I read a question somewhere recently regarding what people think is the best linen. I figured I would post my answer here.
First, preference is a very personal thing. What one person loves, another will probably hate. So of course everything I'm writing is simply MY personal perspective.
Linen/evenweave preference is totally subjective. What works great for one project, will likely not work for another. If you're stitching over 2, little imperfections, slubs, thick/thin threads probably won't make much of a difference in the overall presentation once you're finished. If you're stitching over 1, the more even you can get the better.
First thing I'd like to touch on is count. What is the best linen count? Again, it depends on the project.
28 count - for over one stitching, I'll reach for 28 ct every time. I love how my over one stitching looks on 28 ct. Higher than that I find it gets bulky and lumpy and I don't enjoy it. Small portions of a larger design are fine, but a whole piece just won't get done that way. For over 2, I don't really like 28 ct in any fabric, I find it blocky and big. And to get coverage I'm happy with, I need to use 2 or 3 strands, sometimes even 4 for some specialty stitches, and that annoys me. So I tend to view 28 count as my someday when I'm blind fabric. lol
30 count - really kind of an in between. I have stitched on it, and I don't really mind it, but it's tough to find a nice medium of good coverage. I still find HDF premium struggles to cover, so I tend to opt for other brands and go with 2 strands. For over 1, I quite like it, but I still prefer 28 count.
32 count - not crazy about it for over one stitching for the reasons mentioned above. For over 2 stitching, I don't really mind 32, so long as I can use HDF premium thread on it. I can get good coverage with it in one strand for x's, 2 strands for satin stitches, so it works pretty well. And sometimes my eyes don't want to focus on high counts, so it's a welcome change without getting too huge.
34 count - LOVE it. Not so much for over 1, but definitely for over 2. HDF premium looks lovely for solidly stitched sections where I don't want show through, and many other brands of silks give excellent coverage for sampler style stitching with a single strand. AVAS, NPI, Gloriana, Belle Soie, Thread Gatherer - these look quite nice with one strand without getting wispy. If I were to do solid stitching with these, I'd opt for the second strand, but for samplers, one is lovely. This really has become my go-to count for Drawn Thread projects where the cross stitch is secondary and there are a lot of specialty stitches that I'm not really familiar with. Once I've mastered them, I'd happily try them on a higher count, but I do like to get used to the stitch and I find this count is perfect for that.
35 count - see above. I can use a single strand for some brands and be happy with it. For solid stitching I can double up and also be very happy with it. I tend to use 34 and 35 for Chatelaines, I can get the beads to fit alright in most cases, and I like the coverage I get better than on 32.
36 count - again, see above.
38 count - I don't actually have any fabric at this count. I think it would probably be nice for samplers, but it would probably be a transitional type count when talking about solidly stitched pieces - 2 strands bulky, 1 strand just a bit too wispy. I know Gander makes this count, and I will probably try it when I have some money again, even just out of curiosity.
40 count - my go to count of fabric. I can get great coverage with one strand of most threads and I find it a nice count for many different specialty stitches. I tend to use this most often, simply because most dyers have it available now in all their colours, and there is a nice wide variety available.
45/48 + count - love it for plain old cross stitch and/or blackwork. Not the most fun doing pulled stitches like eyelets for the simple fact that it's pretty dense and doesn't allow you to shape the stitches very well.
Okay, now on to brands. I'm only mentioning those I've used, given I can't really critique something I haven't tried!
28 Count Fabrics
Zweigart Cashel Linen - While it dyes pretty, and there's a great range of solid colours, it's not my favourite for 28 count fabric. As I said, I'm not a fan of over 2 on 28 count, and I find that the amount of slubs and uneven spots make it tough for over 1 work to look nice and even. Plus it's fairly heavily starched, and I like softer fabrics. Hand dyes are a bit better for feel, but they still have that uneven look that I don't like. I have some, but I don't use it much. Most hand dye companies use this as their 28ct linen base. I find it funny when someone says they don't like Zwiegart linen but love Lakeside linen - they're the same fabric!! ;)
Graziano Milan Linen - LOVE it. Not many slubs, not a lot of uneven spots and over one stitching looks fantastic. It's becoming more widely available, though not in many colours. It has a nice hand, it's not oversoft and floppy, but not heavily starched. The fabric itself is much thicker than others, so it doesn't need a lot of starch.
Wichelt/Permin Linen - I avoid it at all costs. It's very thin with huge holes, which makes coverage of any kind of stitching uneven. It's also incredibly heavily starched which makes it feel like cardboard. They have lots of pretty colours, but I still won't opt for it. The only merit I can find is that it's good for pulled and drawn threadwork.
Zweigart Quaker Cloth - I actually quite like this. It's a mix of cotton and linen, and it's pretty even, and the cotton gives it a bit more body than a pure linen. I don't know if I'd want to do a huge piece over one on it, there are others I like better, but it's not terrible. It is pretty heavily starched, so I recommend washing and pressing it before use to soften it up, but it's got a nice hand afterward.
