5 Tips for Foolproof French Knots

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The French knot is one of those hand embroidery stitches that's either your best friend or your worst enemy. They're tricky, but (sigh) they're also really useful. Cluster them together for a dense, textured filling. Scatter them loosely for an airy lightness to your embroidery. Or make isolated stitches if your design needs a little punctuation. So don't let a bad experience shake you — we can help you nail this.

Common problems

Raise a hand if any of these have happened to you:

  • The knot pulls through to the back of the fabric.
  • The working thread gets a knot in it before it finishes its journey through the stitch.
  • The knots end up lopsided, irregular in shape or size, or sitting too loosely on the fabric.

Let's tackle the basics first...

How to make a French knot

Here's a linen fabric stretched taut in an embroidery hoop. The thread I'm using is coton a broder #25, but any thread will work here. I'm using a milliner needle rather than a regular embroidery needle, and I'll explain why down below.

Start by bringing your working thread to the front of the fabric. Then bring your needle up behind your working thread and wrap the thread around the needle twice, as in the photo above.

Savvy stitchers adjust the weight of their knots by changing the number of wraps on the needle. If you wrap the thread once, you'll end up with a smaller knot; if you wrap it three times, you'll end up with a larger knot. However, I prefer to change my thread weight when I want a smaller knot or larger knot, and that's because I find that I get consistently good results with French knots with two wraps. Why ruin a good thing? That being said, there's nothing wrong with adjusting the number of wraps if that works better for you.

Fair warning, though: Knots made with more than three wraps are more likely to go amok during the making and can come loose or become disarranged after the embroidery is finished.

With the wraps on the needle, bring the tip of the needle down to the fabric, right next to where your working thread first emerged. Don't enter in the same hole as the working thread.

Instead, take the needle into the fabric just next to the original hole, leaving a little space of fabric between. The arrow in the photo above points to the space left between the beginning of the stitch and the end.

As you pull your needle and thread through the wraps and through the fabric to the back, pull slowly and keep the working thread (shown with the arrow above) under tension.

Hold onto that thread with your thumb or a spare finger until there's only a little bit of thread remaining above the fabric. When there's only an inch or so of thread remaining on the front, you can let go of it and continue to pull it through to finish the stitch.

Here's a small cluster of four French knots, all fairly equal in size and consistent in shape.

5 French knot tips

Now that you've got the basics, here are those tricks for consistent, successful results:

1. Don't wrap the thread more than three times around the needle

A French knot made with more than three wraps can get really ungainly as you finish the stitch — that can result in inconsistent sizes and loose loops that are just asking to be snagged or displaced later. If you're wanting a really big, textured knot-like stitch that sits up high off the fabric, try a drizzle stitch instead.

2. Leave a small space between the beginning of the stitch and the place where you take the needle down into the fabric

This is critical to ensure that your knot doesn't pop to the back of the fabric.

3. Pull the thread slowly through the wraps to the back of the fabric, so the thread doesn't knot up on itself

Those little slip knots that form in thread are just waiting to ruin your work if you pull the working thread too quickly. With French knots, any additional knotting of the thread often results in having to cut the thread. So keep it slow until you're really comfortable here.

4. Keep the working thread under tension until the last possible moment as it passes to the back of the fabric

This will eliminate the chance of any extra slip knots forming in your thread, plus it'll keep your wraps in place, tight around the thread.

5. Try a milliner needle

Sure, French knots can be successfully worked with regular embroidery needles, but if you're having trouble, try a milliner needle. It has an eye that's the same thickness as the shaft, so it's easy to pass the needle through the tight wraps without getting hung up on the eye.

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