Frosty white crewel stitches can have a dramatic effect when stitched on a dark background fabric. Limiting your color means you can really go to town with a great variety of stitches. Solid areas of one color contrasted with open areas worked in lacy stitches will give you tone value.
When I studied at the Royal School of Needlework, we were taught to make sketches (called cartoons) to follow for designs of this kind. We colored them in three shades of blue or gray (light, medium and dark). It's rather like working from the negative of a photograph. Objects worked in the lightest shade will have the boldest effect against your dark background. The lightest color shows where you will work solid stitches. The medium color is for areas with more openwork effect, and the darkest color is for simple outlines, with a few scattered seeding stitches allowing the background color to come through.
The whole dramatic interest of the design depends on these contrasts, so it's good to establish them first. This saves both frazzled nerves and stitches. Because you have limited your colors you can vary the types of wools you use. Try mixing white pearl cotton with crewel wool, fine cotton floss and heavier knitting yarns to get the most contrast in texture possible.
Now for the stitches. Buttonhole is excellent because you can work the stitches close together to make a solid effect or space them a little wider apart for medium coverage, or group them in pairs and work in horizontal rows to form geometric patterns. You can also make a honeycomb effect by working each row over the preceding one, spacing the stitches wide enough apart to let the background show through in between, just like a honeycomb.
Coral stitch shows up beautifully on the dark background and can look just like a string of pearls. Keep the knots fairly close together to give a thick, textured look. Coral stitch is worked from right to left. Begin by laying your wool flat along the line. Put the needle into the fabric to take a stitch at right angles, under the thread. Now wrap the wool first over the needle and then under the point so that, as you pull through, it forms a knot on top of the fabric. Continue, repeating the procedure, leaving the thread slightly loose, to form nice fat knots as you go along.
A nice idea for shading is the seed stitch -- tiny stitches taken one on top of the other and scattered in different directions, so that it looks as if you just sprinkled a package of seeds on your fabric. By crowding them close together in one place and gradually spacing them wider apart in another, you can form light and shadow effects.
Bullion knots make delightful buds or small leaves, and rows of stem stitch spaced apart by the width of one row give an attractive flowing effect, perfect for accentuating the curve of a petal or the veins of a leaf. As your snowy winter garden grows, you'll love seeing the bold effect of the crisp white stitching silhouetted against its dark background.
Q. I'm a needlework fanatic and want to make my husband something for his birthday . . . but what? He enjoys reading, travel, photography, tennis and such, but at this point I'm all out of ideas.
A. How about a custom-made needlepoint camera strap that any photographer would welcome? Use a 12- or 14-mesh canvas and left-over bits of needlepoint yarns. You can work out your own bargello pattern or needlepoint a design of several ultra-conservative stripes. Back the strap with felt and purchase the attachment hardware in camera or craft shops. A needlepoint strap works up in a jiffy, is more comfortable to wear than the narrow ones that come with the camera, and is much more attractive.