With the invention of embroidery machines and the innovative techniques of some textile artists, you begin to wonder if embroidery can still be defined in one sentence. The definition found in A-Z of Embroidery Stitches, page 4: "Embroidery is a way of altering a surface with stitches." Some sources list cross stitch under the counted thread category. That is partially true, as cross stitch can be a free form design, a stamped design, or counted. This category of stitching has evolved where basically two stitches are all that are needed to create an entire style of needlework.
As pattern books were published and samplers evolved, the predominate stitch became the cross stitch, but cross stitch is not new. It has been reported that fabric found in Greece dating back to the 5th century BC shows the remnants of cross stitching.
There really isn’t much written about the actual history of cross stitch. We do know that sewing and embroidery have been around since people started creating clothing. It is likely the first stitches used were the running stitch and cross stitch to join two fabric or fur panels together. We’ve already seen where people stitched on clothing (Blackwork) and on linens and wall hangings (Samplers).
There is a gap in history. We really don’t know a lot about the development and spread of the cross stitch technique. It is known that prior to there being printed patterns, companies would have models stitched. These models then traveled around to the various shops where customers would come in and hand copy the patterns. The first printed pattern books began to be accessible in the sixteen century. The first cross stitch patterns were printed as black squares or dots. It was left up to the stitcher to determine the colors to use. This was due in part to the lack of commercially produced product, so the stitcher used locally spun and dyed threads. Can you just imagine what those stitchers would think of today’s printed patterns and fiber choices?
Like most other needle arts, cross stitch has had periods of popularity and decline. Technology took over and women no longer needed to do the embellishing of clothes and linens. With other activities in and out of the home, people just didn’t have time to sit and stitch for pleasure. It was only the later half of the 20th century did we really begin to slow down and spend time developing hobbies. For many of us, it may be difficult to imagine having no time to enjoy a hobby. Click here for a great article on the history of threads (and cross stitch) by Jo Verso.
You can make cross stitch as simple or as difficult as you like. The stitches are simple, but can be combined into exquisite patterns. The tools you need to start can easily be purchased with very little investment. Once you are hooked, you can spend literally thousands of dollars adding tools to your stitching basket. You can remain a dedicated cross stitcher or you might use your knowledge to learn other techniques such as Schwalm or Blackwork embroidery. There is so much freedom with cross stitch. There is a certain freedom to how you do your pattern. You can stitch the pattern exactly as it is charted. Or change the colors if you feel like it. Personalize it! Choose a design that will stitch up quickly, or one that might take you hundreds of hours to finish. Whatever you choose to do, we encourage you to just have fun.
Fabric: When you are first learning, it is better to use a fabric that has a larger stitching area per inch with holes that are easily seen, such as Aida cloth. As you might recall from the first Fabric article, Zweigart developed the first Aida cloth in 1890. Aida comes in several fabric counts. Nordic Needle carries Aida in 11, 14, 16, and 18 count. Aida is also a good choice if you have trouble seeing the threads and holes. You stitch over one thread on Aida. Unfortunately, Aida cloth somewhat limits the stitchers choice of background colors. In addition, many designers today are using linens and specialty dyed fabrics as part of the overall design element. As you get more experienced, you will likely choose to stitch on a linen fabric. The most popular sizes are 25-, 28- and 32-count, stitched over 2 threads. Be sure to read the designer’s fabric suggestions before purchasing your fabric. Remember to add 3 or more inches to each side of the finished design size so you can finish your stitched project.
Needles: A good rule of thumb is the size of the needle shaft should be about the same thickness of the thread you are using. A needle larger than your thread may leave a visible hole. For most counted cross stitch patterns you should use an 18 to 24 size tapestry needle which has a blunt end, so it doesn’t split fabric threads. The eye of a tapestry needle is also longer and easier to thread. Remember the higher the number, the finer the needle.
Scissors: A good pair of embroidery scissors is needed. You won’t have any close up cutting such as in Hardanger embroidery, so my suggestion is to find a comfortable pair of scissors. For the left-handed stitchers, we know carry a 3.5" pair of Dovo Embroidery scissors.
