Embroidery – Choosing the fabric

Nina With Freckles - Embroidery fabrics 1 2015-07-20

Let’s talk embroidery fabrics! Normally I would post this on a Monday, but that is quilt-along block day currently, so a technical tutorial it is right before the weekend.

There is a specific vocabulary to learn, but it isn’t tricky at all once you get the hang of it. For the longest of time, I thought Aida was a manufacturer, but turns out I was wrong, so I’d happily sort out the ins and outs for you now. I’ve learned quite a bit myself in the process, I might add!

In this post:

  • Fabric material versus weave type
  • Weave and count
  • An example of counting
  • Suggested reading

* * *

Fabric material versus weave type

The first thing I realised is that fabric material – the fibres – and weave type are two completely different things. There’s a huge bunch of materials to choose from, although typically you see cotton and linen used in projects that people post, but the recent trend to embroider the pattern of for instance a quilting cotton just goes to show that there really are no rules.

Nina With Freckles - Embroidery fabrics 2 2015-07-20

Above, there are four linens from left to right, a white Aida, yet another linen, two ribbon kind of Aidas for bookmarks and such, and finally the lovely fabric I’ve been using for my embroidery samplers, Essex Yarn Dyed in Flax by Robert Kaufman Fabrics, which is a blend of 55% linen and 45% cotton.

In traditional cross stitch, the material is secondary, whereas you do want to pay attention to weave quite a bit. Personally, I like the ease of finding the holes in between fabric strands in Aida, but aesthetically it doesn’t please me that much, nor is it easy to use, if you want to take your stitching to an intermediate level by incorporating fractal stitches. In short, the purpose of this tutorial isn’t to tell you what you should use, but to encourage you to read more elsewhere as well as try fearlessly different combinations of anything and everything.

At this point there’s a specialty (novelty) fabric worth mentioning, namely waste canvas. If you have a t-shirt for instance that you want to embellish with basic cross stitch, you place this canvas between the knit fabric and the stitches to create a grid where there is none. The embroidery happens on top of a helper fabric, which then loosens up due to dissolving starch when sprayed with water, after which individual threads can be pulled off. Another type of waste canvas actually dissolves completely in water. Nifty, isn’t it? Creativebug offers a class taught by Anna Maria Horner, called Stitched Rose Embellishment, if you want to learn with a teacher via video tutorials.

Creativebug - Stitched Rose Embellishment

Creativebug – Stitched Rose Embellishment

Weave and count

Unless you do free-hand embroidery, be it improvised or according to a template you’ve transferred to the fabric, counting the weave, as a concept, might cross your path sooner than you think, when embroidering.

A decent cross-stitch designer, for instance, lets you know the size of a project in relation to count of the fabric weave, or you won’t know how much fabric to reserve for said project. There’s a significant difference if you embroider on so-called 8-count fabric compared to 20-count fabric, but it isn’t about the fabric alone. The stitch size will vary, and therefore the amount of embroidery floss or other thread used, too.

Nina With Freckles - Embroidery fabrics 3 2015-07-20

The thread count in embroidery fabrics refers to the number of threads per inch (or centimeter – you need to know which!). This number applies to both the horizontal (woof, also weft) and vertical (warp) direction, creating a perfectly even fabric. As you see above, the fabric on the left is far denser with finer threads compared to the one on the right with only green cross stitches on it. The fabric on the left will allow more stitches per inch, in other words has a higher count.

Evenweave, as the name suggests, consists of evenly woven threads, whereas Aida, first manufactured by Zweigart, in visual comparison isn’t even as far as thread spreading out goes. In fact, Aida is also evenweave, but of the specialty blockweave type. The boxy look arises when its threads are woven in blocks, with small spaces left in between. Once this block structure appears evenly both horizontally and vertically, small boxy squares of thread appear with holes in between.

Counting evenweave is straight-forward, since you simply calculate the amount of threads per inch. Counting Aida is equally simple, as one block of threads between four holes in the fabric will become one stitch to count.

Nina With Freckles - Embroidery fabrics 4 2015-07-20

Note that on evenweave you will have two threads per stitch. This will be important once you switch between Aida and evenweave in calculations, and when you resize your work compared to the original size used by the pattern designer by using a different count fabric.

I mentioned earlier that quarter and other fractional stitches are difficult when using Aida, because you need to push through the “box” of fabric, whereas in other evenweave you stitch over one thread instead of two.

