There are so many needlepoint fibers out there, that sometimes I wonder what we used to do. When I first started stitching the fiber of choice was wool. These days that seems like the Dark Ages, but it was about 45 years ago.
When I first wanted to try something in perle cotton (this was in 1978) I was told not to use it as this fiber was not strong enough to be used for needlepoint. But I was stubborn and did it anyway, and fell in love with the look of perle.
Now I probably use cotton more than any of the other needlepoint fibers because cotton yarns are available in an enormous range of colors, textures, and effects.
This Needlepoint Fibers article is going to cover cotton in its many forms. First, I will talk a little bit about the fiber itself and then I will discuss the current threads available broken by texture: matte, perle, and shiny (floss).
The Story of Cotton
Cotton has been used as clothing since ancient Egypt. Even today Egyptian cotton is some of the finest made. More than 75% of the people in the world wear cotton clothing, and it can be used in more ways than any other fiber.
Cotton comes from a plant grown is warm climates and is harvested in the fall. The part we use for making thread is the lint which is the inside of the seed pod or boll. Cotton is harvested when the bolls break open showing the snowy white insides.
The quality of the cotton depends on the lengths of the individual fibers in the lint (like silk), this is called staple. The longer the staple, the better the cotton.
Once harvested the lint is carded (combed) and spun. Most cotton is also mercerized, a process which strengthens the thread and adds luster. If a thread uses mercerized cotton, it is often noted on the label.
Matte cottons have a dull texture and usually are soft and a bit fuzzy. While there are plenty of matte cottons for knitting, thicker matte cottons are no longer available widely for needlepoint.
I miss the thicker matte cottons because their soft hand (feel) and richness of color made it one of the best needlepoint threads, especially for larger mesh sizes.
Narrow mattes, like Flower Thread or Wildflowers, are about the size of two strands of embroidery floss. They are often used as they come from the skein for Cross Stitch and can be plied up to fit needlepoint canvas.
Wildflowers from The Caron Collection is available in many of the same colors as Watercolors and is great to use where you want varied colors but also want a change in texture.
Flower thread is available from several manufacturers and is most commonly used for counted cross stitch. It tends to give pieces a more old-fashioned look, but can also be quite dramatic when used for an entire piece.
I also consider Pebbly Perle from Rainbow Gallery to be a matte thread. Unlike the other threads in this category, it has a rougher texture while still remaining matte. I have found it to be one of the most useful matte threads because it comes in a wide range of colors, is divisible so it can be used on many kinds of canvas, and does not look fuzzy when finished, a problem with many of the other needlepoint fibers.
Matte cottons when combined with shinier cotton or silk in a piece provides a subtle and interesting contrast.
Pearl cottons were my first introduction to doing needlepoint with cotton and still are my favorites. Almost all perle cotton threads are made up of shiny two-ply strands twisted to give a pebbly, or pearl-like, texture. The come in a wide variety of widths from many manufacturers in both sold and varied colors.
Please note: In French the name of this thread is “perle coton.” In English this thread is translated as “pearl cotton.” Different manufacturers use both “”pearl” and “perle” with no consistency. Both are more or less correct.
Solid pearls are available from many companies, including DMC, Anchor, Presencia, and Valdani. The most common sizes used for needlepoint are 5 and 8. Smaller sizes of 12 and 16 are also made. They come in a selection of the same colors as embroidery floss.
Number 5 pearl is the most common and is used for needlepoint on 13, 14, or 18 mesh. It is the size I use most often. On 13 and 14 mesh, it has a bead-like quality. Number 8 pearl is narrower and works well for decorative stitches on 18 mesh or Tent Stitch on 22 or 24 mesh.
When it comes to multicolored needlepoint fibers, pearl cottons really shine. They are available from many manufacturers in many different kinds of color schemes, both bold and subtle. These companies make #5 pearl and some of them make #8 and #12 as well.
The Caron Collection’s most popular multicolored thread is Watercolours, which is made up of a pearl-type thread equal to three number 5 strands. A single strand works great on 18 mesh canvas for Tent Stitches, while more plies give different effects.
In addition to these, Rainbow Gallery has a trio of variegated pearl-type threads. All three of the threads are made up of four divisible strands and are dyed to match each other. Overture is the thickest and really only works for needlepoint on 12 to 18 mesh canvas. Encore is somewhat thinner than Overture and can also be used for cross stitch and hardanger. Bravo is the thinnest of the three and is about the same thickness as embroidery floss. It can also be used for needlepoint, cross stitch, or hardanger.
If you are doing pulled canvas, pearl cotton is one of the best needlepoint fibers to use. It is very strong for its thickness and comes in several sizes so your thread can match the width of the canvas threads.
The last group of cottons are what I like to think of a shiny threads. These cotton threads, most usually embroidery floss, have the glow which we usually associate with cotton. They are less shiny than pearls, but still have a lovely sheen. Because many of these threads can be stranded or combined to make thicker threads, they work on a wide variety of mesh sizes.
Embroidery floss is the most common thread of this type. It is a divisible six-strand thread and is available in both solid and multicolor from many manufacturers. Many companies make floss and it is widely available.
The quality of floss varies greatly from company to company, so try to buy floss from companies who sell to needlepoint shops or who have names you recognize. Poor quality floss is not strong enough to be used and will shread when used with needlepoint fibers.
Another solid color thread of this type is floche from DMC. Floche is only available in about 80 colors and comes in 10 gram skeins. It can be difficult to find. I think of it as a shiny version of Flower Thread because it is about the same thickness.
There are many makers of variegated floss. Depending on the company and the color, these variegated threads can be either multi-colored or semi-solid (shades of one color). The colors and amount of variation can change greatly from dye lot to dye lot. Because of this characteristic, be careful to buy as much as you need to finish a project.
The color palettes of all multicolored needlepoint fibers vary from company to company. All of them use excellent quality threads as their base, and you can generally, but not always, mix colors from different companies with no problem.
All cottons are strong threads and are among the easiest needlepoint fibers to use. This makes them popular with stitchers. Although many of us learned to stitch with wool, using cotton to teach stitching is less expensive and easier to do.
Because cotton threads are used so widely for many types of embroidery, there are always new kinds and shades coming out. This makes it fun for the stitcher who is looking for new effects in needlepoint and likes to try new things.