Intro to Canvas Work

by THL Lucia Thaylur

Canvas work is a type of needlework which covers the entire surface of a design. In The Batsford Encyclopedia of Embroidery Techniques, Swift tells us the total filling of the ground with small, regular stitches probably evolved through Coptic and Byzantine influences. It was known to the medieval church as opus pulvinarium and occurs in conjunction with metal thread work on vestments and furnishings (p 37).

Period designs for canvas work can be quite complex and include scenes from various aspects of daily life or religious events, as well as Heraldic displays and were used as chair cushions, table carpets or cupboard cloths. In addition, The Batsford Book of Canvas Work, shows many examples of tent stitch, long legged tent stitch and cross stitch used on burses, purses and a maniple. The Calthorpe Purse, mid 16th c. is worked in tent stitch at an amazing 1250 stitches per inch (Rhodes, p. 24-36). The designs can also as simple as a bunch of grapes or flowers and appliquéd to another fabric for use as wall hangings or bed coverings. Canvas work pieces designed to be appliquéd are called slips.

Europa and the Bull, a needlework long cushion is worked using tent stitch in silk, gold and silver threads with details in split and stem stitches with some couched work.

Europa and the Bull from An Elizabethan Inheritance The Hardwick Hall Textiles ( p 51)

The design was inspired by a woodcut in Metamorphoses Ovidii, 1565 . Note the added details and monogram.

from An Elizabethan Inheritance
The Hardwick Hall Textiles
( p 51)

photoPlate 24.Needlework of Mary Queen of Scots
(p 58) shows center panel from a bed hanging
These slips are all individually appliqued on.

My cushion cover was designed as a show and tell for the MKTAG challenge. I wanted the ground for the pillow cover to be red and wanted to work with a scale design. I chose the cherries from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Textile Collection Embroidery in Great Britain from 1200 to 1750. The original design showed where the shading should be applied and since this was my first piece, I thought it might help to better understand how the colors were used.

Slips for appliqué ( p55) The design is app. 7x6 in. (p24)

For the smaller designs, I chose the butterfly, dragonfly, bee and snail from R. Shorleyker’s A Schole-House for the Needle


I chose my canvas based on the desired size of the design and used 28 ct. The silk is 6 strands of Eterna (flat silk). I used tent stitch for the cherries, bee, dragonfly and butterfly. Decided to try long arm cross on the snail-but plan on taking it out and doing the snail in tent stitch, too Am thinking about adding a few leaves and using long armed cross and cross stitches so I will have a complete sampler of the basic types of stitches used for canvaswork.

Tent stitch worked on diagonal to prevent distortion of the canvas while covering the ground more effectively
Long-armed cross stitch
Cross stitch

To provide clear illustrations of the stitches, I used plastic canvas and worsted weight yarn.

In The Embroideries at HardwickHall a catalog, Levey tells us there are several techniques for applying metalwork to appliqué edges. File’ ( thin metal threads wound around a core) can be used as thin triples laid side by side or plied to make twist ,which, in turn can be plied again to make a thicker twist. In addition to the twists single threads or pairs can be used for outlines and details, as are much thicker threads, while fine file’ is worked in fours (page 51)


I’ve started applying the slip to the red cotton velveteen ground using gold twist. So far, I only have one row of twist but will add additional rounds.

Works Cited

Levey, Santina M. The Embroideries at HardwickHall a catalog. 2007 The National Trust. Great Britian.

_______________ . An Elizabethan Inheritance The Hardwick Hall Textiles. 1998 National Trust Enterprises Ltd., Great Britain.

Shorleyker, R. A Schole-House for the Needle. 1998 (reprint). RJL Smith & Assoc. Shropshire

Swain, Margaret The Needlework of Mary Queen of Scots. 1973 Van Nostrand Reinhold Co. Ltd., London

Swift, Gay. The Batsford Encyclopedia of Embroidery Techniques. 1990. B.T. Batsford, London

Rhodes, Mary. The Batsford Book of Canvas Work. 1983. B.T. Batsford, London

Last updated: 11/14/2008