Candlewick Embroidery

Candlewicking is a simple form of embroidery using a "raw", homespun cotton thread. Candlewick embroidery developed out of simplicity because of the lack and expense of materials in pioneer days. While the pioneer women desired a feminine touch and a pastime during the winter months and nights, expensive and colorful threads and materials were not a reasonable request. Women improvised and started using the cotton candle wicks  and threads from old flour sacks to decorate their fabric and linens, thus giving candlewicking its name. It's amazing how creativity develops out of hardtimes.

Very commonly, candlewick embroidery is called whitework, which is sort of correct. Candlewick embroidery is a type of whitework - white embroidery on white fabric. However, candlewicking is done with raw, unbleach thread and a natural waffled weaved fabric, like muslin and heavy linen. So actually, the materials do not have that gleaming white look, but isn't colored either.  The best example that comes to mind is the likeness of raw sugar verses processed. Thread is made especially for this craft, but real cotton candle wicks are also used. However, be aware of the gauge and ply because wicks come in a varity of sizes. Natural waffled weave styled fabric is readily available in most fabric shops. I've found the thread to be easier to order online. It might be easier to find in a speciality shop or a larger city.

This craft can also be called knotting, because knots are used to create patterns. The colonial knot is the official knot of candlewicking. However, some people use a french knot. French knots that are double wrapped used more thread than the colonial. Given the lack of supplies, the colonial was more practical in its time. It is some crafter's opinions that the colonial looks better. The knot lays better and more solid than french knot. Today, people use more elaborate designs and implement actual stitches and knots together. Some pieces even have tassels around the designs.

The appearance of a finished design has more of texture to it than regular embroidery because of the use of natural materials. This textured design is considered desirable, washes, well and is durable. Candlewicked items can easily turn into family heirlooms.

Materials needed to get started:

  • 2 ply natural cotton thread
  • Needles - 1 milliners work well with most designs (ask for chenile needles)
  • Natural weaved fabric - like muslin or linen (heavier weight fabrics are better to avoid pulling)
  • Transfer/fabric pens and markers (you'll want the temporary, water erasable ones)
  • Pattern or design - start with something simple
  • Embroidery frame

You are going to simply apply your pattern with your transfer or fabric pens onto the fabric. These should be dotted outlines of say an animal or other object. Now you just make the colonial knots to outline and make a silhouette like figure. If you want larger knots, you can triple or quadruple your strands of thread.

There are plenty of candlewicking patterns available online. However, you can simply just take a coloring book page and make your own. Lay a piece of tracing paper over the design. Use a heat transfer pen to make even dots around the object. Transfer the design. If you're an artist, by all means draw your own. If you need help keeping your dots uniformed, you can use that open plastic canvas as a guide. The squares will make sure that your dots are perfect. You can also premark the design on the canvas.

* A lightbox can also be used to transfer and make patterns on the fabric. However, I don't suggest anyone spend more than they have to when beginning a new project. Who knows if you'll ever do it again.

More advance stitches and techniques:

  • Chain Stitch
  • Running Stitch
  • Lattice Stitch
  • Lazy Daisy
  • Blanket Stitch
  • Straight stitch
  • Satin Stitch
  • Split Stitch
  • Pin Wheel
  • Closed Buttonhole
  • Bullion Stitch
  • Tassels with Needle Lacing
  • Padded Embroidery

What is padded embroidery? Padded embroidery is created by over stitching to give the pattern a 3 dimensional appearance.

There are no rules that say you can't use color threads, but I think it takes away from its natural state.  When using color, consider using Madeira 6 strand cotton along with the natural thread. Combining the two gives the work a duller, more pioneer look.

Candlewicking is perfect for the novice crafter. It's quick and easy as long as you stick with simple patterns and the knot. As you gain experience, you can get fancier with your stitches and designs. However, simplicity doesn't mean pretty. Sometimes less is more.  This technique will give you a vintage inspired and even vintage looking piece immediately. Perfect for those decorating with antiques and  primitive designs. This is an easy way to create a monogrammed item for a gift and can even be done on clothing.

It's also a great way to introduce embroidery to children.  I started candlewicking as a small child. My grandmother gave me a set for Christmas when I was 8 years old. I simply adored the gift and project. I finished my duck and gave it back to my grandmother  for her birthday. Kids feel special creating their own gifts for their family and friends. Just be sure to use safety and supervision with needles and scissors around small children.

*You can substitute the unbleached natural thread for regular embroidery floss (ecru). However, it will not have that fluffy texture. Floss is slicker and it will look more "polished". Polished can be a good thing, but for that vintage look, it's not.

**I think the plastic canvas is a great substitute for the lightbox. The cost is a buck verses 40 to hundreds of dollars for a high quality lightbox. I would never make this type of investment unless this was a hobby I intend spend a lot of time on.

*** Homespun thread can be found on the net. More people are making crafts and homemade items. Just make sure you use 100% cotton thread. Warning: Some candle wicks have lead in them. Please do your homework before purchasing.