Mary Corbet

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I learned to embroider when I was a kid, when everyone was really into cross stitch (remember the '80s?). Eventually, I migrated to surface embroidery, teaching myself with whatever I could get my hands on...read more

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Fabric for Embroidery: Plain Weave vs. Even Weave


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Good morning and a Happy Friday all around!

When it comes to hand embroidery, probably the Most Important consideration for any project is the fabric that you plan to stitch on.

It seems strange to say that the fabric is more important than, say, the design you plan to stitch. Or more important even than the threads you plan to use.

But to help clarify my assertion, think about it: without something to embroidery on, there’s really no point to embroidery at all!

So let’s have a little chat about fabric, and more specifically, about fabric that is used widely in the needlework world – specifically, linen, and more specifically, even-weave and plain-weave linen and the differences between them.

fabric for embroidery: plain weave vs even weave

Even-Weave Linen

Even-weave linen is widely used in needlework, especially in counted techniques like counted cross stitch, blackwork, certain types of Hardanger, drawn thread work, pulled thread work, and the like.

Even-weave implies that the weave of the linen is even, with both the warp and weft threads numbering approximately the same in either direction (or at least, so close to the same, that the difference is negligible).

Even-weave linen comes in various thread “counts” which are simply an indication of the number of threads per inch in either direction.

A low count even-weave linen would be, for example, a 20 count linen. In a 20-count linen, you should be able to count 20 threads in one inch of the fabric along the warp or weft. In a 20-count even-weave linen, the threads are usually rather thick and very easy to see.

High count is a little more difficult to define with exact numbers. What I consider high count even-weave fabric might, to you, be a rather low count, and visa-versa. It really depends on what we’re used to working with.

But in general, a 36 or a 40-count linen for counted handwork is considered fairly high count. A 50-count linen would produce very fine work, indeed, if the counted stitches were worked over one thread of fabric!

fabric for embroidery: plain weave vs even weave

The photo above features, close-up, a 32-count even weave linen.

Notice that the threads form a grid pattern, and that there are distinct “holes” in the corner of each intersection. This is what makes even-weave linen work for counted techniques. It’s easy to see exactly where to work the stitches on the grid provided by the weave of the fabric.

Characteristic of linen, with the fabric in the photo above, the warp and weft threads are not always exactly the same size, but the count works out even, anyway.

The better the linen, the closer the warp and weft threads are to each other in size. A very good even-weave linen will have warp and weft threads that are, overall, practically equal in size. Occasionally, you might see a thread here and there that is “off” compared to those around it – maybe fatter, maybe thinner (this is characteristic of linen). But taken as a whole cloth, the threads are fairly even in both directions.

The cheaper the linen (in quality – and, yes, usually in price, too!), the more likely it is that the warp and weft threads are more uneven, although the count should still be right. There are just more irregularities in the overall cloth.

Plain-Weave Linen

Plain-weave linen is not, as you can guess, even in its weave!

Not intended for counted work, a plain-weave will not have the same number of threads per inch in the warp and weft direction. In fact, the “thread count” for a plain weave linen is not usually even taken into account. We just think of it as linen. It usually has a fairly high thread count, counted along the warp or the weft, but count doesn’t really matter with plain weave fabrics.

Plain weave linens are often sold by “weight.” For example, we talk about “handkerchief weight” linen. Or “sheer weight” linen. These are both light linens, relatively sheer and fine. You might find them listed for sale by actual weight – maybe 3.5 oz per square yard, for a handkerchief weight linen. A canvas weight plain weave is much heavier – maybe 7, 8 or more oz per square yard, and the fabric is, as you can guess, much thicker and heavier.

Plain-weave linen is usually fairly closely woven, and the little holes in the corners of the intersections of the warp and weft threads are not as distinct. Usually, a plain-weave linen is very smooth – it has what is called a “smooth hand,” which means that, when you run your hand over it, the surface feels nice and smooth.

Plain-weave linen is the stuff of bed linens, garments, table linens, and the like. But it is also a really nice ground fabric for surface embroidery that isn’t counted.

fabric for embroidery: plain weave vs even weave

In the photo above, the white linen in the top of the photo is a plain-weave linen. You can see a huge difference between the even-weave below (with it’s very distinct grid pattern, open holes around the intersections, and broader woven threads), and the plain-weave, where the threads are in no way as distinct and the entire fabric has a smooth, close surface.

