Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Crochet By Numbers

Did you ever have one of those "painting by numbers" kits as a child? I did and found them fascinating. Especially when you couldn't really see the end picture clearly, to begin with, and had to follow the key to see the image emerge slowly, but surely, as you painted.

I've been irresistibly reminded of those kits over the last little while, as I have been dipping my hook into the world of tapestry crochet. Tapestry crochet is simply a way of working with more than one colour of yarn at a time and switching between colours according to a chart to create patterns and pictures. I suppose it's the hooky equivalent of intarsia or Fairisle knitting. It's fun and not nearly as difficult as I thought it might be. The technique is very prominent in traditional crocheted articles in Guatemala and in the Cameroon where beautiful, geometric designs are hooked into hats and bags.

I got started on the idea by reading Jules' of Little Woollie's post and tutorial here. Dish cloths / face cloths seemed a good place to start - not too big or daunting in case it all went horribly wrong! But I'm happy to say it didn't. And Jules' tutorial is excellent - very clear and easy to follow.

I fancied trying something a little more pictorial than geometric and looking at the way tapestry crochet designs are worked, realised that they are very similar to the way in which cross-stitch patterns are drawn out on graph-paper. As with a cross-stitch pattern, each square represents a single stitch.  And if that was the case, all I needed was some squared paper, some coloured pencils and a fairly simple linear image in my head to transfer. Obviously designs involving a lot of curves are rather difficult to realise unless you use a very fine yarn and a very thin hook, so that the straight-sided nature of each stitch is less visible, but if you stick to a basically linear image, it works like a dream, even using aran weight yarn and a bigger hook.

I've only experimented with a few designs so far - the little white, red-roofed house with blue windows on a blue background in my first pic and a green Christmas tree on a turquoise blue background and a couple of others. The first version of the little house came out rather thick - it was before I realised the need to go up in hook size so I've backed it with a square of cotton, quilting wadding and some red and white fabric and made a virtue of necessity and turned it into a mat / hot pad rather than using it as a dish cloth.

Using it as a mat, rather than as something to mop up spills, has the advantage of avoiding discolouring the lovely white walls with too many stains, hopefully, too!

The Christmas tree versions I worked using a bigger hook (8mm for the initial chain and then a 6mm hook for the body of the crochet) with the same weight of cotton yarn (aran) as the little house one and that gave the right amount of density to the resulting fabric - not too thin to be business-like but not too stiff or inflexible either. They would work equally well as a dish cloth or a face flannel. They are designed to be stocking-filler Christmas presents wrapped round a bar of homemade soap.

I had a go at a flower, using thinner yarn and a smaller hook but it's a bit too geometric for my liking. And as you can see, there are a few mistakes where some of the stitches weren't made through both loops of the stitch, in the row below, if you look carefully. I'm pleased with the feel of the resulting fabric though - it's beautifully soft and floppy. (It was worked using Puppets Lyric 8/4 cotton yarn on a 4mm hook.)

Raiding my embroidery bag I found an old, cross-stitch, penguin design I'd drawn out for a Christmas card about twenty years ago and I thought I'd give him a go too. He was a bit more complicated than the others as he needed more than two colours on the go in places and that was more tricksy to juggle but I think he's sweet and he is joining the stocking-filler pile!

Fancy having a go? A handful of tips you might find useful.

1 You can use more than two colours of yarn at once but as you carry any colour you are not using along with you, the more colours you use, the thicker the crochet fabric becomes so I found it easiest to restrict myself to working with only two colours at a time, although you can swap which two by simply cutting the yarn and knotting a new colour on by way of replacement.

2 Because even with only two colours of yarn, you are always carrying one extra strand as a kind of "sleeper", you need to use a bigger hook than you would normally expect to, for the weight of your chosen yarn, otherwise the fabric is very thick. You might want it good and thick of course - ideal for mats or pot-holders but for a dish or face cloth the fabric needs to be floppier. So using an aran weight cotton yarn, I found making my initial chain with a 7mm hook and working the body of the cloth on a 5mm one was insufficiently generous. An 8mm hook for the initial chain and working the body of the cloth on a 6mm one worked much better.

3 The designs that work best are essentially simple ones - I'd avoid anything too complicated, at least to begin with and, as I say, stick to images that are basically linear in shape as these work most effectively.

