aida fabrics and the evenweaves.

The most common of the counted work techniques are Cross Stitch and Hardanger.

All counted thread techniques involve transferring a design onto fabric by adding stitches from a chart in some sort of pattern. There is nothing on the fabric to begin with. So with cross stitch you have a graph to follow and you place the stitches into ‘squares’ on the fabric according the pattern and colour guide. If you are working with cross stitch fabric (Aida Cloth) the fabric is divided into squares of a certain size and each stitch is placed into one square according to the graph. If you are working with even weave fabric the ‘squares’ are determined by working over two threads in either direction. We are going to assume you know all of this and just move on to the types of fabric and how to work out which one to use.

For Cross Stitch there is Aida which is a cotton fabric woven into squares which comes in a variety of counts and colours. The most common counts are 14, 16 and 18. This refers to the number of squares per inch. The threads count that you choose will determine the finished size of your design.

Then there are the evenweaves or as some people call it the ‘count over twos’. This is where you count over two threads each way to form your cross. These fall into the categories of evenweaves or linen. While all of the linens are evenweave (i.e. the same number of warp threads as weft threads) the term evenweave in our industry refers to fabrics that are not linen based. These are fabrics like Lugana, Brittney, Murano (25, 28 and 32 respectively) from Zweigart and they are made from a cotton/rayon mix. The threads are very smooth and even with no slub, though they do feel stiffish. They don’t have the same feel or look as linen but are useful for table linen mainly. But if you don’t like the slub in Linen, (some people find it annoying but for most of us that is the beauty of the linen fibre) then these are what you use for your cross stitch projects. The colour ranges however don’t have the soft linen looks and the natural linen colours. You cannot use an evenweave for pulled thread techniques as the threads are not designed to be re-aligned as you need to with Pulled Thread and Drawn Thread techniques.

Then there are the pure Linens. From Zweigart you have Cork (20), Dublin (25), Cashel (28), Belfast (32), Edinburgh (35/36) and Newcastle (40). These are the thread counts. From Permin we have 18, 26, 28, 30, 32, 36, 40 count linens (they don’t have exotic names). We also have Hand Dyed Linens from Weeks Dye Works and a few other small ranges. You can do anything with linen threads.

With all of these fabrics you are generally working over 2 threads unless otherwise stated so when working out your sizing for cross stitch for example you need to divide by 2 to get the number of threads per inch. For example. If your design size is 120 x 140 stitches (which is what most patterns quote) and you want to work on #32 linen (American patterns will nearly often quote 14, 16, 18 count referring to Aida which is worked over 1 thread) 120 divided by 16 (half of 32 because you are going over 2 threads) is 7.5 inches. Multiply this by 2.5 to get centimetres and you have a design size of 18.75 cms and 21.9 for the 140 stitches. You then add a minimum of 15cms to each of these measurements for your cut fabric size to allow for finishing.

Knowing how to calculate your fabric requirements means you can move away from cross stitch kits (which usually contain Aida fabric) and just buy patterns that you like and choose the fabric of your choice and use up left over threads. Most stores will sell fabric is a variety of cut sizes that will suit most projects e.g. in our case small cuts 35 x 40cm, fat 1/4s (half a metre cut in half) or for bigger projects, meterage which means you need to buy a certain amount across the whole width of the fabric which is generally 140cm. This inevitably leaves you with left over pieces and knowing how to use these is valuable.

When you purchase fabric, if it doesn’t come already labelled with the size, make sure you do this before you put it into storage so you know what you have later when you are going through your stash looking for the perfect piece of linen. But if you have an unlabelled piece then just lay it flat. Lay a tape measure on the fabric and with a pin and a magnifier if you need it, count how many threads there are in one inch of tape. Threads, not holes. That is your threads per inch.

For Hardanger, there is a specific Hardanger fabric which is a cotton fabric and consists of two threads woven closely together and treated as one. It comes in a 22 count. And only in white, antique white and cream. However, you can use any of the evenweaves for Hardanger, (generally linen is not used because of the slub causing unevenness), particularly if you want colours, and you will need to adjust the threads you use accordingly. With Hardanger 22 # and Lugana 25# you will use perle 5 and perle 8. For anything finer i.e. 28# and 32# fabrics and even 35# if you want your work to be really fine, you will use perle 8 and perle 12.

Hopefully this gives you a better understanding of what fabric to choose for each project.

The most important thing is to enjoy your stitching and never be afraid to ask an expert.

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