Zweigart Lugana - I don't mind it for over 1 work, it's quite nice. When you're stitching a solidly stitched piece, it's much more affordable than linen, and it works well for the job. Available in tons of colours of both standard and hand dyed, so it's a good choice for those who don't like linen.
Wichelt Jobelan - My favourite for over 1. About the same price as lugana, but I like how it feels and stitches more. Very even, very soft, and nice and thick. Again, available in lots of standard and hand dyed colours, so it's a nice, affordable alternative to linen.
Zweigart Jazlyn - I don't mind this one. Similar to lugana or jobelan, but I find I have to cope with threads slipping a bit more often. I find it's a bit more dense as well. All in all not a bad fabric though, and there are some good colours out there.
Charles Craft Monaco - Hate it. I hate aida, so that's not a big surprise, as it is exactly the same fabric, just in a higher count. I find it overstarched, stiff, rips threads to shreds, and I just don't like it. I see it as a basic transition fabric - if you've only used aida and want to branch out into evenweaves, it's probably a good one to start with.
Zweigart Jubilee - I like it marginally better than Monaco, though I've been able to get it in hand dyed colours so that's probably why. Basically the same as monaco, but because it had been dyed it was a bit softer. Still rough on threads though, so I won't be using it again anytime soon.
That's about all I can think of that I've used in 28 count. I've never bought any of the pre-packs of linen from MCG, DMC or any of the others. Having picked up the package and felt what seemed like a piece of cardboard inside, I figured it was best to leave them alone. lol
30 Count Fabrics
Legacy Linen - Not crazy about this one, it's pretty starchy and the holes are really big. Some pretty colours, but nothing I couldn't replicate in some other brand of fabric.
Legacy Linen Dower Quality - Now this is a nice linen. The threads used for it are much thicker than those of the standard one mentioned above, and it's very even which makes it great for over one stitching. Love it. Not many colours, but useful neutral colours.
R&R/Weeks Linen - Not sure what they use as a base for their 30 ct, but I don't really like it. It's a bit gauzy for my taste, too open which causes a lot of uneven stitching. It's a shame, as they're very pretty colours. I suspect it may be Northern Cross linen, the feel is similar, slightly softer due to the washing and dying, but I can't say for sure.
Graziano Assisi Linen - As with all of their linens, this one is wonderful. Nice and thick, even, and not overstarched. Great over 1 fabric.
That's the extent of my experience with 30 count fabrics. :)
32 Count Fabrics
Zweigart Belfast Linen - I don't mind this one in hand dyed, though I do find it a tad flimsy compared to some of the others out there. The advantage of this linen is the humongous range of colours you can get it in, both in standard and hand dyed. This is the base most fabric dyers use for their 32 count linens. As a standard colour, it's starchy, but will soften up with use, or washing, or even steam ironing will often do the trick. Overall not bad, but a bit thinner than I like. The biggest drawback to me is the number of slubs and uneven spots. You never know when you order if you're going to get a good piece, or a bad one. I've had some I was very happy with, others I wasn't so happy with. It seems quality control may be an issue. ;)
Wichelt/Permin Linen - Again, overstarched and gauzy, lots of slubs. Way too open for my taste. Probably good for pulled work, but I try to avoid it.
Graziano Sienna Linen - Lovely fabric. Few slubs, very even, nice and thick and sturdy without being heavily starched. Really wonderful to work with. Yes, it's expensive, but if you're very tactile like me, you don't mind the extra few dollars for the experience. :)
Zweigart Lugana - While I like this fabric in 28 ct, I'm not a huge fan of it in 32. If ever a fabric was too dense, this one might just be. Very tiny holes with very little give, which puts a lot of friction on the thread and wears it, even with a bigger needle. I have used it a fair bit, and I have a fair bit more on hand from a fabric of the month club, but I've been giving it away to friends as they need it for projects. The advantage is that it comes in a huge range of colours, lots of dyers use it as a base and it's relatively inexpensive.
Wichelt Jobelan - Ahhh, that's more like it. While it has a similar feel to the lugana, it stitches ever so much nicer in my opinion. The holes are easier to see and don't wear on threads near as much. It's available in lots of colours too, but not as many dyers use it.
Zweigart Jazlyn - Pretty darn dense too, but I find it has a better give than the lugana. I like it at this count, but I'd probably opt for Jobelan if the same colour was available in both.
That's about the limit of my experience with 32 count fabrics.
34 Count Fabrics
Legacy Linen - Love it, love it, love it. Actually, it's about the only one I can think of in the 34 count category, or at least the only one I've used. Only a few colours, but lovely neutral colours. It's even, very few slubs, thick and dense but with easy to see holes. It's got some give, so pulled and drawn work is nice to do on it. Not very heavily starched. All in all, the perfect fabric if you like this count.
35 Count Fabrics
Weeks Dye Works/R&R Linen - Again, pretty thin and gauzy as far as linens go. Very open fabric, so unless your tension is perfect, you'll get uneven stitching. Probably good for pulled or drawn work, but I haven't tried this on this fabric. Some awfully pretty colours make it tempting though. When I've tried something more than just cross stitch on it, I'll definitely report back.