For Stitching

When it comes to counted work, an even-weave linen makes an ideal ground fabric.

When it comes to free-style surface embroidery, a plain-weave linen makes an ideal ground fabric, but you can also use an even-weave linen.

To use an even-weave linen for free-style surface embroidery, a higher count even-weave is normally the best choice, but it really depends on the weave of the even-weave. If the threads are plump and fill the weave completely, then even a lower count even-weave (like a 20-count or 25-count) can serve for surface embroidery, too.

In surface embroidery, designs usually involve flowing curves. To make sure that the stitches have free range of the fabric and aren’t confined to the grid of the even-weave, a crewel needle (also called an embroidery needle – it has a sharp tip) is essential, in order to pierce the fabric threads rather than slip between them.

Additionally, a backing fabric – like a cotton muslin – will help give your stitches something to grip into, in case the even-weave is too open to hold them just where you want them. I wrote about backing fabrics here.

Sometimes, it’s a good idea to use a backing fabric behind lighter plain-weave linens, especially when denser or heavier stitching is planned.

Over to You!

When it comes to surface embroidery, do you use even-weave linens or plain-weave? Do you have any tips to share about the fabric you like or use? Or any recommendations for other stitches?

Are you new to stitching? Or do you have questions about linen for embroidery?

Feel free to join in the conversation and share your thoughts below!

What’s Up Here?

On my end of the computer screen, I’m getting ready for Easter! And just following Easter, my family is flocking to the Midwest in droves for a family reunion.

We haven’t had a full-fledged reunion in ten years, since my parents celebrated their 50th anniversary. This year marks their 60th. There will be 110 of us (out of 122) gathered here in Kansas – all my sisters and my brother and their families, with all their children and grandchildren. It’ll be a blast! I can’t wait to see everyone together again!

So stitching has taken a back burner for a bit while preparing for that event. This weekend, though, I’m definitely putting some stitches into one project or another. I’m craving my needle!

I hope you have a jolly weekend, with plenty of time to spend with your needle and thread!


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(44) Comments

  1. I’ve used 14ct black aida before – it was my first surface embroidery project and it was what I had to hand. I don’t remember it being particularly difficult to use despite using a goodly number of different stitches and threads.

  2. Dear Mary

    It’s really useful to know the difference between even and plain weave fabric and to know the best way to embroider on the different fabrics. I use mainly Access Commodity Alba Maxima or Alabaster Angel or Ecclesiastical linen I think by your description above they are a plain weave as they seem to be a smooth close surface, they are such lovely linen to work with and so strong and versatile and easy to work with. Thanks for this very useful article and for sharing the differences between linen with us and for the photos. I do hope you have a great Easter with your family, so many of you where are they all staying? and just to say I hope you have a great Birthday tomorrow and enjoy your time with your family and have a great Easter.

    Regards Anita Simmance

    1. Hi, Anita! Alba Maxima is actually sold as a 40 count even weave, but it works great for an all purpose surface embroidery fabric, since the threads really fill up the weave.

      The incoming family is all staying in a hotel in the closest “large” small town (about 15 minutes from here). Not quite room to house that many! (or any, come to think of it…)

      Thanks for the birthday wishes. I keep forgetting about that. I figure birthdays are deceptive. Everyone thinks they’re a year older on their birthdays, when actually, we’re really just a day older! 🙂

    2. Dear Mary

      Oh I’m surprised at that because it is very smooth closed weave, but as you say it is a great all purpose fabric.

      I’m glad you don’t have to house your family, ha, ha but I do hope you have a great time.

      Ha, ha that is true never saw it like that before a day at a time. Have a nice day I hope you are celebrating a day older day.

