What Is Needlepoint?

Well, one of the most confusing aspects of needlepoint is defining the different terms used in needlework. The term “needlework” is the broadest term we use to describe any form of craft you create using a needle. Among the many varieties of needlework exists the term “needlepoint”. But, we will get to that in a moment.

What It Isn’t

Embroidery, quilting, rug making, knitting, and crocheting are also covered under the enormous umbrella of the term “needlework”. In this article; we will be discussing needlepoint and embroidery.


Now let us move on to embroidery. Embroidery is the art of embellishing or decorating textile fabric. You can embroider just about any type of fabric. Your two most common materials for embroidery are cotton or linen. Throughout the centuries, clothing, furniture, and a large assortment of other day-to-day items have been embroidered.

You can embroider embellishments into a piece like beads. Also, your embroider can include ribbons used as floss creating dimensional ribbon embroidery designs.

Today items are embroidered with machines, too. Several models of sewing machines and embroidery machines are available to purchase. They use embroidery designs purchased from companies that specialize in creating digital designs.

Differences of Embroidery

During the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries the term “petit point” was commonly used to describe embroidery. Today, petit point refers to a needlepoint that you work on canvas that is 16-mesh or smaller. There are two different methods of classifying embroidery. The first method divides embroidery into two groups: surface embroidery and, as previously mentioned, canvas work. Surface embroidery encompasses any design that is worked on top of the fabric. Canvas work consists of any design that is stitched into the canvas. But, these two terms are very broad and not very enlightening. Therefore, I prefer the second method of classifying embroidery.

variety of embroidery projects

Cross Stitch

The second method divides embroidery into two groups that are easier to understand: counted thread embroidery and free embroidery. Counted thread embroidery consists of any piece you worked using a pre-determined pattern. Your pattern might be printed onto the fabric. Thus, counted cross stitch and needlepoint are your two common types of counted thread embroidery.

Yes, I said needlepoint is a form of embroidery. I will get to that in a moment. But first, free embroidery is a form of embroidery that does not worry about the foundation fabric. You work a free embroidery piece without counting or design. Instead, your stitch is placed independently, hence the name. Crewel work is an excellent example of free embroidery.

Antique 1766 Needlepoint

A design from 1766 on display in a German Museum.


Finally, we come to needlepoint.  I stated earlier it is a form of embroidery. Remember, embroidery was commonly referred to as “canvas work” before the 19th century. Today, we call canvas work needlepoint.  You embroider either cloth or canvas. But, you create primarily on a needlepoint canvas.

Hydrangea Bloom Needlepoint by Kathryn White

You use woolen yarns for stitching projects. And, your stitches are “patterned” stitches. That is to say, stitches you make have pre-determined counted patterns. And, there are literally hundreds of stitches. Many of these stitches started out as embroidery stitches and have been adjusted for needlepoint canvas. To find out more about needlepoint, check out The Needlepointer.

Dimensions Patterns on Blue Needlepoint Kit, Stitched in Wool

Stitches Used

Some of your more common stitches are cross stitch, bargello, gobelin stitch, basketweave, tent stitch, continental stitch, back stitch, chain stitch, and diagonal stitch. These are just a few of the many stitches available today. For a more comprehensive list of these stitches, with instructions and diagrams, visit Stitchopedia, an encyclopedia of needlepoint stitches.

Dimensions Jiffy Sunflower And Ladybug Mini Needlepoint Kit, 5″x5″ Stitched in Thread

In conclusion, these are the definitions of embroidery and needlepoint in the most simple of terms. Embroidery is the art of embellishing and decorating an existing fabric. And, needlepoint is the art of you working the design into a canvas. And, whatever type of needlework you choose to engage in, all have the capacity to give many hours of creative pleasure to you.

About the Author:

Carolyn McNeil, creator of stitchopedia.com, an encyclopedia of needlepoint stitches. Stitchopedia is an instructional site with step-by-step instructions and diagrams of each stitch. Visit us to learn the basics of Basketweave Stitch, Diagonal Buttonhole Stitch, and many more. Originally published on PatternMart.com.


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