Introduction to Hardanger Embroidery

It is difficult to explain the reactions that people have when they see a piece of hardanger. Many people are stunned, and most of them consider themselves incapable of duplicating such a thing, yet that is probably one of hardanger’s most endearing traits. It is so simple, so quick to finish, and yet it remains so rare that many people have never encountered it. I have said more than once that this makes hardanger special because every piece is an heirloom.

Hardanger embroidery, also known as hardangersom, is a form of embroidery known as whitework. Whitework is a type of embroidery in which the threads and fabric are the same color. Traditionally, the fabric used has most often been white linen.

Hardanger has also been referred to as norwegian lacemaking because of the way it looks. Combinations of stitches are utilized to support open areas within the design. In simpler forms of hardanger, the holes themselves lend a very attractive appearance to the fabric, but in more advanced techniques, the holes can be filled in with threads in various patterns to create a more elaborate design. This has led many to believe that hardanger is difficult to learn or duplicate, but it is actually much more simple than people realize.

Hardanger employs many easy-to-learn stitches in two basic categories. The first of these is counted thread embroidery, and many people know more about these stitches than they think. The stitches are simple to learn, and can be altered slightly or combined in many interesting ways to create limitless designs. Combined with the second category, which is drawn-thread embroidery (or cutwork embroidery), this leads to a stunning effect.

Though hardanger is traditionally very geometric in nature, the patterns forming into diamonds, stars, and squares, these basic shapes can be put together to form some truly exquisite shapes and forms. The unique nature of hardanger is that it can take such a basic shape and turn a plain piece of fabric into a work of art in ways that are difficult to duplicate with any other type of embroidery.

Hardanger is also extremely versatile. I’ve seen it on clothing, aprons, hats and bonnets. I’ve seen it on bedsheets and pillowcases, tablecloths, placemats, and napkins. I’ve seen it on doilies, on pillows, and in frames. There are hardanger holiday ornaments and tree toppers. I’ve even seen it used as edging in scrapbooking and along shelves to add a unique touch. Hardanger can take you many places that other forms of embroidery have not.

As needlework kits start offering the average stitcher more options and even your local fabric store typically carries some supplies that are used in this form of embroidery, I hope that someday soon we will start seeing patterns and even kits outside of needlework shops so that more people can be tempted to try this fulfilling technique, but even right now I could go to a good craft store and pick up all of the supplies I need except a pattern and be happily stitching away once I got home.

With hardanger becoming more popular due to these facts, I’ve little doubt that we will start to see the supplies for it even more readily available than they already are.

In this article, I intend to cover the basics that are required for hardanger embroidery, and I hope to touch on some of the supplies that more advanced stitchers use so that if you decide that you would like to branch out in this embroidery form, you have a good understanding of what you’d be looking for to create more advanced and interesting pieces.

The basics are the same as many other forms of embroidery. You need a pattern, fabric, thread, needles, scissors, and a hoop or a scroll frame. If you have done any type of embroidery before, you probably have at least the last 3 items. If not, this article will tell you what to look for if you are starting from scratch, and help you to decide which options best suit your needs.

The basics and beyond

All embroidery starts with an idea. That idea is jotted down in some form and becomes a pattern. There are many ways to get ahold of hardanger patterns, and in the electronic age, it has become even easier to create and exchange your own patterns. With an average understanding of the stitches used in this technique, it is easy to draft your own simple patterns and make truly unique pieces.

Patterns for most embroidery techniques are typically inexpensive. Most patterns will cost you less than a decent pair of embroidery scissors. There are many free patterns available online for smaller pieces. If you’d like to get into larger pieces, some needlework shops carry leaflets or even booklets with hardanger designs in them. The number of designs varies from publication to publication. Some have just one design, while others have a collection on a theme or even 20 or more separate pieces. There are even books on hardanger embroidery, and many include patterns so that you can try the techniques that they outline. Many stitching magazines will feature a hardanger pattern or a piece with hardanger in it from time to time as well.

Patterns will give you vital information on the supplies that you need to complete your project. It will typically recommend a fabric count or give you a range of fabric counts that are okay for the project that you’re considering. Many tell you how big the completed piece will be based upon the thread count that you have selected. They will also tell you the size of the thread you need based on the pattern and fabric count you have selected. More on what this means below.