      Love Anita x

  3. Quelle serait la plus belle fête sinon avec toute sa famille , 110 personnes ,une grande famille quel bonheur ,quel magnifique sens que l’amour de votre famille .Ils viennent tous auprès de vous , c’est simpa Je vous souhaite une “” JOYEUSE FTE des rameaux et des cloches de Pâques””
    Je n’ose pas trop demander de vos nouvelles ,j’espère que vous supportez bien les traitements et qu’ils sont très offensifs sur les mauvais et vous laissent peu souffrante et sans fatigue
    avec toute mon affection

    1. Thanks, Marie-Laure! It is a big family! All is going well here. I don’t have any new health news. I feel good, though! I’ll know more in May! Thanks for thinking of me! 🙂

  4. Regarding evenweave and plain weave; it depends on the type of embroidery I’m doing. If it requires a uniform finish [eg a sampler, hardanger work etc] I will use an evenweave, but if I’m doing embroidery using satin stitch, fly stitch, chain, knot stitches etc etc, I will use plain linen. I’ve used sheeting before now and also [you’re probably going to be horrified about this Mary!!] Dorma curtain lining!

    I now actually prefer using evenweave rather than aida as it’s got more versatility for projects, but I still keep my 14 – 18 count aidas for birthday cards etc.

  5. Thanks for this great information. I really apreciated your thoughts about stabilizing fabrics used along with the ground fabrics. Using them has reallly helped my work become less distorted, especially when working with low quality linens and cottons on tea towels and use-upables. Learning how to count the threads on regular fabrics also allows those who enjoy counted work to do monograms and pictoral work directly onto shirts and jackets and even large projects like table clothes, even if it does take more patience and a magnifying glass.

  6. Your family gathering sounds wonderful; how lovely that so many of you are able to make it. My parents are also celebrating the 60th wedding anniversary in a few weeks time. They have opted for a much smaller celebration with only their closest family and my mother’s maid of honour.

    Hope you have a great time.

  7. The linen lesson was interesting… pics so helpful. Recently I see a lot of embroidery combined with patchwork.. like an embroidered tree next to a patchwork tree.. or at the side of a patchwork house…. a pleasing combo. What a great gathering of your family… hope there will be some pics.

  8. Is the linen found in fabric stores and which is intended to be used for creating garments, the same as a plain weave linen one might find in a needlework store? If not, how are they different?

    Thank you so much for your time. I look forward to every post.

    Happy Easter,


  9. I find myself very very confused about the weight and hand of linens, as I have to buy it all online. For example, the colored linen sample pack from Wool & Hoop is nearly the same thread count (at least in theory) as the Kingston 55 ct I bought from Nordic Needle, but the handle could hardly be different. Wool & Hoop’s line is fairly open, count of the piece I just looked at about 54 x 42, and could be used for counted work, albeit very fine and the thread count not quite the same in both warp and weft directions. Kingston “55” is actually pretty close to 58 x 60, and is much firmer and finer. No way could counted thread work be done on it, though it’s closer to evenweave. I’m not particularly interested in counted work, though toying with the idea of trying some Schwalm 🙂 I guess I just wish companies would include more information for those of us who can’t fondle before buying. The weight of the linen in ounces per square yard would help, plus a description of the handle. I’m surprised to hear handkerchief linen is as heavy as 3.5 oz – I think I figured the Kingston at 3.5 and there’s no way it could be used for handkerchiefs.

    What I would love is for you to do a post on every kind of linen suitable for surface embroidery and available to retail buyers 🙂 I know, that’s a bit much, but when you talk about, for example, Dower linen, I have no way of knowing how it compares to the little bit of fine non-counted embroidery linen I’ve experienced. Just in case you run out of topics! 🙂


  10. Thank you so much for this! I have actually been having a tough time lately with fabrics. I joined a subscription service for cross stitch and I love it but when it asked if I wanted linen, or evenweave, or aida, alot of google searching was had! I have been cross stitching since I was a kid, but got out of practice when I began having children 6 years ago, and I’m finally finding time again and I LOVE IT and am so glad I found your site—it has been indispensable lately. I also started the “1yearofstitches project and before I started I only knew the cross stitch, but thanks to all your amazing videos I know over a dozen now! Happy Birthday and have a wonderful time at the reunion!!!

  11. Just needed to drop you a note to let you know how much I look forward to reading about your projects and your teachings. You are amazing and thorough. I just need your website to encourage me to learn everything I need to learn. I am new at embroidery but as long as I have your teachings, I feel like I can do anything. Thank you so much!