If you have trouble with larger knuckles, you might try the Italian Sew Scissors with large Gold Finger holes. Remember, if you are using metallic threads in your stitching, you should have a pair of metallic thread scissors. Click here to look at all the scissors we carry.
Threads: A majority of the designers use floss or floss combined with blending threads. Floss can come in a variety of materials such as cotton, linen, satin, or silk. For special effects you can use synthetic fibers such as Kreinik braid and Rainbow Gallery metallic. The Danish Flower Thread is another possibility. The Danish Handcraft Guild began producing the original Danish Flower Thread in 1929. The Guild’s Master Designer and Teacher, Gerda Bengtsson specialized in beautiful botanical designs. Whenever she needed a color for the parts of a plant, a new color would be created, thus the name “Danish Flower Thread." This is a matte 100% cotton fiber, single ply, round fiber. (DMC and Anchor are flat fibers.)
Embellishments: Cross stitch lends itself well to the addition of beads, buttons, and crystals (such as Mill Hill Treasures). Once you have experimented with embellishments, you will be hooked. They are so easy to add, affordable, and just enhances the overall beauty of your project. Click here to look at some of the Mill Hill Glass and Crystal treasures.
Hoops/Frames: It is essential to keep your stitches even in size and in tension. Therefore, you need to invest in a hoop or frame. There are many great options. We will touch on each one briefly, but go on line to see the entire selection.
- Q-snaps are based on the simple concept of interchangeable lengths of PVC pipe which can be easily assembled to your required work size. Your fabric is rolled around the curve of the pipe and held tautly in place with a clip. No more crinkling of your fabric in a hoop or stapling it to a stretcher bar.
- You can use a regular embroidery hoop. Be sure to get one that will give you a large enough stitching area. It is recommended that you take your fabric out of the hoop at the end of each day of stitching so you don’t develop the sharp creases in your fabric.
- There are many kinds of stitching frames available. You can sit some on tables, sit on some or have them on floor stands. Before you purchase a stitching frame and stand, be sure to do some research and know how where you plan to stitch most often. Click here to check out our selection of hoops and frames.
- A really cool product for helping control the excess fabric you are not stitching on is a frame cover. Place your project in your hoop or frame, and fold up the excess fabric and tuck it away as you stretch the cover around the frame. Keep your beautiful stitching project clean and protected! They come in many sizes: click here to check them out!
Additional Tools: You can begin stitching with just the items listed above and do just fine. As you get more into stitching, there are some great products that will make your stitching time more enjoyable.
Another area that many stitchers struggle with is keeping place on the pattern. The Prop-It Needlework Chart Holder is a portable, free-standing magnetic chart holder. It folds open instantly and closes flat to 8″ x 11″ for convenient storage and portability. Holds individual charts or magazines and books, and has adjustable supports to hold oversized materials.
If you are not careful, you will have floss monsters in your stitching basket. They resemble dust bunnies in that they grow and multiply if left alone. There are several options for controlling your floss.
- It’s really important that you develop some sort of storage system for your floss. We carry a wide selection to choose from. Click here for our thread organizers.
Tips and Tricks
When using floss, be sure to separate every strand and then put it back together with however many strands you need. This will help them lay nicer.
If you are using blending filament or combining floss colors, a laying tool will help to position the threads for the best effect. The most popular one is the Best Laying Tool (BLT).
One of the most critical steps in counted cross-stitch is accurate counting. Nothing is more frustrating but to think you have counted correctly only to find out you are off by two stitches. Many stitchers swear that their stitching time (and frustration level) is significantly reduced when they take the time to stitch the grid first. A very easy-to-use solution is Easy-Count Guideline. This is a 100% nylon thread with 100 yards per spool. You stitch a grid on your fabric, usually in 10-count squares. Most patterns are designed with a 10-count grid visible on the pattern, so it gives you a quick way to verify you are in the right spot.