Fabric for hardanger is always evenweave. This is part of the reason that hardanger retains its geometric proportions, because the stitches you make have to flow with and around the background fabric. I don’t consider this very limiting because most fabrics are evenweave and there are several types of fabric well-suited to hardanger that come in many counts and colors.

Most people start out with hardanger fabric but because I’d been doing cross stitch on evenweave for so long, I am particular to using other types of fabric to really make my work beautiful. Zweigart makes a large selection of evenweave fabrics suitable for hardanger, including fabric exclusively for hardanger. Many needlework shops carry pre-packaged Zweigart Lugana fabric, as well as having a selection of evenweave fabrics ready to cut. You can talk to your local (or internet) shopkeeper for more recommendations on what to look for in a fabric including count (threads per inch) and texture so that you can get the look and feel that suits you best.

The rule on thread counts is simple: The higher your thread count, the smaller the finished piece. This is because the threads are thinner and closer together. Generally, the higher your thread count is, the smaller your floss needs to be unless you’re going for a unique look.

The threads used in hardanger are most often pearl cotton. Pearl cotton is almost as easy to get ahold of as embroidery floss nowadays. It comes in four common sizes: #3, #5, #8, and #12 and it comes in skeins and balls. Like fabric, the higher the number, the smaller it is. Size 5 is the size you most often see, and it is typically in skeins just like embroidery floss. Most hardanger patterns recommend #5 or #5 and #8 pearl cotton.

Pearl cotton is available readily in many different colors, but if you start going outside the average sizes, it gets more difficult to find a good color variety. It can also be hand dyed (just like fabric), overdyed (which leads to bright, vibrant colors), or variegated, which means that the amount of color on the thread fluctuates or several colors are dyed onto the skein, one after the other.

If you choose to use a different size than is recommended, the effects can be good or bad depending on how you use it.

If you use a thread that is larger than recommended, your stitches can look fluffy, which is good for making a bold statement when outlining or highlighting a certain area of stitching, but in hardanger, if you’re stitching within the ‘windows’ that you create in the fabric, some of the beauty of the stitch can be lost because the threads hide the delicate nature of the work.

If you use a thread that is smaller than recommended, it leads to a more delicate stitch. This can be good for showing off intricacies in your work, but lends less strength to borders, which are important in hardanger.

Needles for hardanger should be blunt-tipped unless otherwise recommended. These are typically sold as tapestry needles and vary in size. If you don’t know what size you are likely to need, you can ask your shopkeeper. If a needle is too large, it will distort your fabric as you stitch. If it is too small, it can be impossible to thread. Most people who have done any needlework have a good idea of the common sizes of needles used. Remember that pearl cotton is heftier than embroidery floss because the strands do not separate, so the eye of the needle needs to be a little wider to accomodate this. Blunt-tipped needles are also used for cross-stitch, needlepoint, and crewel, so they are not difficult to find.

Scissors are an embroiderer’s protected possession. Embroidery scissors are smaller than regular scissors and come in many shapes and sizes. Some have blunt tips, some have sharp tips, some have unique tips. Because I do a lot of hardanger, I use scissors with a hooked blade on one side so that I can slide the tip of the hook easily between threads to separate them before the cut. These can be difficult to find, however, and sharp tipped scissors are perfectly adequate for snipping most fabric threads.

It is important that a stitcher treat their scissors properly. Embroidery scissors are very sharp because they need to be, but to remain that way they should only be used on fabric and threads. They should not be used on paper, plastic, or anything else that could dull them very quickly. They should be kept dry so that they don’t rust, because rust is difficult to remove from fabric and threads. They typically don’t need to be oiled often and you don’t want to use too much oil because it will coat your fibers, however, if there is not enough lubrication they will start to stick in place and can cause you to put too much pressure on them and you could end up cutting too many threads. Good scissors will ‘whisper’ as you open and close them and will not catch.

There is a central screw on most pairs of scissors that can come loose. If your scissors start to feel wobbly or close around thread instead of cutting it, your screw could be too loose. Don’t tighten it too much, however, because then your scissors will become difficult to control as they will require more hand tension to open and close.

I have always been able to tighten my screw by bracing the opposite side and putting the flat of my thumb against the screw side. “Lefty loosey, righty tighty” applies here, so twisting your thumb to your right should tighen the screw.

