Compensation
The Art of Fitting In
Part One of Four
Click for Part Two

by Anthony Minieri

As originally published in Needle Pointers, October/November '95


All too often when teaching, the teacher will announce that in a particular area of the design there will be compensation, and a collective groan rises from the ranks. For some reason compensation has become the bane of certain students' existence. While the knack of this technique is initially elusive to many stitchers, it doesn’t deserve the bad reputation it has. Rather, it is an exciting aspect of the stitching experience because it enables the stitcher to take apart a stitch into its individual elements and really learn the workings of the stitch. It is a major step in the refinement of your needlework technique.

A student in one of my classes asked me, "Why must there be compensation at all?" There must be compensation because most of the shapes we deal with in canvas embroidery, though geometric in nature, are irregular; and most of the stitches we use are geometric and quite regular. Because of this, there will be room around the edges of these irregular-shaped areas where the full geometric stitch will not fit. So, we must compensate or fit in a portion of the stitch. It is the art of fitting in that stitch that we will explore.

Anna Pearson, in her book Needlepoint Stitch by Stitch, when discussing compensation, says, "This is a term applied to any part of a stitch that needs to be worked either to get a straight edge to a geometric area or to fill in a curve in a pictorial piece." This quote certainly tells you what compensation is and why you need it. If the word compensation makes you cringe, then Jane Zimmerman has substituted an excellent word for compensation: adjustment. She tells you in her Canvas Work Encyclopedia, "When a stitch variation does not fit into an area perfectly, an adjustment—compensation—must be made to the stitch lengths on the edges of the area. In this compensation, it is imperative that the pattern created in the stitch variation is maintained, i.e., the angle of the stitches must not be changed and the stitch lengths must not be longer than they are in the full pattern itself."

Not only do you have to fit in a part of the stitch, you must also make sure that the angled compensated elements of diagonal, oblique, and crossed stitches match the angles in the full stitch.

In a straight stitch, you must make sure that the lengths of the stitch elements are not longer than in the full stitch—i.e., an "over 4" stitch can't become an "over 5" stitch just to make it fit in. Rather it must be an "over 4" stitch, then an "over 1" stitch.

Mindy English gives you two more words to consider when compensating. She says in her Canvas Embroidery Notebook, "A compensation stitch is a partial stitch maintaining the rhythm and appearance of the complete stitch." With all these requirements to consider, it is no wonder that compensation is initially elusive. However, you will find out that it is not unattainable and it's quite a bit easier than you think.

With this working knowledge of what compensation is and why it is necessary, how do you approach the actual compensating and make it more easily attainable? One method to use is rather like a formula: The size of the stitch (height and width) divided into the size of the area (height and width) will give you a good idea where to place that first stitch. If the area to be stitched is a linear geometric shape (square, rectangle, triangle), the job will be much easier.

This compensation creates a new pattern and doesn't meet all the necessary requirements for proper compensation. Not Good.

I have drawn a rectangle 11 threads high by 14 threads wide, and I want to fill it with a 3x3 Scotch stitch pattern. The area is 1 thread short in height and width for the stitch to fit perfectly. If you centered the Scotch pattern, you would end up with 1 thread all the way around the edges of the area and could only compensate with tent stitches. This would make the area look like it is framed. This does not meet one of the requirements of compensation, which is to retain the overall appearance of the stitch pattern. It also breaks the rhythm of the Scotch stitch.

This compensation meets all the requirements for proper compensation. Good.

To stay as close to the Scotch stitch rhythm as possible, you will start stitching in one of the corners of the area and compensate along the two sides opposite the corner where you began stitching. I have chosen the upper left corner to begin stitching so that I will be compensating along the right and bottom edges of the area. This way you have met all the requirements previously discussed: you have filled in the proper part of the stitch to maintain the shape of the area, you have kept the proper angle of the stitch elements, and you have maintained the overall appearance of the Scotch stitch pattern.