4 For the design to work properly you need to use, effectively, a square stitch, ie in UK terms you need to use double crochet stitches and in US terms, single crochet stitches. Using taller stitches such as trebles or half trebles will distort the shape of your design.

5 Always remember to complete the last stage of the stitch before you wish to change colour with a strand of the new colour, or you won't get a clean colour shift.

6 Draw your design out on a piece of squared paper, remembering that each square represents a stitch and you can't subdivide a square, either horizontally, vertically or diagonally. Colour in your chosen design to see how it will look, but only lightly, as you need to be able to see the divisions between the squares to count how many stitches you are making at each stage and if you colour in the squares too enthusiastically you can't see what's supposed to go where. Guess who found this out the hard way?!

7 Additional details / colours can be added by a bit of surface crochet or embroidery, like the stars on the top of my Christmas trees.

8 It's helpful, especially if you are an erratic counter like Mrs T, to number the rows on your design and to mark on a Post-It note or similar, stuck to your pattern, which row you are on. I keep a tally system of marks and add one mark for each row I finish. I also mark the number of squares for each section on my design, to avoid error. Not infallible, but it helps!

9 If you go wrong and need to frog some stitches or even a row or two, (perish the thought!), it's easy enough to do so; you just need to pull on the relevant colour of each section of stitches in turn. As you work the crochet, the yarn does twist on itself a bit and it's a good idea, every few rows, to untwist it so you don't get in too much of a pickle!

10 What are you waiting for?! Grab your coloured pencils and some squared paper and start doodling! For a nine inch / 23 cm square suitable for a dish or face cloth I found an initial chain of 35 was about right but experiment with a starting chain with your chosen hook and yarn and your own tension to see how many stitches will make the right size and do this before you finalise your design, otherwise your proportions may be out.

I've got a thing about little houses at the moment and as well as my crochet-by-numbers one here I've been knitting a few. Yes, you did read that correctly! More on these aberrations from my firmly non-knitting path in due course! I've found them strangely addictive to make and if I'm not careful will be had up for overcrowded housing development!


  1. Very, very clever Miss E. Your work is imaginative and the cloth backings are a great idea to keep your whites from discoloring. Will check out the tutorial, but your writing was so precise there is really no need to view another tutorial.

  2. Hourra pour Mrs Tittlemouse tricoteuse !!!...Can't wait to see your knitting work !


  3. Wow you're so clever, it looks really complicated, I keep thinking how cute a little boat would be too, but I must resist adding any WIP's to the pile. Your Christmas tree is super cute.
    Clare x

  4. What a lovely idea for a present.
    If I made one I think I'd try a strawberry (influenced strongly by your top photos) but I think perhaps I should master plain crochet first. I never know which wretched loop I'm supposed to put the hook into, so trying to master two strands of yarn as well would scupper me. Looking forward to seeing your knitting.

  5. These are so cool E! Love your designs :) x

  6. This just shows how versatile crochet is, my ability to count seems somewhat challenged now I've got to a certain age so not sure ill ever be able to this one! :) x

  7. You never cease to amaze me! You make everything look so easy, E.

  8. It's wonderful. I've never seen something like this one.
    Your crochet skills are remarkable.
    Maria Luisa

  9. I do like that little house ... it makes a lovely hot pad. I hope you can bear to use it! :)

    The flower design is really beautiful too. Have you seen Carol Ventura's tapestry crochet work? Hers is mostly done in the round, which gives a kind of slanted effect to the images.

    Thanks for the helpful post!

  10. These are so much fun! I like the Christmas tree ones best I think, and I like your idea of wrapping them around a bar of soap. x

  11. Those are cute -- I think the Christmas trees are especially pretty.

  12. Oi amiga, adorei todas as novidades do teu blog, também trago novidades no meu blog para ti contar, confira e depois deixe um comentário para eu poder saber o que achastes,abraços do Brasil.

  13. You are always up to something interesting! I love the details you added, too -- the star on the Christmas tree and the smoke coming out the chimney. I also admire your ability to 'make a virtue out of a necessity', a very useful skill;)

  14. Hi love picture crochet and it would make a great bag as the possibilities are endless. Thanks


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