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A Bit of History
When I was a new stitcher, the guidelines for weight of thread were fixed.
It was important that a thread (in those days basically wool) robustly fill the holes so that no canvas peeked through. If you could see even the slightest trace of canvas, you had to redo the area and jam more thread into it.
It has been so many years since I used the types of wool that we used back then, I've forgotten the standard weights. Let's use cotton floss instead, as floss is universal to most stitchers. The years-long accepted standard for floss weight was 6 ply on 18-mesh canvas, 3 ply of floss on congress cloth (approximately 24 mesh).
Today attitudes have changed, matching the weight of the thread to the canvas size is much more flexible, and guidelines are only guidelines meant for tinkering. For me today, 6 ply of floss is way too heavy on 18 mesh canvas, 3 ply on congress cloth is also too heavy and I consistently reduce the number of the ply. How do I decide on thread weight? That's the complexity of it all.
Not So Simple
Thread weight is a much more complex issue than the simple guideline above suggests, for thread weight depends on the demands of the design, the choice of the stitch and on your own tension. In short, what works for one person may not work for another; what works on one project may not work on the next. My best advice, as you gain experience, keep thread weight on your mind, remain flexible and practice on a doodle.
Some Concrete Examples
I prefer a sparse look to my stitching, so I tend to use a lighter weight thread than many people choose, and here are a couple of examples. As I said, the accepted guideline for weight of floss on congress cloth is 3 ply; for a long time I have reduced that down to 2 ply, and recently, in stitching the faces of my portraits, I have used only one ply.
One ply of floss on congress cloth doesn’t cover the canvas completely, so it won’t work if you prefer complete coverage, and it definitely won’t work with a dark color on a light canvas. But for Catherine's face I was using a light color of floss on a soft ivory (color) ground and there is no way to make work look more delicate than to reduce the weight of the thread. In this case, I didn’t need complete coverage, I just needed the suggestion of the color.
This is a personal choice and may not work for everyone, so I recommend in my portrait instructions that stitchers try a swatch of 2 ply on a doodle canvas and another swatch of one ply and make their own decisions.
When Light Weight Threads Work and When They Don't
The main reason to reduce the weight of thread is this: a lighter weight thread allows your work to look a bit more delicate on a somewhat coarse ground, but you need to ask some other questions too. If you are making an item where wear is a question, not delicacy, you will want a more robust coverage. If you are using a dark thread on on light ground, you can't escape the issue of coverage and you need to use bulkier thread (although there are ways around this also).
My Own Style of Work
Can you tell from my remarks above that thread weight is an important issue to me? It is, but I have a difficult time separating thread weight from choice of thread. The two go hand in hand and often influence one another and here is a basic observation about floss (also true of stranded silk).
As I was writing this column, I was thinking how I use floss. Unless my choice depends on color (and sometimes in the interest of color choices, I have made some strange thread choices), I would not choose to use 6 ply of floss on anything. Rather than bulk up floss, I would look for another thread choice. To me a part of the attraction of floss is its skinny nature and in recent years I cannot think of a time I used more than 2 ply.
As a rule, I like to use skinny threads for skinny purposes and fatter threads for fatter purposes. I don’t like to bulk up skinny threads to turn them into fat threads. Interesting, I never thought about it in these terms till I was writing this column, but it is true. I like to stay as close to a single ply or a single thread as I can. Just a personal choice.
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Is anyone ever Advanced? Advanced always implies to me someone who knows it all. Now I know some people who think they know it all, and likely you do too, but I know I don't know even a substantial amount of what there is to know.
Rather than think of myself as an Advanced Student, I think of myself as an Advancing Student. I learn a bit here, I figure out a bit there and the days move forward.
These lessons include some snippets of what I have learned and figured out, snippets that have helped me move more of the days forward.