If the area to be stitched is not an established geometric shape, but free-form or irregular, you can still find the highest and widest part of the area and apply the formula from the last example. The movement of the stitch will help you determine what stitch path to take. If the stitch moves horizontally, you will want to find the widest part of the area. If the stitch moves vertically, you will want to find the highest part of the area. If the stitch moves diagonally, you need to locate the longest diagonal path within the area. If the stitch moves obliquely, you must consider the oblique line it creates and locate the longest part of that oblique line in the area. Since I previously stated that most of the shapes you deal with in canvas embroidery are irregular, let's deal with that one now.

Chart above shows Scotch stitch worked in arbitrarily-drawn irregular shape. Chart below shows how to handle compensation in a circle.

I arbitrarily drew this shape and decided to fill it with the same stitch we've been considering (3x3 Scotch). I counted the highest part of the area and found it to be 15 threads high and the widest part to be 27 threads wide. Even though I had an area that was basically divisible by 3, I still have curves and a narrow neck to deal with. The right side of the area has a 9-thread-long straight edge and the top has an 11-thread-wide straight portion along the edge. This made the positioning of the first stitch easy. I then proceeded to fill the area, ever mindful to maintain a curved appearance to the shape and meet requirements of good compensation.

Before we continue with compensation, a thought on curved lines. If you remember that the realization of a curved line on a grid surface is nothing more than a series of straight, oblique, and diagonal lines, you can make any curved geometric shape more linear and easier to compensate. Consider this circle shown at left. [typed as written although there's no telling where the chart will be on the website.] Starting from the center top and working toward the left you have a 4-thread-long straight line, then a 3x6 downward-sloped oblique line, then a 4-thread diagonal line, then the oblique line again in mirror image to the first oblique line you encountered and back to the 4-thread straight line. This circular form can be achieved by a series of straight lines and still maintain the illusion of roundness, thus making compensation of this shape easier.

A good method for compensating when the area is irregular is to stitch all the full stitches first and then fill in the compensation. By stitching all the full stitches first, you can become familiar with the rhythm and appearance of the stitch and the compensation will become easier to do. (Note: This does not apply when you are stitching with an overdyed or variegated thread and want to control the variegation. When stitching with this type of thread, you must compensate as you go.) If, after stitching all full stitches, the compensation is still not easy to visualize, you can place a piece of paper along the edge of the area you are stitching to make the space to be filled by compensation easier to see. Another method you can employ is to use colorless, clear plastic grid sheets in the same count as your canvas. You can draw the full stitch onto the sheet and position it over the area to be compensated. By doing this you will be able to see what can fit in and what can't. Mindy English uses a variation of her own, once she knows how much of the stitch she can fit in. To get the stitch just right, she says, "I have found that by covering up that part of the stitch graph which I cannot fit into a particular area, the compensating stitch becomes readily apparent."

With the tools and methods we havae just discussed, you are ready for practical application. We will discuss four different stitch families: Straight, Diagonal, Oblique, and Crossed. From these four, we will discuss two stitches per family. Each stitch will be presented in its full form and then compensated against for different types of lines. There will be 5 graphs per stitch:
1. Regular graph of full stitch
2. Compensation at a straight ghost line
3. Compensation at a diagonal line
4. Compensation at an oblique line
5. Compensation at a curved line.

All full stitches or stitch elements will be represented by heavy black lines on the graphs. All compensated stitch elements will be represented by heavy gray lines on the graphs. In the graphs illustrating compensation, the first stitch is represented by white rectangles.

Straight Stitches:

We will begin with the straight stitches because they are the easiest to compensate. Here you are just shortening lengths with no angles to maintain.

Pavilion Diamond

This is a pattern of Straight Gobelins whose rhythm is 2-4-6-4-2-skip-2-4-6-4-2-skip-etc. The "over 6" stitch of the next row fits into the skipped channel of the first row. This is true for all subsequent rows.

