One of my all time, favourite stitches is the Bullion Knot. I use it for edging fabrics, making reed flowers, curving them to make bobbly textures or creating Bullion Knot roses/shells. They are really versatile stitches and such fun to experiment with but, at the same time, they are a firm marmite stitch for everyone else. I haven't met anyone who is on the fence about this stitch, you either love it or hate it!
I'm conscious that after the billion, trillion bullions (try saying that ten times fast!) I have completed, mine usually look quite neat and it can be quite frustrating for those just starting out on their embroidery journey as the initial bullions don't always look as full or as smooth.
There are lots of tips and tricks I've discovered over the years and I want to try and help you to create your perfect knot so I hope that you will find this troubleshooting guide helpful.
How To:: Make A Bullion Knot
This is the basic how to that I have in all of my Stitchscape kits and you might note that it differs slightly from other diagrams you might find on the web. This is because I have adapted it to work more easily in a taut hoop. I like to keep my fabrics drum tight within my hoop and there isn't much flexibility then to work the bullion knots as other diagrams show you, leaving the needle scooped into the fabric and wrapping around the point of the needle as it rests along the surface of your work.
The main point is that the eye of the needle shouldn't pass through the fabric when you are creating the loops so as long as you keep the eye to the back of the fabric, you can bring the needle far enough through the fabric so that it comes out at a perpendicular angle, making it much easier to wrap your thread around without tangling in your work or struggling to bend the fabric enough to complete the wrapping action.
♡ Start with a fairly long thread. Bullion knots take quite a lot of thread and you need to have enough to work with and wrap around. The key is finding a length that works for you; too long and you can get into a tangle pulling metres of thread through your loops but too short and you won't have enough to wrap around enough times for a full knot.
♡ Your needle can be a big help to creating a successful knot. There's nothing worse than having completed beautiful loops and then getting stuck on pulling the needle through them all and having to unwrap everything. The best needles for bullions are ones with streamlined eyes - it's the widest part of the needle so you do need to be mindful when you wrap around that you aren't pulling the thread too tight. Something like a Sharps or Quilters/Betweens needle tend to be quite good (check out this John James needle guide to see the different types of needle and their sizes) but you don't want anything with a bulbous end to it.
♡ Following on from the previous point, tension is everything! Whilst you don't want to wrap too tightly as mentioned, you also don't want to wrap too loose as you run the risk of the threads not settling nicely next to each other. A good thing to do to check you have a good loop tension is to try moving the loops up and down with your finger on the needle. They should neatly wrap next to each other, not overlapping or crossing, but be able to move up and down easily. Keep hold of your loops for as long as possible as well so they don't bounce around and will retain their lovely neatness.
If you are using the bullion knots to edge a fabric (perhaps you're working on a Stitchscape kit?!), the best thing to do is to actually work the knot next to the fabric you are edging rather than try and get your needle through the fabric itself because that way you help to reduce the amount of frayed edges. Bring your needle up just on the outside of the fabric you are edging and continue working right on (but not through) that edge all of the way around, creating a border.
To create a streamlined line of knots, after your first one is completed, every subsequent knot needs to be started a needle's width away from the previous. Hopefully you can see in the two photos above, I've finished one knot and am moving on to the next one, leaving the smallest of gaps between the end of the last one and the start of the new. This gap will then be filled once I've set my stitch length, bringing my needle down through the fabric where I want the knot to end and then coming back up again on the outside of my first stitch, filling that little gap I left.
♡ Don't come up in the same hole! When you are coming back up through the fabric at Point A to begin wrapping your loops, make sure that you have definitely brought your needle up in a slightly different area and you haven't caught the thread underneath. This is a fairly common problem and will mean that, if you have caught the thread underneath, your knot can't go anywhere because the threads have passed through each other and locked in position. If you've left a specific space to come up through as shown, chances are you won't have any issues when you bring your needle up again.
If you find that your knots are ending up with 'baggy bottoms' (loops or saggy threads happening at your Point A end), this is likely because the initial loops aren't tight enough around the needle, or pushed down to where the needle comes out from the fabric. The best thing to do is to wrap two or three times around the needle, then stop and push those loops down so they are sitting on the fabric surface, then continue wrapping the thread around the needle.
♡ Neat loops. You can move the loops around on the needle to make sure they are all neatly stacked before committing yourself to the knot. Any untidiness at this point will likely appear in the final knot so it's worth just checking that all is in order before you carry on. You don't want to see any loops that are bigger or baggier than others, or any crossing over of the thread, and they should be beginning to wrap around the needle just on the fabric surface.
There aren't a set number of loops around the needle. The basic rule of thumb is to at least fill that stitch length you set right at the start of making this knot. You might want to create different sized knots depending on the scale of your work or the space you are trying to fill - generally mine end up just shy of a centimetre (quarter of an inch) but it doesn't really matter as long as the length you want isn't longer than your needle!
♡ Be generous. You don't want the disappointment of having perfectly made loops and successfully pulled it all through just to find that your knot looks mean and skinny. Make sure that your loops fill the space (bending your needle slightly to help you judge) and then add several more loops. Too many additional loops will cause your knot to curve slightly, in which case you can stitch it down in parts to make it flatter if you need to, but four or five additional wraps will just settle in with the other loops and help to make your knot look fuller.
