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Petit point — meaning "small point" in French and also known as a needlepoint stich — is a type of embroidery stitch. It is worked on a canvas or woven base and consists of diagonal stitches.
The canvas that is used, often made of cotton or linen, is composed of warp and woof threads. The warp threads, which are the vertical threads, and the woof threads, which are the horizontal threads, are typically stretched in an embroidery hoop to make the fabric taut. The stitch itself runs on a diagonal and crosses over an intersection of one horizontal and one vertical thread making a slanted stitch at a 45-degree angle. The thread count or number of stitches to the inch is very small, enabling the sewer to create pictorials as in tapestry.
Petit point has an illustrious history in that it was a favorite activity of Madame de Maintenon, the second wife of King Louis XIV of France. She founded the Saint Cyr l'École, a school for poor girls of good families, located in a small village near Versailles. As part of the education curriculum, all young ladies were taught needlepoint and petit point.
A favorite pastime of the aristocratic ladies, the craft was often executed using the finest strands of silk, and tapestries often boasted thread of spun gold and silver. Today, petit point is often referred to as a "tent stitch," and resides under the moniker of needlepoint. Because of its intricacy it is suitable for small objet d'art such as pill-boxes, small portraits, and elegant handbags. One of the most favorite design patterns is the mille fleurs, which commonly means “a thousand flowers,” and was an especially popular motif in 15th century France.
In later centuries, women used the stitch to paint angelic faces or religious symbols on canvas, such as the bleeding heart of Jesus, a popular motif. The painstaking art often became a cherished wedding present, given from one close female friend to the other, or passed down within families. Frequently, scenes called "tableaux" were depicted on bell pulls, fire screens and footstools, while still later petit point tapestries hit the floor as area rugs.
There are three variations of the petit point stitch — the basketweave, the continental, and the half cross tent stitch. These all look similar on the front of the canvas, but each is worked in a slightly different manner and has particular characteristics to their advantage. While there is no precise order for the execution of the stitches, they are typically worked from a chart. Another benefit of the stitch is that it progresses so the thread is carried across the back of the picture, with no knots or beginnings of different colors shown on the front.