Stitch of the Month
May 2006: Facing bullion knots without fear and loathing!

by Kathy Fenchel

Bullion knots have a bad reputation among many needle artists. They have been known to cause fear in the heart of the most experienced stitcher, and are avoided at all costs! We all own books that have wonderful illustrations describing the technique . . . but they donít always provide much help. This month I am going to approach the execution of a bullion knot using a different method. No pictures! I have a mantra that I use when I am teaching the bullion knot technique. It is almost always successful. Maybe it will work for you!

Simply put, a bullion knot is basically a length of thread that has been wrapped around itself. Think of the extension cord that is in your stitching bag. The technique that you use to store it, wrapped around itself to create a neat appearance, is actually a primitive bullion knot! Who knew?

The following directions, if followed in order, should enable you create the perfect bullion knot.
There are a few prerequisites:

  • Practice making bullion knots with a light colored #5 pearl cotton, a #22 tapestry needle, a laying tool, and 18-ct. canvas.
  • Make sure that your hands are cool and you do not have any hand cream on them.
  • Your practice canvas should be anchored with a frame weight or in a floor/table stand so that you have both hands free.
  • The assumption is that you are right-handed. If you are left-handed, just substitute left for right, right for left and clockwise for counter clockwise in the following directions.
  • The distance between point A and B is the length of the knot. For purposes of this exercise keep this distance to about a half an inch.

OK, letís get started!

  1. Thread your needle with an 18" piece of #5 pearl cotton. Position the needle so that you have a tail that is about 1-1/2" long.
  2. Knot the other end of the thread. Pull the needle through to the back of the canvas so that the knot is on top and then bring the needle back up to the top of the canvas about three inches away from the knot. This is point A.
  3. Put your needle back into the canvas about 1/2" above point A. This is point B. Pull the thread almost all of the way to the back of the canvas, leaving just enough slack on the top of the canvas so that you can hold it to the side with the back three fingers of your left hand. Use your thumb and index finger to pinch the thread just above the area where it has left the canvas at A.
  4. Bring the POINT (about 3/4") of your needle back up at A. Hold the eye of the needle under the canvas with your right hand. The slack should still be in the back three fingers of your left hand and you should begin wrapping the needle in a counterclockwise motion by rotating the pinched thumb and forefinger over the top of needle (as if you were stirring a pot of soup). As you need more thread to wrap the needle it will feed from the slack in your back three fingers. At the same time you will need more room on your needle to add more wraps, gently push it up, just a little, from the back of the canvas with your right hand.
    Things to remember while you wrap:
    • Control the angle of your needle with your right hand. The section of the needle that is being wrapped should be perpendicular to the canvas.
    • Do not try to ďstrangleĒ the needle by wrapping too tightly. The wraps will not stay on the needle because you have pulled each one so tightly that it seems as if you are going to compress the steel! All this does is put an excess amount of tension on the thread which gives it more spring!
    • Control the wraps by pulling back on the short length of thread that is stretched between the needle and the point where you are pinching it with you thumb and index finger. This is the point where you are in control. If the wraps look like they are planning an escape, pull back a little as you wrap, but do not be tempted to compress the needle!
    • The wraps should be loose enough so that you can slide them up and down the needle so that they look like a barber pole. If your wraps donít slide, than release some of the tension by relaxing the area between the needle and the point where you are pinching the thread.
  5. Once you have enough wraps, which for purposes of this exercise should be about 20-24, bring your right hand to the top of the canvas and grasp the point of the needle with your thumb and index finger. At the same time let go of the thread that you have been holding with your left hand. The wraps will NOT escape because your right hand wonít let them!
  6. Take a deep breath . . . now let it out and RELAX!
  7. With your right hand, pull the needle straight up into the air. Use the thumb and forefinger of your left hand to wiggle the wraps off of the needle as it is being pulled straight up. DO NOT worry about their appearance!
  8. Once the entire needle is exposed, continue pulling straight up until all of the slack in the thread that had been in your right hand (in your back fingers) disappears. At the same time gently support the wraps with your left hand.
  9. Once all of the slack is taken up, take the needle to the back to the canvas at point B.
  10. Your bullion may not be picture perfect at this point. Donít worry! Slide your laying tool, or an additional needle, under the bullion knot and gently lift it. At the same time, pull down with the thread that is hanging below your canvas at point B. Gently establish an up and down motion. All of the wraps will fall into place . . . simply because they have nowhere else to go! You have created a beautiful bullion knot! To end the knot, simply bury the thread in another area of your stitching, or make a tiny L stitch right under the knot.

You will find that you have to practice step ten simply to learn how to control your tension and to see how the thread moves on itsí core. To make longer bullions knots, increase the distance between A and B. Use a longer needle such as a doll makersí needle. There are also special bullion needles available in many needlework shops in lengths 5-9" long. Once you feel confident making bullions, you may find a need for such a dangerous tool! To make a thinner bullion, use a thinner needle. You can make a bullion knot with one strand of silk and a beading needle!

Experiment. Neon Rays make beautiful bullions. Kreinik Metallic Braid makes a very nice bullion but you have to wrestle with it a little. Try blending two or three contrasting strands of thread in your needle for an interesting effect!

Practice is the key to mastering your thread. Bullion knots are not hard once you have mastered the technique, but working conditions sometimes enter into your success or lack of it! Itís best to begin with pearl cotton simply because it is the easiest to work with. Light colors are easier to use because they are generally smoother. This is because the more dye that a thread has to absorb, the harder it is on the fibers of the thread. They break down microscopically and cause the thread to be a little coarser. Humidity, sweaty hands, and hand cream also affect the thread's behavior. The thread absorbs moisture and does not move as smoothly. And, finally, your mental health has a lot to do with the appearance of your bullion knots. Stressful days make tight knots! RELAX!

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