White work is the essence of needlework because it offers unlimited ways to create an open, lacy effect. One can open up the fabric by means of holes -- either by drawing out the threads (drawn work) or by stitching netting or mesh behind a fine white material and cutting it away in the front, exposing the net (cut work), or by pulling threads closely together with a strong, fine thread (pulled work). Scandinavian pulled work is done on fine linen with a blunt needle. A geometric pattern is formed by wrapping the background fabric threads closely together to form large open holes.
Today, American ingenuity has produced a pulled-work renaissance -- but with a twist. The Scandinavian idea has been borrowed from evenweave linen and transferred to needlepoint canvas with a completely new look. The stiff convas is made pliable and soft by stretching it on a frame and dabbing the area with some cold water before pulling the threads into position.
One of my favorite pulled-work pieces is a white-on-white snowy owl on canvas. His face is stitched in raised, clipped turkey work for a textured, feathery effect, and he's perched on a large branch of couched roving (that creamy, fluffy, untwisted wool that comes straight off the sheep's back). His feathers are row upon row of buttonhole stitch that is in wonderful contrast to the lacy pulled-work background.
Experiment with a scrap of canvas loosely stretched in an embroidery hoop and you'll see what exciting results you can get with some cold water, a large blunt needle and some strong white cotton thread. Short lengths of crewel wool will work, too. Mono canvas is easier to work with than interlock.
The stitches used to pull the canvas threads into patterns are simple ones, not unlike black-work stitches. There's that marvelous batch of star stitches like the star eyelet made by ending eight straight stitches forming a solid square around a hole pulled open in the center. A free-form satin stitch pattern where a random number of stitches are wrapped over a random number of threads creates a pattern of open ovals laced through with vertical threads of canvas.
Or you could count out a regular geometric pattern of satin stitches (over four threads, for example) pulling gently to pack the four threads close together and forming holes on either side. When another band of satin stitch is worked immediately above or below, sharing the same holes, the effect is one of an open ladder in between solid white bands. Gradually move the bands up or down a few holes and you have stair-step bands descending and ascending across the canvas.
While the technique is called pulled work, you should never pull or yank your thread. Instead, keep both your canvas and your yarn in one piece (not to mention your fingers!) by gently easing the canvas threads into position and wrapping tightly with the yarn to keep them there.
If all of this makes you eager to try some pulled work of your own, you might find the stitches suggested in the following books the impetus you need: Erical Wilson's "More Needleplay," published by Charles Scribner's Sons; Moyra McNeill's "Pulled Thread Embroidery," published by Taplinger; and Rosemary Drysdale's "Pulled Work on Canvas and Linen," published by Charles Scribner's Sons.