Cross stitch can involve a lot of turning and twisting of your fabric in your hands depending on your design and your method of stitching. This constant movement will tend to cause your fabric to fray. It is important that you do something to your edges before you start, like using Fray Check along my edges. Some people will sew a zig zag with their sewing machine. Some resources say to use tape on the edges, but if you do use tape, ensure the tape is acid free and won’t come off on your design.
Q. I’ve heard that cross stitch originated in Denmark, is that true?
A. Embroidery techniques were used in every corner of the earth with some of the earliest examples found in Egypt and Rome. Probably the reason Denmark is associated with this technique is due to a couple of well-known embroidery companies. From the Eva Rosenstand website: "In 1870 a number of embroidery shops opened in Copenhagen. They specialized in sales of embroideries and sold materials for embroidery and patterns for decorative home textiles, such as samplers, cushions, fire screens and others. As a young girl Clara Wæver moved to Copenhagen along with her family. She opened her own shop in 1890…Along with the sister Augusta she sold materials for different kind of embroideries and produced patterns. They also taught the young women how to embroider the old Danish ‘white embroideries’, and ‘all sorts of handicrafts’. Clara Wæver died in 1930 at age 75. (During that time there were a couple of changes in ownership.) In 1953, Jørgen Rosenstand took over with his mother, Ellen Holst. In 1958 Jørgen founded his own company, Eva Rosenstand. One of Jørgen’s legacies was the concept of the ‘kits’. In 1976, after the death of Ellen Holst, the two companies were merged to become Eva Rosenstand – Clara Wæver. In 2003, the Danish company, Carl J. Permin, took over. This insured this traditional company was kept in Danish hands."
We have a nice selection of the Eva Rosenstand kits.
Also responsible for keeping the tradition going is The Danish Handcraft Guild. They have been creating counted cross stitch designs and kits for over 70 years. The Guild was first established in 1928 as a national association for preserving the best of traditional Danish embroidery and for promoting innovations in design, technique and application.
Q. How do I start and stop my thread?
A. DMC’s website contains the following advice: "The easiest way to start a cross stitch piece is with the ‘waste knot’ method. It is a temporary knot that will be clipped later, thus the name ‘waste knot’. To begin, tie a knot at the end of the floss on your needle. Pass the needle through the fabric from the front down, about one-inch away from the placement of the first cross stitch. Bring the needle up through the fabric in the exact square you’ve selected as your starting point and work the first series of cross stitches over the thread to secure it on the back of the fabric. Carefully clip off the waste knot."
A. Does it matter whether I go from left to right or right to left?
A. The direction you work is a personal preference. What is important is that you always make your slant go the same way. For example, if you like stitch from the lower left corner to the upper right corner, your first stitch will look like this "/". Then to finish the "X" you’d work from right to left, stitching from the lower right hand corner to the upper left hand corner. That stitch by itself would look like "". Get into the habit of always slanting one direction first. If you aren’t consistent, your stitching will look uneven. The only exception to this rule is if the pattern calls for half stitches. The pattern will indicate which direction the slant should be to best fill in that area.
Q. Should I do one stitch at a time or can I do a whole row?
A. If you are using a solid color thread, it is okay to work half stitches across (or up) a row, and then work back completing the stitch. An interesting fact found was that some of the very oldest examples of cross stitch survived because the stitcher finished each "X" before moving on. It was theorized the single stitch created less tension on the thread and helped to bind that piece of fabric together. When you are using a variegated or hand-dyed thread, you have two choices depending on the effect you are trying to get. If you want a subtle color change, then complete each "X" as you go. If you are wanting the variegated look then stitch a half stitch across the row or up the column and then come back to complete them. This will give the greater color change from the first half of the stitch to the second half
Ready to Stitch?
This is one of the easiest techniques to learn. In fact, Yarn Tree has a wonderful video on YouTube that gives you all you need to know to get started. You can learn the basics in just five minutes. Click here to view the video. If you don’t have time to watch the video, click here to get their printed instructions.
When people talk about how hard cross stitch is, they are usually referring to the quarter and half stitches that are used to create detail in the design. Yarn Tree also has some great printed instructions to make you an expert in no time.
