Monday, 30 January 2012

Elephant No. 120: Punch-Needle Embroidery

While researching a different technique online, I came across a video for punch-needle embroidery, and thought I'd try it for today's elephant. I've had a punch needle for years, but only tried it once and somehow couldn't get the hang of it. So today's elephant promised to be interesting. Or annoying.

Punch-needle embroidery has been around since the time of the Ancient Egyptians, who used the hollow bones of birds' wings as needles. The technique was used extensively in Europe during the Middle Ages, often to decorate ecclesiastical vestments and panels. In modern times, it became largely associated with a Russian religious sect known as the Old Believers. There is also a Japanese punch-needle tradition called bunka shishu, which is characterized by delicately shaded florals and nature-based scenes.

Punch-needle embroidery is used both for fine embroidery and for rug-hooking. In rug-hooking, the technique is referred to as "punch-stitch" and dates back to the fifteenth century A.D. Sailors on long voyages often made rugs using this technique, and punch-stitch rug-hooking was largely a hobby for seafarers. By the late nineteenth century, interest in this form of rug-hooking had declined, although it has been enjoying a resurgence in recent years.

Woman doing bunka work with rayon thread, during a course at the
Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto.
Cultural Centre in Vancouver.

Just about any kind of filamented fibre can be used in punch-needle work, from heavy yarns to fine silk thread. Punch-needle embroidery is sometimes called "thread-painting" for its use in creating landscapes and other scenes.

The technique is simple in concept: thread a hollow needle. Punch it through a closely-woven fabric. Repeat. The punching creates tufted loops which are held in place by both the weave of the fabric, and any additional stitches you punch over top.

I bought my punch needle in India years ago from an itinerant street vendor, who was embroidering as he was walking. I hadn't intended to buy anything, but he was so persistent—and his embroidery so nice—that I ended up buying a punch needle and embroidery thread from him. I promptly discovered that he had made it look easy, since I could never reproduce the effect. I do think, however, that the punch needle itself—with its handmade tube, needle and wire coils—is a thing of beauty.

In addition to my abortive attempts at punch-needle embroidery, I also dimly remember trying punch-needle rug-hooking in a high school art class. Despite Mrs. Stinson's best efforts, I think I wasn't great at rug-hooking, either. So, although I love the way punch-needle work looks, I may lack the knack.

For today's elephant, I decided to try a closely-woven muslin as a backing fabric, some cotton embroidery thread in various colours, and my Indian punch needle.

I quickly discovered that the muslin didn't have a tight enough weave, so I tried several other fabrics, including canvas, dupioni silk and a horsehair interfacing. I finally settled on a midnight blue cotton velveteen. It wasn't ideal, but it at least held most of the stitches.

To start, the six-stranded embroidery floss should be separated into two bundles of three strands each.

Next, you feed one of the three-strand pieces onto a special punch-needle threader, and feed the whole thing through the punch needle.

Once the needle is threaded, you're ready to stitch, usually working from the back. Japanese bunka shisha is different in this respect, so don't go by the photograph in the intro section above.

You can draw a design to use as a guide—drawing it on the back, obviously—although this isn't necessary. I didn't bother to draw anything. After the trouble it took to test and find the right fabric, I just wanted to get started.

I started by making a few closely spaced stitches. They still wanted to pop out of the fabric, but eventually I figured out how tightly to space them, and how far to pull the needle out of the fabric before plunging it back in.

 It was a long and frustrating exercise, which made me forget to photograph any of the process. I did most of the elephant in grey, then added a bit of pink to the mouth, ear and tip of the trunk.

The back is messy in today's effort.

The front is messier.

Because I intended to cut off the ends of most of the loops on the front to create a sort of chenille effect—and to tidy it up, truth be told—I smoothed a layer of white glue onto the back. I added enough glue to secure the stitches, but not enough that it would sink through to the other side. You could also use something like a heat-fusible material. Some people don't secure the back at all; however, given how hard this was for me, I was sure it would fall apart if I didn't glue it somehow.

Once I'd clipped most of the loops and sort of sculpted the right side, I added a small polished piece of gold-flecked black stone as an eye.

Although I like the final result well enough, I really disliked this activity, mostly because it frustrated me. If I'd had a fabric that was more cooperative—something called "weaver's cloth" seems to be the recommended thing—it might have been more enjoyable. Most people seem to find this easy and fun. Sadly, I didn't.

That doesn't mean, however, that I'll never try it again. But I might retire my Indian punch needle for my next attempt. And hunt down the proper cloth.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Astonishingly, elephants can be killed by a single snake. The giant king cobra—which can measure up to 5.6 metres (18.5 feet) in length—is one of the world's deadliest creatures.

King cobras are found in Asia, and will attack even if not provoked. Although it doesn't happen often, they will attack and kill elephants by striking the elephant either at the tip of its trunk, or on its foot, where the toenails join the skin. Both are vulnerable points on an elephant's otherwise thick hide.

The venom contained in an adult king cobra's poison sacs can kill humans and smaller animals within a very short time. Although the poison in king cobra venom is not as concentrated as that of other poisonous snakes, it is able to deliver an immense amount of venom. This is largely because of its ability to hold on for longer than most other snakes, once it has locked onto its prey.

With an ability to inject as much as 7 ml of venom at a time, a king cobra can cause the death of a full-sized Asian elephant within a few hours.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation 


  1. where should i get this punch needle with threader please tell me .

  2. what is the price of this needle

  3. Hi Saranya,

    I got mine years ago from a street vendor in India, and it was only about five rupees, but that was a long time ago. Here in Canada, they sell for about $5 to $7, and here is one source (but this is a very fancy one, and you don't need something like this for basic punch-needle work). If I find any other sources, I will let you know. What country are you in?

    Good luck, and let me know if you find something better. I will also keep looking.


  4. hi, Sheila
    i am looking for a place in Toronto to get BUNKA PUNCH NEEDLE EMBROIDERY. do you know where i can go?

  5. hi, Sheila
    i am looking for a place in Toronto to get BUNKA PUNCH NEEDLE EMBROIDERY. do you know where i can go?

  6. Hello Idalina. I don't know of a place offhand, but I will see what I can find out and let you know as soon as I can. :)


  7. Very informative article and you have explained concern things with very deeply appreciated cheap digitizing embroidery service is now possible with professional quality.

  8. I have deeply read your article and this is really an amazing post and you have described everything about embroidery with efficiency. Get professional custom embroidery digitizing service with prompt turnaround.