Needlepoint is a form of canvas work embroidery, in which yarn is stitched through a canvas ground fabric. Unlike surface embroidery, needlepoint uses the canvas, or ground fabric, to create a new fabric. Needlepoint worked on very fine (high-count) canvas is called petit-point. Needlepoint is often referred to as "tapestry", but differs from true tapestry which is woven on a loom rather than stiched on canvas mesh.
Finished works may be made into pillows or upholstery, or may be displayed on the wall, framed or unframed, or made into holiday ornaments, purses, stuffed stand-up figures, or rugs.
In Early American culture, young girls commonly created needlepoint or cross stitch samplers which usually contained a blessing on their homes along with the alphabet and numbers. This rite of passage demonstrated not only the girl's proficiency in stitching, but her literacy.
The threads used for stitching may be wool, silk, cotton or combinations, such as wool-silk blend. Variety fibers may also be used, such as metallic cord, metallic braid, ribbon, or raffia. Stitches may be plain, covering just one thread intersection with a single orientation, or fancy, such as in bargello or other counted-thread stitches. Plain stitches, known as tent stitches, may be worked as basketweave, continental or half cross. Basketweave uses the most wool, but does not distort the rectangular mesh and makes for the best-wearing piece.
Several types of embroidery canvas are available: single thread and double thread embroidery canvas are open even-weave meshes, with large spaces or holes to allow heavy threads to pass through without fraying. Canvas is sized by mesh sizes, or thread count per inch. Sizes vary from 5 threads per inch to 24 threads per inch; popular mesh sizes are 10,12,14,18, and 24 (Congress Cloth). The three types of needlepoint canvas marketed are mono, penelope, and interlock.
Commercial designs for needlepoint may be found in different ways: Hand-Painted Canvas, Printed Canvas, Charted Canvas, and Free-form.
In Hand-Painted Canvas, the design is painted on the canvas by the designer, or painted to their specifications by an employee or contractor. Canvases may be stitch-painted, meaning each thread intersection is painstakingly painted so that the stitcher has no doubts about what color is meant to be used at that intersection. Alternately, they may be hand-painted, meaning that the canvas is painted by hand but the stitcher will have to use their judgment about what colors to use if a thread intersection is not clearly painted. Hand-painted canvases allow the stitcher to give free range to their creativity with threads and unique stitches by not having to pay attention to a separate chart. In North America this is the most popular form of needlepoint canvas.
Printed Canvas is when the design is printed by silk screening or computer onto the needlepoint canvas. Printing the canvas in this means allows for faster creation of the canvas and thus has a lower price than Hand-Painted Canvas. However, care must be taken that the canvas is straight before being printed to ensure that the edges of the design are straight. Designs are typically less involved due to the limited color palette of this printing method. The results (and the price) of printed canvas vary extensively. Often printed canvases come as part of kits, which also dramatically vary in quality, based on the printing process and the materials used. Printed canvas can also be bought separately in kits. This form of canvas is widely available outside North America.
Charted Canvas designs are available in book or leaflet form. They are available at book stores and independent needlework stores. Charted Canvas designs are typically printed in two ways: either in grid form with each thread intersection being represented with a symbol that shows what color is meant to be stitched on that intersection, or as a line drawing where the stitcher is to trace the design onto his canvas and then fill in those areas with the colors listed. Books typically include a grouping of designs from a single designer such as Kaffe Fassett or Candace Bahouth, or may be centered around a theme such as Christmas or Victorian Needlepoint. Leaflets usually include one to two designs and are usually printed by the individual designer.
Free-Form Needlepoint designs are created by the stitcher. They may be based around a favorite photograph, stitch, thread color, etc. The stitcher just starts stitching! Many interesting pieces are created this way. It allows for the addition of found objects, appliqué, computer-printed photographs, goldwork, or specialty stitches.
While traditionally needlepoint has been done to create a solid fabric, more modern needlepoint incorporates open canvas, techniques which allow some of the unstitched, or lightly stitched canvas to show through. Some of these techniques include "shadow" or "lite" stitching, blackwork on canvas, and pattern darning.
Needlepoint continues to evolve as stitchers use new techniques and threads, and add appliqué or found materials. The line between needlepoint and other forms of counted-thread embroidery is becoming blurred as new stitchers adapt techniques and materials from other forms of embroidery to needlepoint.