Choosing the Background

I think one of the hardest parts of stitching hand painted canvas needlepoint is finding the perfect background. This article will help you evaluate different choices for background stitches and make suggestions for what will work.

Aspects of Stitches

All stitching has three aspects which need to be considered when evaluating them for backgrounds. They are texture, scale and direction. All of these aspects need to harmonize and not compete with the stitches you have chosen for the focal point of the hand painted canvas. If they are stronger, then your eye will notice the background instead of the focal point of the hand painted canvas needlepoint when finished.

Stitches and threads have texture to them. Your texture should not be stronger than the foreground. Stitches with very strong textures (like Turkeywork) should never be used for backgrounds. Open stitches are good choices because they look lower (and thus further back) than the Tent Stitch used in the focal point.

Your thread choice also has texture which affects the stitch. A stitch may work but the thread may not. It may be too thick and fluffy or it may have too much color variation, or it may draw too much attention to itself. Once again, your eye notices the background before the focal point. This is the kiss of death for any completed hand painted canvas needlepoint.

Scale has to do with the size of the stitch or the motif. I did a charming cheetah from Needlepoint, Inc. with a large Triangle Stitch as its background. There was lots of background, so the big scale worked well. For a busy design, a small scale stitch works well. Stitches which are too large smooth out details. Stitches which are too small for the focal point look fussy.

Many stitches have a strong direction, when the lines made by the stitches point in a particular direction. Elongated Cashmere is strongly horizontal or vertical. Double Woven has a strong and shifting diagonal direction. The direction of your background shouldn’t compete with the direction of your design. For example, if you are doing a design which has a vertical emphasis, don’t pick a strongly horizontal background.

The only exception I can think of for this is when your background is “really” a wall or a floor. On a canvas from ABS Designs, Santa is pictured against both a floor (horizontal) and a wall (vertical), creating a strong and busy background for this hand painted canvas needlepoint. It works because, in essence, this needlepoint is a picture in stitched form, and, like a photograph, the background needn’t be uniform.

Selecting a Background

When I’m looking for backgrounds, I go to my stitch dictionaries. I page through them looking at and marking stitches which seem suitable in texture, scale and direction. Often these are old friends which I use over and over, but sometimes they are new. I use Post-it flags to make the likely candidates.

If they are familiar, I think back to where I have used them before and remember what aspects of them I liked or didn’t like (sometimes I make notes in the books to remind me). If they are new, I might try them on a piece of doodle canvas to get an idea of how they work.

Once I find a good possibility, I start to stitch. In some cases, I try four different stitches in each corner of the hand painted canvas needlepoint. Usually I use the one which seems best. I stitch enough to get an idea of how it looks. If it isn’t working, then I cut it out and try another stitch (or another thread). Sometimes I have to cut out an awful lot of stitching.

A stitch might not work out for many reasons. It might have the wrong qualities for the piece. It might not work well with the thread you are using. It might use more thread than you have on hand. It might take longer than you have. It might be hard to compensate or it might make a small detail harder to stitch.

Don’t be dismayed if it takes several tries before you find the perfect background. Your choice of background stitches, threads and colors are part of what makes your hand painted canvas needlepoint unique. There are always lots of great possibilities for backgrounds — you are sure to find one that’s perfect for you!


  1. Pat Roper
      October 20, 2015

    I designed a small project. I stitched the focal point in tent stitch, beginning in the top right corner. Now I see that it looks best if what WAS the left side is the top. Do I have to re-do the stitching to make it come from what is now the top right corner?

    Thank you.

  2. napaneedle
      October 20, 2015

    There’s no problem at all. Stitches in needlepoint can slant on purpose in any direction. So your piece is now in Reverse Tent Stitch instead of Tent Stitch, which is perfectly valid.

    Keep Stitching, Janet

  3. Linda Rowe
      June 24, 2016

    Thank you for this valuable information! I’m looking for just the right background, and your article explains what I’m intuitively looking for!

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