All linked images in this post go to artwork for sale, because someone should make some money from this endeavor. If you see your work here and you would like me to remove it, please message me.
If, like me, you live below the Mason-Dixon Line, it’s far too hot to go outside right now. So the smug northerners with their breezy high-of-78 can enjoy the twenty minutes that their environment isn’t a frozen hellscape*, and let’s you and I huddle under the sweet breath of the air conditioning and make something neat.**
Of all the needlework techniques, counted cross stitch is the easiest to learn. It’s the one with all the little x’s, and most patterns use no other stitches.
Traditional cross stitch is the oldest known form of embroidery and can be found cross-culturally. It’s often worked on linen or other fabric with a loose weave. In Europe and Colonial America, cross stitch samplers were commonly created by young girls learning how to stitch.
On a small scale, cross stitch has a pixelated folk art effect that is twee and charming, while on a large scale, these pieces can create tremendous shading effects with densely laid stitches not easily reproduced by other embroidery techniques.
And because of its associations with sweetness, innocence, and grandmotherly sayings, cross stitch provides a deliciously sharp medium for snark.
Ready to start your own?
- Cloth – 14, 16, or 18 Aida cloth is what I recommend. This is an open weave cloth designed for counted cross stitch, and it can be purchased in multiple colors and sizes. The higher the number, the smaller the stitch. Aida cloth can also be purchased as ready-made items – bibs, towels, mounted canvas, etc. Cross stitch can really be done on anything, and many experienced stitchers use linen, but let’s not try to run before we can walk – linen is around 30-40 count, meaning much smaller stitches.
- Needles – cross stitch should be done with blunt, not sharp needles, because you want to push the thread through the holes in the fabric. Size 24 or 26 is recommended.
- Thread – More properly called embroidery floss, and here you got options. Cotton, silk, rayon, any color that can be seen by the human eye, variegated, metallic, truly endless options. I’m going to be using cotton 6-ply floss. DMC is the industry standard, and what you’re most likely to find in craft stores.
- Small, sharp scissors – you can use kitchen scissors, but it’s going to be a pain. Get a pair of small embroidery scissors.
- Hoop (optional) – you do not need to have a hoop to do any kind of embroidery. For a small piece it may, in fact, be easier to do without. But it is nice to keep the fabric taut. Any old hoop will work, I like the old-fashioned wooden ones. No need for anything flashy.
- Needleminder (optional) – small magnetic pins that “mind” your needle so it doesn’t get lost and fall into the carpet and stab your husband in the foot, for instance.
Now you need a pattern. There are plenty of free small patterns available all over this great wide internet of ours (like this), or you can purchase a pattern on Etsy, or even pick up a kit from your neighborhood craft store. If you want to make your own snarky saying, check out this tool (I suggest you use the fonts that use full x’s – i.e. not Monaco or Paris).
Step By Step:
Step 1: Prepare your fabric. (If you’re embarking on a big project, stitch or tape around the outside of the fabric to keep it from fraying. I mean, you can do this. I suggest you do this. [I never actually do this.])
Fold your fabric in half to find the center, and press the creases with your fingers. Find the center of your pattern. With COUNTING. This is why it’s called COUNTED cross stitch. Figure out which row of stitches you’re going to start with to keep the center of the pattern in the center of the fabric.
Hoop up (if you’re going to use a hoop).
Step 2: Get your needle ready. The temptation is going to be to make a really long thread, but resist this. You’re more likely to tangle the floss which is the worst. Keep it relatively short – maybe half the length of your arm. If you’re using the 6-ply floss like I told you to do, separate out two of the threads. In general, embroidery uses two plies of the six, so for each six-ply thread from the floss bundle, you actually get three lengths to use.
As you work, keep a nice long tail on the threaded needle. This will limit the risk of accidentally unthreading it. And NO KNOTS ON THE END. NO KNOTS IN CROSS STITCH, IT’S LIKE CRYING IN BASEBALL.
Step 3: Pull the thread through for your first line of x’s. For the neatest effect, you’re going to do a whole line of slashes before coming back to cross each slash to form the x. Stop pulling when there is about an inch of floss remaining on the other side.
As you continue to make the slashes, make sure the backside floss tail*** runs down the center of the row so that it is neatly trapped by your line of slashes.
When you’ve done your row, change directions and complete each x.
When you are done with an area or have come to the end of your thread, pull it through a line of x’s on the back of the piece to hold the thread. No knots needed!
- Aida cloth is stiff at first – it might even be awkward to wrestle into the hoop – but will soften as you work with it. So even if you don’t need a hoop at first, you may want to as the cloth softens.
- I like to stitch in bright natural light if at all possible – even lights designed for crafting don’t really provide the same quality of illumination as, you know, the sun.
- As you’re working the piece, always work in the same direction – all the top slashes facing the same way in the final product makes for pretty work.
- Don’t worry about using every tiny length of floss – remember each single two-ply thread costs less than a penny!
- How to deal with those dang slip knots
- Don’t leave your piece stretched in the hoop when you’re not working on it – it warps the fabric.
- Don’t split stitches as you work – be precise with your needle placement, it will make for a much neater-looking finish. As tempting as it is, sloppiness and laziness are not rewarded in needlework.
- Similarly, resist the urge to simply move the needle across the fabric to a new area, leaving a long tail on the backside of the fabric. Secure your thread, cut it, and start anew. The mark of a talented needleworker is a backside as pretty as the front.
If your pattern calls for 1/4, 1/2, or 3/4 stitches, because you just have to make things hard for yourself, here’s what those look like:
I think you’ll be surprised at how quickly and pleasantly a small cross stitch project stitches up! (If you’ve chosen a larger, complex pattern, well – you’ve done this to yourself.) Have fun, and leave any questions in the comments! Next month, I’ll show you how to finish your project for display.
*I grew up in Minnesota. I may have been scarred. By frostbite.
**Perhaps also there are non-North American folks here too! Hello! Send me fun snacks from your homeland and when you are done doing that, sort yourself into activity groups appropriately: Go-outside-and-play or It’s-too-hot/cold-here-to-move.
***band name, I called it