  12. I bought some different linens but haven’t prepped them after reading your article on prepping. I think that will be a big drawback for me. I always used Aida cloth for X-Stitch in the past. For surface embroidery I used plain cotton in when I started (High School, some 40+ years ago) with no lining. I still have them and plan to sew them into a quilt even though some are very tight creating puckers but later I got my tension together and they look better. I think it will be great to have an example of my earlier years. I bought a Crabapple Hill pattern that instructed you to use muslin on the back so I used a good quality quilting muslin and quilting cotton. So impressed with the results and I don’t see the thread in the back. I tried some fusible Pellon that remained nice and soft but still prefer the muslin. I just bought a X-Stitch pattern and am looking online for some Wichelt Imports aida to see if it’s better quality than I see at my local big box store. Very informative article. Enjoy your reunion.

  13. Hi Mary,
    Thank you so very much for the information you share with us and the pics of the beautiful work you do. I read, watch and save everything you post about and am always re-reading articles when I need info on something specific. I think I picked up my first needle when I was 6. I’m now almost 66, still with needle in hand, and still considering myself a novice to embroidery. Thanks to your useful information, I am starting a new project and chose the correct fabric, 32 count linen. Have fun with your family, a wonderful birthday and a joyous Easter.
    Linda Cee

  14. Hi Mary:
    I’ve just finished a pall to cover a funeral urn for my church and used ecclesiastical linen. It turned out really nice. However, I have just finished a set of small curtains that hang in the aumbry of my church. They are replacing a light weight silk set. The linen is reused from an old fair linen. The problem with the little curtains (12″x16″) is that they don’t hang as smoothly as the silk set. Do you think the sheer linen fabric you mentioned would hang more like the silk? Thanks for all the inspiration.

    1. Hi, Diana – linen has a lot more body to it, compared to silk, so you won’t get the same drape, even with a lightweight linen. I would probably consider using a nice silk, if you want drape.

  15. Mary , Excellent topic today – I think your tutorials are one of the best features of Needle ‘n Thread – great revision – really good tips and the photography for this topic shows very clearly exactly what you are referring to. Needle ‘n Thread is like a large, very well written encyclopedia – – – with great photos too!

  16. Can you recommend any websites to purchase fabric for embroidery? I think the fabric at my local shops is more for making dresses. Thanks! Happy Easter!

  17. Thank you for your tutorial on the different linen. Most helpful. so happy for yiu to be celebrating with all your family. God to hear you are well. happy Easter to you

  18. Mary,

    Thank you for this article. I am new to surface embroidery and was not sure what was the best ground fabric to use for free-form embroidery and for practice stitching. Your article explained it clearly.


  19. Hi, Mary
    The plain weave linen here looks quite like the one that works good for me doing cross-stitch (usual 2 strands over 2 threads). The result turns out much neater than with linen that has these distinct holes… I’m not sure what count this one is, perhaps it is magnified, but seems like it won’t be too huge a strain for the eyes. ( Reminds me of 56 count silk gauze you stitch your sampler on, now that’s intimidating! )
    I think there are even ‘plainer’ linens, that are quite distorted and light,but suitable for delicate surface embroidery… As opposed to heavy even weave linen from your photo that is probably good for heavy threads (like perle 5 you often use in tutorials)
    Now isn’t it important that the weight of the embroidery thread matches that of the fabric! (for adequate/tasteful look)
    (I mean of course one can break rules. but I see too much of bulky buttonholed appliques on light cotton and heavy perle running stitches in quilting that it almost hurts….)
    So all in all it isn’t the technique that matters as much as the appropriately chosen thread for each given background

  20. Dear Mary Happy Easter to you.

    Congratulations to your parents celebrating 60th anniversary. Wow 110 out 122 celebrating parents/grand parents is incredible.

    Thank you for your blogs, I enjoy and learn from them a lot.

    Sophia Barkhoudarian

  21. Realising I could add a backing fabric suddenly opened up a whole new world to me! I love to stitch on silks or satins, and all kinds of fun fabrics which aren’t stable enough on their own. You can get lots more colour in that way, too!