When cutting the threads inside your hardanger windows, one rule always applies: Look twice, cut once. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to fix cutting 5 threads instead of 4 and when you are halfway through a project, it can be very disheartening to watch all that work go to waste. I always cut my windows after I’ve completed all the work that can be done before cutting to make sure I haven’t skipped threads and that the entire pattern lines up properly. It’s worth doing correctly, even though some of us have to resist the urge to see completed windows after doing the same stitch over and over.

The last thing that you need for any needlework project is a hoop or a frame. I’m going to briefly tell you what your options are within each category so that you can make the best decision based on your needs.

Hoops and frames are important because they spread your fabric evenly so that your stitches are uniform with proper tension. This is particularly important in hardanger when you will be working in open sections.

Embroidery hoops are a dime a dozen. Well, not really any more, but darn close. A cheap wooden embroidery hoop isn’t very durable, but they’re quite traditional. You can find them almost anywhere, they’re easy to replace, and easy to work with.

They come in many different sizes, but you’ll have to find a size that is good for the project that you’re working on. The large ones are for quilting because quilts are big and will fit in the frame easily. The small ones are for tiny projects. You’ll probably want one somewhere in the middle…big enough so that you don’t have to move it all the time but small enough to store easily and be able to work around quickly.

Hoops come in several types of materials now. The ones we most often see are made with a rough wood material. They’re cheap, but they can leave splinters in your hands, snag on stitches, and tend to break easily.

Smooth wooden hoops are a bit more expensive, but they are pretty durable and easy to work with.

Plastic hoops are even more durable and come in a variety of colors. They are also more expensive so if you intend to switch to frames sometime soon, they’re not really worth it.

Always remember to remove the hoop between stitching sessions. If you don’t, your fabric can begin to warp and it can be difficult to iron out the circles they cause.

Frames are easier to work with than hoops, but they are more expensive. They come in two different materials.

PVC or plastic frames, sometimes called ‘snap frames’, are typically cheap, small, and versatile. The disadvantage is that they’re difficult to move around, don’t always come in the size you need, and can mark up your fabric or stitching.

Wooden frames can be in the same price range or more expensive. The higher quality you go on a wooden frame, the better it will be. At the least, your frame should have smooth handles so that you don’t get splinters or damage your fabric or threads. It is easier to change sizes because scroll frames have 4 basic pieces. The two rods that hold your fabric at the top and bottom, and the two sides that keep the top and bottom bars from rolling inward so that you lose tension. The rods should be a few inches wider than your piece of fabric so that it fits on the frame correctly and many frames come with several different rod widths. I prefer the rods that have a split most of the way through them so that I can slide the top and bottom of my fabric between the two halves of the rod so that it can hold it in place while I roll the fabric onto the frame and then stitch.

Some kits come with several sized side pieces as well. If you have sides that are too short, you can get frustrated by continually having to roll your fabric so that you can continue stitching, but if your side pieces are too long, you may not be able to fit your fabric properly onto the top and bottom rods. As with hoops, somewhere in the middle of the size range is best if you intend to use your scroll frame often but don’t want to spend the money on a large kit that will meet all of your stitching needs. They’re nice, but they can be overkill for just a hobby.

Scroll frames (and some hoops) offer the added benefit of being able to attach to floor stands so that you can work on your stitching without having to hold the hoop or frame. Floor stands are only recommended for the serious embroiderer because of their cost, but the benefits to having a floor stand are too good to not at least mention them. You can add attachments to them that hold a light, a magnifying glass, a pattern holder, your threads, your scissors, and more. All of it right at your fingertips and without you having to find places to store all of your things either temporarily (you use your scissors and put them down a lot), or on a more semi-permanent basis (if you have company coming over and you just want it all out of the way).

I hope that this article gives you a good overview of hardanger and the supplies necessary (and not-so-necessary) to do needlework. People do needlework for many reasons. Some of them find it peaceful, others find it to be a good challenge. Some people like to multitask and watch television while doing something that keeps their hands busy. Some people take up needlework to take the place of other habits like snacking, smoking, or chewing their nails. Some people love the creative outlet. There is no wrong reason to stitch, but there are so many good reasons to grab some supplies and try your hand at it. I hope that you’ll consider hardanger if you’re up for a challenge. The rewards far outweigh the difficulty of learning a new stitching technique. I enjoy stitching so much that I even keep several pieces of hardanger in reserve so that if I’m in search of the perfect gift, one is already at-hand and from the heart. It’s something that most people would never return to the store, even if they could.

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