♡ If you've scaled up your thread thickness, so are using a thicker thread, you might find that slightly longer knots work better to get a clean finish as there is more room for the loops to get into a smooth wrapped rhythm. If you are embroidering with thinner threads, you may also find the opposite helps and working smaller knots stops the threads from becoming leggy. In my Stitchscapes I prefer using two or three strands of embroidery floss (two strands are pictured in these photos) for general fabric edging.
When you've wrapped enough times around the needle, hold on to those loops! One of the best things about making the knots in this way is that you can pop the hoop onto a table if you need to and use both hands to help you wrap the thread around and hold on, one hand managing the loops on the needle and ensuring they don't come bouncing off and one hand to do the actual wrapping.
So, when you're ready, hold on to the loops with one hand and pull through the needle with the other for the moment of truth!! You want to pull all of your loose thread through before you let go of those loops as by that point they won't have anywhere else to go and will stay in position.
♡ Try not to let your tail end of thread get caught up. If you have pulled all of the thread through until there's no more to pass through the loops but your tail end is still inside the loops, you will need to just gently pull on your thread (splitting it at the eye of the needle so you only pull the tail end) until that bit is out. This is another reason for using a longer length of thread so that you have space to avoid getting the tail end involved.
♡ If your needle is slightly stuck and not easily passing through the loops it could be that they are just a fraction too tight and might need some encouragement to let go of the eye of the needle. As long as you hold on to the last wrapped loop towards the point of the needle, you can let go of the needle with the other hand and push those knots off until you can pull the needle through again. The more bullion knots you do, the more your tension will improve and you will get the feel for how tight to wrap the thread so that you can just shoot your needle out from the loops like a rocket and straight upwards!
♡ As you pull the last little bit of thread through, the loops will move down and fill that stitch gap you made at the start and you can let go of the loops. The knot may yet need a little bit of encouragement to lie flat on the fabric so just push down on the knot whilst pulling the needle and thread to get every last spare scrap of thread (without yanking it and getting over-tight or bunching up the fabric).
If you are using these knots to edge a fabric, a really good tip is to go over the finished knot and make just a little couching stitch to help secure it to the fabric. The way the knot is created means that it is only attached to the fabric at either end, leaving the centre part free to wibble and wobble around at will. If you are wanting to edge a fabric to reduce fraying this isn't exactly ideal so bring your needle up underneath the knot (not through the knot) on the outer side and then down again through the fabric you are edging, on the other side of the knot.
Because this stitch is going in the same direction as the loops within the knot itself, you lose this additional stitch so that it becomes invisible. Depending on the knot size, you may want to make just one stitch in the centre, or perhaps two stitches - one at either end of the knot.
♡ Working this invisible stitch immediately after you complete one knot also means that you can safely start the next knot right next to the one you've just completed without fearing that your thread will pull straight out again from when you finished the knot at Point B.
♡ You can also use this little over-stitch (couching stitch) to disguise areas of the knot you aren't happy with - it's tricky to undo a bullion knot so rather than try to unwrap or cut it out, you can go over and over the knot to hide baggy threads or little tangles, or to fill in areas that you don't feel are full enough or could have done with a couple of extra loops. The extra stitches will double up as loops for you as long as you try to come up and down underneath the knot. .
♡ You can also move the centre of the knot whilst you are stitching over it so it works really well if you need to mould the knot to a curve or bend it slightly. If you are using bullion knots to make shells (as in the video below which hopefully works) I would still put just one little over stitch in the centre to hold the curved shape. For straight flowers (like the bullion knot reed flowers pictured at the bottom of this page) I don't usually bother with the couching stitch as it doesn't matter if they move around - they could just be swaying in the breeze.
There are threads that are better or easier than others to work with in bullion knots although you can use pretty much anything. From my own experience the nicest ones are your good quality stranded cottons (like DMC or Anchor threads), but you could also use a Coton Perlé thread which will slip through quite nicely. Something with a fairly smooth texture will work well although if you go super slinky like the Silky stranded threads, just be mindful of your tail end as it can easily become fluffy and latch on to areas you don't want it to!
One of the hardest threads are the stranded metallics because they break up and get stuck. It's not impossible but just be aware you may need to wrap slightly more loosely to allow movement of the metallic fibres to pass through the loops. They have fantastic impact if you are able to make bullion knots from them though! Similarly if you use a thread that is more woolly - or might have additional fun bits in - anything that can get tangled, looped or accidentally woven may need to be treated with a bit more care!
I've popped a couple of images below of bullion knots made with different types of threads so that you can see the effects.
DMC Metallic Silver threads (two strand) from Over the Rainbow Hills Stitchscape.
DMC Silky threads (three strand) and normal DMC/Anchor stranded embroidery floss (two strand) in my Bluebell Woods Stitchscape.
These bullions are all stranded flosses but I thought it worthy putting this image in as it shows you the difference in bullion knot sizes. The knots at the top (further away) only use two strands of thread, the middle layer uses combinations of three/four strands and the super chunky ones at the front uses four/five strands to make them appear closer. From my Bluebell Blues Stitchscape.
So, hopefully this helps you a little if you are having troubles with your knots. It basically all boils down to P.R.A.C.T.I.C.E so even if you hate it, persevere and you'll get there! If you have a problem that I have haven't covered please do let me know and I'll see if I can help answer your queries. Happy knotting!