  22. I am new to embroidery and found out the hard way to use backing behind a piece of material that was too light in weight and so some of my carry over stitches could be seen from behind. My friend Sue introduced me to a cloth called trigger cloth. Can you tell me about this cloth? Also when using satins or other types of cloth other than linen is it safe to say you need to have a backing material.

    I like 32 count even weave for my counted cross stitch

  23. What type of pen or pencil do you use to mark the fabric? How many strands of floss do you know to use for each of the stitches that are used?

    1. Hi, Ann – I use different transfer methods, depending on what I’m stitching and the type of fabric. The number of strands also depends on what I’m stitching, the type of stitch, the size of the project. Sometimes, the best approach is to test different options on the fabric you’ll be using.

  24. I LOVE even weave linens. Having developed allergies over the years I have been stitching, counted thread patters have become the majority of the work that I do. “Ordinary” plain weave linens are wonderful for surface embroidery. My first love was the early American versions of crewel embroidery. Historically a number of the styles of patterns were done on a homespun tabby weave because importing linen from Britain was an expensive proposition. So when I am in the mood to do crewel embroidery, I purchase what ever is available in homestyle woven linen unless I want twill weave.

  25. Here in Germany, even weave fabric of any fiber, thread count and density is availiable everywhere but it is expensive. On the other hand, it is hard to get plain weave linen in needle work quality because freestyle surface work doesn’t really have a tradition here. I know I can order online but most of the time I make do with what I can get locally.

    I often use plain weave linen that is sold for clothing or household items. It is just so much cheaper. I even do simple counted work projects on it, it is often close enough to even weave to make this possible and a reasonable thread count for cross stitch. It is also ok for lightweight surface embroidery, especially if you do use a backing fabric to guard against distorting. I even got lucky and found fabric that is lightweight enough for pulled work.

    On the other hand, when I’m doing a project that is meant to be something special I use even weave fabric form a needlework shop, mostly linen. For surface embroidery, I prefer fabric for hardanger, this is low count and heavy but quite densely woven.


  26. Have a great Easter holidays
    and a great, great family reunion.
    A big, big hug to your parents. Congratulations to you, your sisters and brother, so congratulations to all beautiful Family.
    xx méri

  27. Hello Mary, thankyou for your useful comments, always fascinating to an embroiderer!
    Also, happy birthday, belatedly as I have been away and am only now catching up on my emails.
    Last October, we had a great family reunion too. My husband and I celebrated our 50 the anniversary together with my eldest sister and her husband who were celebrating 60 years, and it was truly wonderful to chat to and even get to know some of the youngest family members!!
    So, I shall be hoping that yours is just so special!! Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy!!

    1. Sure! But you’ll want to check the actual weave of the linen and the weight of the warp and weft threads. You’ll want a high count linen that fills the weave. Many high count linens (sold, for example, for counted work) have irregular warp and weft threads that tend to be fine and not fill the weave, leaving visibly clear gaps between the threads. This type of weave won’t support goldwork or any surface embroidery very well. In these cases, definitely considering backing the fabric with a cotton muslin or something similar.

    1. Hi, Esther – I’m not actually a retail shop. You might look for a retail shop that sells needlework supplies. Some examples would be Needle in a Haystack in Alameda, California; A Stitching Shop in Denver, Colorado; Traditional Stitches in Canada. Hope that helps!

  28. Thank you so much for this article and others! They have helped a lot. I am just starting out in learning embroidery and am a little overwhelmed by all the options for types of linen and different kinds of embroidery. I’m leaving for a trip in a week where I’ll have lots of time to learn, and I need some practice fabric to learn stitches and some fabric to try a design from a book I’m ordering. Can you tell me what kind of linen I should get for those two purposes? I don’t know if it should be counted or free style. I’m clueless and hoping for some help! Thanks very much. 🙂


  29. I have an 1828 sampler which I am planning to make a 21st century response to in the form of another sampler. I want to match the style and stitch size and I am experimenting on some linen bought from a charity shop. The first trials I have done the lettering has come out on a completely different scale when done in different directions. Is this because the fabric I am working on is plain weave not even weave?

    1. It could be. It could also be that the thread count is entirely different, between the two linens. Maybe the first one was on plain weave, too, but with a completely different thread count.

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