Wasn’t that easy? The hardest part may be choosing what project to do next. That is why many of us have a stash of patterns and kits that will last for years! Here are some great ideas to get you started.
There are several companies that make beginner’s kits. The Learn a Craft from Dimensions even includes the 3" hoop. You have everything in one package for around $3.00. Janlynn also has some little kits which include the frame. Click here for all of our Beginner Cross Stitch Kits.
There are many kits and patterns for the intermediate level stitcher which have several color changes and more back stitching.
Advanced patterns have a lot of color changes and back stitches, use half and/or quarter stitches, may completely cover the design area in stitches, or may be worked on finer count fabric. It may also contain some specialty stitches. Dressmaker’s Daughter, and Quilted Garden are patterns that are more advanced. If you are looking for exquisite detail then check out these designers: Lavender and Lace, Mirabilia, and Heaven and Earth. Some people just collect the patterns from these designers, never intending to stitch them. If you do choose to stitch them, they’ll become treasured gifts to be handed down through generations.
Then there are the challenging patterns. A lot of these patterns use only full cross stitches, no back stitching, but due to their size and continual color change, they can be challenging to stitch. Fractal patterns »
Here are some special categories you may want to do.
- We carry several different Scandinavian designs; some are on larger count fabrics. For example, Anette Eriksson
- Some people enjoy stitching a pattern a month. Lizzie Kate often has series or collections.
There are several magazines devoted just to cross stitch. These are excellent resources for ideas, new patterns, and stitching tips.
- Just Cross Stitch Magazine
- Stoney Creek Magazine
- Cross Stitch and Beading
- Embroidery and Cross Stitch
Guilds and Stitching Groups
Throughout the world, there are many stitchers who meet formally and informally to learn from each other and fellowship. It’s these groups who have helped to revitalize this art form and will help expand it into the future. There are doubtless many groups out there that are not mentioned here, but here are a few.
The Embroiderer’s Guild of America – Their mission is to stimulate appreciation for and celebrate the heritage of embroidery by advancing the highest standards of excellence in its practice through education, exhibition, preservation, collection and research.
The Cross Stitch Guild – UK This Guild was formed by well known designer/author Jane Greenoff in March 1996. It quickly became a worldwide organization with a committed and enthusiastic body of members. The CSG deals with cross stitch and all other forms of counted embroidery, such as Hardanger and Canvaswork.
We could fill several articles just talking about the designers, but here are a few.
Cross Stitch Collectibles takes works of art from other genres and painstakingly converts them to cross stitch patterns. They use only full cross stitches in their designs. This company is responsible for creating the fractal patterns that fascinate us. They have graciously put a free fractal bookmark pattern on their website if you want to try your hand!
Nora Corbett works from her studio home in Granville, Ohio creating fine art watercolor paintings and intricate, elegant cross stitch patterns. Nora builds on her already amazing collection of designs while watching over her two young sons Ian and Jack. The subjects of Nora’s Mirabilia designs are sophisticated and creative with a penchant for angels, queens, fairies, mothers, lovers and other embodiments of the graceful woman.
"Lizzie*Kate is a cross stitch design business that began in 1996. The creator, Linda, was bored with her job and looking for a new creative outlet. She decided to combine her favorite hobby of stitchery with her past job experience (pre-children) in graphic design. Linda was 40 years old (yikes!) and ripe for a new challenge! In about 6 months, she drew 20 designs, stitched and finished them. One important job was naming her new company! On a whim, she decided to combine the nicknames for her daughters’ middle names – Sarah Elizabeth “Lizzie” and Alison Kathleen “Kate” – and Lizzie*Kate was born! She did a rough sketch of how the logo might look, and never had time to revise it. Thanks to kind stitchers around the world, the Lizzie*Kate logo is now well known!" Lizzie*Kate also has some free designs so you can see if you like her style.
Click here to see all of our cross stitch patterns.
Click here to see all of our cross stitch kits.
We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!
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