Weddigen Linen - I just got this, and I have to say, I love it. Wonderful fabric. I like it as much as I like the Legacy 34 ct, which is saying something. I've only done a small amount of test stitching on it, but I loved every minute of it. Will be using it for Sampler Cove's Time Well Spent in the near future. :) Very even, very few slubs, nice and thick. Excellent quality if you can find it available. I got mine at Traditional Stitches, and it's extremely reasonably priced, though they only have it in cream. Will be on the lookout for other colours and/or counts of this stuff!
HDF Linen - This fabric is no longer available, but I thought I'd mention it in case you manage to find some on ebay or in someone's stash swap/sales. I've got lots, but I won't be parting with mine. ;) It's lovely linen. The threads are nice and thick, though there are some thick/thin spots, however not many slubs. Great hand to it, it's not at all starched but has a good body to it.
That's all I've used at this count, I'm sure there are others.
36 Count Fabrics
Zweigart Edinburgh Linen - As the counts climb, I become fonder of Zweigart linens. They become more even with fewer slubs. That said, there are still uneven spots and slubs, just not as many. It's still a bit flimsy for my taste, but it's available in so many colours, from so many dyers, that I can live with it. For a personal project, I'd probably opt for something else, but for a model I'd gladly use it because of it's availability. In the standard colours, I find it a bit starchy, but I tend to go with hand dyeds in this stuff which softens it and tightens up the weave a bit.
HDF Linen - This is also discontinued, but I have a ton of it. It's non-mercerized, so it's a bit fluffy/slubby, and it's a bit thinner than some others. I didn't mind it though, and I'll happily use up what I have.
These are the only fabrics I've used in 36 count. I know there are others, but I can't comment on them.
40 Count Fabrics
Zweigart Newcastle Linen - I like it. I use it - a lot. Again, I find the base fabric a bit starchy, but I tend to use hand dyeds more often than not, so this isn't an issue. It's pretty even, a few uneven spots and a few slubs, but nothing I can't cope with. A bit flimsier than I like, but again, a trade I'm willing to make for the colours I can get and it's availability from lots of dyers.
Graziano Ricamo Linen - My absolute favourite in 40 count. It's available dyed from Lakeside Linens and I've also got some dyed from Sassy's Fabbys, when she was doing some experimenting a while back. It does tend to shrink a bit in the hand dyes though, so keep that in mind if you're planning on picking some up. I love the standard Ivory, and I don't even mind the white. :) Fantastic fabric, all around. Thick, even, wonderful body, hardly any slubs at all. Really, really wonderful fabric.
HDF Linen - Again, no longer available, but I do recommend if you find some, buy it! It's wonderfully soft but has a good body. Slightly larger holes than most 40's, so it's easier to see to stitch on. The only drawback I've found is that the warp and weft aren't even - I've stitched 2 square pieces on it, and they didn't come out square. Not a big deal for me, I don't really mind, but it might make a difference as to what project you'd use it for.
45 and Higher Count Fabrics - enter if you dare!
Graziano Florence Linen - 45 count. LOVE IT! Wonderful fabric, very even, not starchy, great body. I've used it for a number of pieces and I really do love it. I stick to mostly cross stitch when I get up to this high a count because I find the fabrics tend to be too dense for much else. Available in hand dyes from Lakeside, and again I have a few colours from Sassy's Fabbys when she was experimenting. Yes, it does shrink up a bit from dying - ends up about 48 count.
Legacy Dower Quality - 48 count. It took me a while to come to grips with this stuff. Extremely dense, I had a tough time getting my needle through it. Now having used it a bit more, I really do like it. I prefer the Florence because it's easier for me to get, but this is lovely too. Lakeside dyes it in a few standard colours - though if you're willing to pay for it, they're willing to dye it in any of their colours so long as you're buying a big enough piece.
Zweigart Kingston Linen - 55 count. I've seen it described as 50 count as well. I like it. I've only been able to find it in white though, I hear it's also available in cream, so that kind of limits it's usefulness to me, but it's not a bad linen at all. A bit thinner than the others I've mentioned, but at this count, that's not that big a deal. It's a bit slubbier than the others (is slubbier a word?) but all in all it's a nice fabric.
I know there are other high count fabrics out there that I'd love to try given the opportunity. I'll have to find somewhere to get Gander linens by the yard that don't charge outrageous amounts for shipping. I do have some non stitchy friends in Belgium and France, I might be able to talk them into a visit to the factory with a shopping list someday. :D
After all that, what is it that determines what fabric I use?
Well, first and foremost, what's the project? Cross stitch? Hardanger? Tons of specialty stitches? Pulled threadwork? That is one of the factors that determines what I use. I don't mind the higher counts for most of it, but I find pulled threadwork is better on counts below 40, the fabrics just have more give to them.
Second, and just as important is colour. If I want a specific colour for the project, I kind of have to use the counts it's available in, right? lol
I'm going to do another post entirely later on in the week about choosing the right colour of floss and fabric for a project. When to use mottled fabric or variegated threads, when to use solid colours. I know I touched on it a bit a long while back, but being that it's an important issue, I'll touch on it some more. :)
And now I'm off to spend the rest of my day off stitching!