Nina With Freckles - Embroidery fabrics 5 2015-07-20

Above there’s a bunch of diagonal-looking stitches amidst the usual cross stitches, and they are a mix of fractional stitches (quarter and three-quarter stitches). I tried pushing a blunt needle, which is preferable when working with Aida, through its blocked middle of a stitch, but got annoyed quite quickly. If you switch to a sharp needle, it can easily get caught on the sides of a stitch hole instead, even though it’s good for creating fractional stitches, so I dropped this idea very soon. On evenweave like above, you sew through a stitch, in between threads – easy peasy.

Linen, which comes from the flax plant of the Linum genus, is a natural fibre, a bit rough in spots, and the threads can vary quite a bit in thickness (see for yourself above, it’s quite easy to spot). Counting and stitching this evenweave is sometimes more challenging than regular evenweave, but many linens I’ve used have a lovely feel when working with them. The look is also quite luxurious, all of which is of course visible also in the pricing of yardage. If I wanted to make an heirloom piece, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose this fabric, though, nor to pay a framer for putting the final touches to my work. But there’s a long way to creating projects of such standard :)

An example of counting

Now that we’ve worked up steam regarding vocabulary, I think it’s time to introduce mathematics. The first calculation was actually already mentioned briefly in concluding that when evenweave other than Aida is counted, you do calculate threads per inch, yet you need to halve that amount to get the number of stitches per inch.

Nina With Freckles - Embroidery fabrics 6 2015-07-20

I’ve marked with two pins 1 inch on each fabric.

  • On the linen, there are 20 threads per inch, which translates to 10 stitches per inch, and I’m stitching on 20-count linen (would be 10-count Aida to achieve the same absolute stitch size).
  • The bookmark Aida will allow me to embroider 15 stitches per inch, and it is therefore a 15-count Aida (would be a 30-count linen for same stitch size).
  • The Aida in the background accommodates 11 stitches per inch, meaning I’m using an 11-count Aida (22-count evenweave would be used).

If you stumble upon something like “14HPI Aida“, it refers to holes per inch, another way of expressing count.

Another expression you might see in patterns is “150w by 70h“, which means 150 stitches wide by 70 stitches high. Note that this doesn’t say anything about the absolute finished size, but that will depend entirely on what fabric you choose and its count.

  • If you were to use 14-count Aida that you already have in your stash, this would be 150 / 14 = 10.7” wide and 70 / 14 = 5” high.
  • If you would use 20-count Aida, the work would end up 150 / 20 = 7.5” wide and 70 / 20 = 3.5” high.
  • Conversly, if you want your work to end up approximately 8” wide, you would use 150 / 8 = 18.75-count Aida. Since there is 18- and 20-count Aida available, if you want a slightly smaller piece you’d go with 20-count fabric (7.5”), whereas if a tad larger is fine, 18-count Aida would mean 8.3”.
  • Recall that the more stitches you have per inch, the smaller the same project will be, and 20 stitches per inch are more than 18 stitches per inch.

What if you would want to use this 150w by 70h pattern on evenweave? If we stick with the 8”-wide finished work, which we concluded would need either 18- or 20-count Aida, the calculation to convert this number to evenweave is to double it.

  • The 18-count Aida corresponds to (18 x 2 = 36) 36-count evenweave such as linen.
  • The 20-count Aida corresponds to (20 x 2 = 40) 40-count evenweave.

As you can see, it does make sense to calculate for Aida first, and then double the number for evenweave with two threads per stitch.

Does your head hurt yet? I hope not! There’s help to be found, great news. I’ve seen cross-stitch calculators online in various places, but the one on About.com might be the original.

Nina With Freckles - Embroidery fabrics 7 2015-07-20Explaining the calculator:

  • The “Design Size” boxes refer to what we just looked at, 150w by 70h. You would enter 150 in the first box, and 70 in the second.
  • “Fabric count” could be 14-count Aida, if that’s what you have at hand. 28-count evenweave would be the same, “14 squares per inch”. Yay metrics, you can enter centimetres as well.
  • The “Finished Design Size” is what your project would come out as in the other end of the tunnel.

Unfortunately the calculator doesn’t do the maths in the other direction, if you know what size you want your project to be, yet aren’t too picky about the fabric count.

Do remember to add plenty of border fabric to the finished design size!

Suggested reading

Questions? Comments? Are you an embroiderer yet? I find it such a wonderfully quiet pastime and don’t do nearly enough of it right now.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s