The Charm of French Needlework Rugs

The Charm of French Needlework Rugs
September 12, 2016 Caroline Seaworth

Canvas needlework or needlepoint, canvas embroidery, petit point all refer to the special technique of rug making which is quite old. The craft of needlepoint goes back to the ancient Egyptians. Howard Carter, an English archaeologist and Egyptologist is recognized to have found some needlepoint in the cave of a Pharaoh who lived in 1500 BCE or so.

It was mostly in England and France, where the art of needlework flourished. One can easily identify those rugs by their characteristic stitches: the tent stitch, petit point or gros point.

The earliest examples of French needlepoints date to the seventeenth century. While they share some similarities with English canvas embroidery, French needlepoints often made use of Aubusson and Savonnerie patterns. Depending on the given period of time, one can distinguish different typical motifs. For instance on the eighteenth-century works, the prevalent motifs are chinoiserie and rococo ones, as well as the Neoclassical architectural forms typical of the Directoire style. The nineteenth-century on the other hand is characteristic of floral style.


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The abundant use of floral motifs is specific to English needlepoints, which had their heyday in 1500-70. On the early examples of these rugs we can notice mainly flowers with pictorial and heraldic motifs. The carpets from the eighteenth century include the traces of evident influences from various artistic styles, like baroque, chinoiserie, neoclassicism and rococo. The Victorian era needlepoints however, are associated with huge flowers, animals, landscapes and geometric elements.

In fact, there are some differences between needlepoint and other types of embroidery. Needlepoint is actually a form of counted-thread embroidery – the yarn is stitched through a stiff open weave canvas. Tent stitch, also called needlepoint stitch, is the most common kind of stitch used in needlepoints, although it’s also the most basic one. Weavers have to rely on color changes in the yarn in order to create a pattern. Petit point, on the other hand, is needlepoint worked on fine canvas. While needlepoint is associated with stiff canvas with openings at regular intervals, embroidery often uses soft cloth and some embroidery hoops i.e. tools used to keep fabric stretched tight. Embroidered rugs have always been a perfect decoration of a house, besides, in the past they were a sign of prestige and richness.

As for terminology, needlework is considered to be the broadest term and it refers to the art of decorative sewing. Actually, anything can be called needlework if it was constructed by means of a needle.

First Chinese reproductions of French and English needlepoint were created in 1920s, to revive again in 1980s, masterly imitating the patterns. Needlepoint art is still alive today in various contemporary designs. 

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