Compensation Against A Straight Line

Knowing that the "over 6" stitch element is the longest stitch in the pattern, I brought it up to the straight line I compensated against and counted down 6 threads to place my first stitch. Because of the construction of the pattern, the top of this "over 6" stitch element is the mid-point of the compensated row, so our compensation in this case is the bottom half of the stitch.

Compensation Against a Diagonal Line

The Pavilion Diamond has diagonal sides that match the slope of the true diagonal line, so no compensation is necessary. If you are working an area with 4 differently angled sides and one of them is a true diagonal, begin stitching there, lining this stitch up along that diagonal side to minimize your compensation.

Compensation Against an Oblique Line

The oblique line you have here is a 6x2 downward slope. It moves 6 threads to the right and 2 threads down with each drop of the slope. I started with the longest stitch element again because of the construction of the stitch. Since there is a pattern to the slop of the oblique line, there will be a repetitive pattern to the compensation. In this case, the pattern of the compensation is established after the first two stitches – not stitch elements, but stitches.

Compensation Against a Curved Line

As we discussed earlier, a curved line on a grid surface is really a series of straight, diagonal, and oblique lines. Starting at the top center and working to the left, the curve I will use for all these graphs is as follows: a 4-thread straight line, then a 1x4 oblique followed by a 2x4 oblique, then a 4-thread diagonal, then the obliques in mirror image, and then the 4-thread straight line again. This is ¼ of the circle. I started at the top center with the longest stitch element so I would be sure to get a full stitch in on the top since the top of the circle is actually a straight line. Notice that the compensation on the right is a mirror image of the compensation on the left. This will hold true for all quarters of the circle. Again, when there is a repetitive pattern to the line against which we are compensating, the compensation will repeat.

Old Florentine

This is a pattern of two "over two" straight gobelins and two "over 6" straight gobelins. The subsequent rows encroach into the previous rows and the "over 6" stitches line up under the "over 2" stitches.

Compensation Against A Straight Line

By starting with the "over 6" stitches at the straight line, you will have 2 threads empty above the "over 2" stitches. This will be the compensation for this pattern and it will remain the same along the top straight edge.

Compensation Against A Diagonal Line

I started this pattern with the first of the two "over 6" stitch elements of the pattern. Immediately, because of the movement of the true diagonal line, I can only fit an "over 5" next rather than an "over 6." I can then put in the first of the "over 2" stitch elements of the pattern, but I can only fit an "over 1" rather than an "over w." The next two compensations are of the "over 6" stitch elements. In this case every third row of the Old Florentine pattern will begin the repetition of the compensation. Because there is so much compensation along the edge, a slightly different convention is used in this chart: the first row stitched is shown by white rectangles, the second row by heavy black line, and the third row by heavy gray lines.

Compensation Against An Oblique Line

Starting again with the first of the two "over 6" stitch elements along the 6x2 oblique line, you encounter your first compensation above the two "over 2" stitch elements. There doesn't seem to be a readily apparent repetition to this compensation, but that's due to the limited space. This pattern requires more rows of stitching before the repetition occurs.

Compensation Against a Curved Line

In this case, because there is an even number of stitch elements to the pattern, you can't center the pattern; so you have to place your first "over 6" stitch in the center vertical channel and work towards the right or left with the next "over 6" stitch and continue the pattern. In this case, because you can't center the pattern, there will be no mirror imaging of the compensation.

Epilogue From the Editor:

What a wonderful learning experience is in store for you! Compensation in needlepoint has always been an area that was somewhat clouded and uncertain. From this beautifully-researched, well-written article, you will learn how to compensate properly in every possible situation. Tony Minieri did this study in his work for Level II Teacher Certification through NAN. He is a rising star in the world of needlepoint as both a teacher and a designer. Tony is a member of ANG, EGA, and NETA and has taught throughout this country and in Canada. We are indeed fortunate that he so willingly shares this study. The learning experience will continue in future issues with information on compensating diagonal, oblique, and crossed stitches.

Click to continue to Part Two.