Shine & Texture in Threads
Needlepoint thread has three aspects that need to be considered in making a thread choice — color, thickness, and texture. The first two are easy. Either the color is the one you want or not, and either the thread is thin enough and sturdy enough to go through the canvas or not.
The last one, texture, can mix up even very experienced stitchers and designers.
First, we’ll talk abut shininess, or light, giving examples of threads with that texture. Then we’ll talk about how to apply these to needlepoint.
Shine or Light
The most obvious texture when looking at a needlepoint thread is how shiny it might be. The technical term for this is “light.” Threads with lots of light are shiny. Threads with little light are matte, or dull.
The type of fiber used in the thread somewhat determines the amount of light, but the method used to make the thread has an influence. A rayon thread will always be more shiny than a wool, no matter what. As a fiber, wool just can’t be shiny.
Even so, there are different kinds of shine and it’s good to know which is which. Disasters can occur when you want one kind of shine, say a wet look, and get another, say metallic. Your animal suddenly looks like a giant brooch not an animal at all.
The first type of shine is metallic. No matter the color or the finish, these threads all share the characteristics of physical metals, a hard shine. They can be very shiny, like Rainbow Gallery’s Hologram Fyre Werks, or relatively dull, like Kreinik’s Vintage Metallics, but they are share this hard characteristic. It is one which doesn’t occur often in living things, but is found in some kids of beetles and some bird feathers, such as a peacock’s tail.
The next type of shine is what I would call wet. This shine, characteristic of shiny silk threads and rayons, reflects lots of light and can look as if it is shiny wet skin, drops of water, or other wet things. This type of needlepoint thread attracts the eye more than duller threads and so should be used with care. It’s great for focal points, animals who naturally have wet or shiny skin, bird feathers and lots of other things. It should be used with care in backgrounds so that it doesn’t overwhelm the focal point.
One of the most common types of shine is what I would call a natural light. This is the soft glow you get from cotton floss and pearl, many silks, linen, and some rayons. It reflects some light, but nowhere near as much as the wet threads. It’s the real workhorse of needlepoint thread lights.
There is lots of variety in these threads, pearl cotton has more light than cotton floss for example, and you can introduce subtle variety in texture by mixing more than one of these threads together in a piece.
The final type of light is matte. These threads, by and large, don’t reflect much light and are fluffier than the natural shine threads. The matte texture happens because the thread is woven with lots of air in it. The air doesn’t allow the light to reflect evenly off the surface of the thread. The light is broken and the thread looks matte.
The fiber used to make these threads can contribute light to even matte threads. Silk & Ivory, for example, while a matte thread, has some light because of the silk in it. The same color in Persian Wool has less light because wool is more matte than silk.
The Importance of Light in Choosing Needlepoint Threads
Knowing these different types of light can help you in choosing needlepoint threads. Having a variety of textures in a piece adds depth to needlepoint because shinier threads advance, they look closer to you than more matte areas, which the eye interprets as “shadows” and you look at them first.
This is why there is a disconnect between having a shiny metallic and a background. The background is supposed to support the design, while the thread is shouting “Look at me!”
Having threads with all one texture flattens the design because there is no difference to be seen.
Knowing the light of different threads also lets you pick the correct thread to stitch an object. While a jewel beetle (they do look like little jewels with a metallic shell) could be stitched in cotton, would it look like a jewel? The lovely quiet shine of a flower petal could be, and often is stitched in wool, but won’t it sparkle and look more realistic in pearl cotton or silk?
Finally light in a thread can change the color, sometimes dramatically. The shinier a thread is the lighter it looks. It’s because, once again, more light is reflecting off the surface. You can exploit this by combining two different textures in one area.
I did a background for a mini stocking once with alternating diamonds in wool and a matching shade of pearl cotton. The difference in light makes the background one of my all time favorites even though I stitched it more than 20 years ago. It’s an example of needlepoint damask, the technique shown in the samples above. It gets its beauty from contrasting thread textures.
In a companion article, I am going to talk about another aspect of light in needlepoint thread you may have wondered about, directional light.