Sunday, 14 November 2010

A beginner’s guide to Cross stitching - Part 1

I have been cross stitching for about a year and, as such, can not claim to be any kind of expert. Enthusiastic amateur would probably be about right.

However, I have had to discover a lot of the pitfalls myself and have struggled to find information for the absolute beginner on the internet. Buying a book is of little interest if you’re just ‘giving it a go’ and even then, many books assume a certain level of familiarity with the tools and terms of the trade.

So, I thought I’d put together a little introduction to dipping your toe into the world of cross stitch.

Firstly, why should you cross stitch? For me it’s a way of being artistic without the need for any real talent. Counted cross stitch (I’ll explain these terms later) is essentially the stitching version of paint-by-numbers. You have a grid of fabric, and a pattern with colour codes on and you just replicate it in thread. If you can count and read a chart with symbols that correspond to colours of threads, you can cross stitch!

In addition, it’s quite therapeutic. Patterns grow quite easily and mistakes can usually be easily unpicked or adjusted. The act of gentle concentration can let your mind wander and I usually half watch the TV while I’m doing mine.

The other bonus is the finished item. Embroidery can make a wonderful gift or decorate every day items. Samplers have a wonderful tradition of commemorating events like births and marriages and, like quilts, leave a piece of the crafter for future generations to admire.

Talk the talk

Cross stitch is a form of embroidery, but specifically refers to sewing designs using regular stitched Xs and is done by ‘counting’ the threads in the fabric you’re sewing over. If for your first stitch you go diagonally over 4 threads across and 4 threads up, then this is the count you use as your basis from here on. This is why it’s often called ‘counted cross stitch’. There are aids to getting this right which I’ll cover later.

Blackwork and whitework are techniques often used as part of cross stitch and refer to the usual colours of the thread. Blackwork (always monochrome, but not strictly always black) often uses ‘half crosses’ and lines to pick out line based designs and patterns. Whitework is usually the same colour or close to the colour of the base fabric and is used like blackwork to pick out linear and geometric designs, often in conjunction with drawn thread work (where lines or groups of threads are cut or pulled out of the design). These result in lacey looking designs.

You’ll find reference to ‘charts’ a lot of places. These are the coded pictures which show you where to put your stitches, and which ones colours to use where.

Tools of the trade

You’ll need fabric, of course. This is what you’ll be sewing on to. You can use linen, the wider the weave, the easier the threads are to count! Alternatively, you can use something called Aida. Aida is a woven cloth with gaps between some of the threads, This means that you’re working on a grid and rather than having to count threads, you just use the holes naturally existing in the fabric. Very simple!
Aida cloth is sold in ‘counts’. This count refers to the holes per inch, so 10-count aida cloth would have 10 holes per inch. The higher the count, the closer together the holes are so the more difficult the sewing becomes, but the finer your work appears. Having more squares per inch is essentially like turning up the resolution on your computer. Edges are smoother and everything more delicate. I’d recommend that as a beginner you start with a smaller count – around 14 is a pretty good size.

You’ll also need thread of some sort. You can use fine tapestry wools, although these can be a bit clunky, but it's usual to use embroidery silks, also known as floss. You’ll find them packaged in little wraps in craft shops in a huge array of colours. Each colour has a number, which we’ll talk about later. You can buy metallic threads, but these tend to snag and tangle any chance they get, so my advice is to steer clear until you’re more confident! Like most things, you can buy massive multi-packs of these silks very cheaply. My advice is don’t. The cheap threads look cheap and the better ones aren’t that much money! There are plenty of online shops where you can buy the good makes cheaply and when you need them. A much better investment all round!
You’ll need a needle too. Not much to talk about here. Embroidery needles are blunt at both ends, since you’re not working with fine fabrics, and they have a large eye so that you can get the thick silk threads through. You can buy them gold plated, but other than looking pretty, I don’t see the difference. They do come in different sizes – this will make a difference mainly if you’re using a very fine fabric – you don’t want a hulking great needle going through it. I believe the common needles used are size 24 (again, the higher the number the smaller the needle).

You’ll need some small scissors for snipping tiny loose threads. The metal ones with the birds on are my favourite, but any small and sharp bladed scissors will do.

It also helps to have a thread keeper. This is where you put your thread when you’re not using it. You can use card with holes punched in it, or there are various gadgets out there you can buy. I like these wooden ones from Fobbles.
Remember to write the number of the thread on the keeper! When faced with three different pale green turquoise colours, you’ll pull your hair out trying to tell them apart!

Finally, it’s helpful to have a frame of some sort to help you keep your fabric still. This is less of an issue on small projects, and aida is quite stiff, which helps, but for large projects I go mad if my fabric is moving. You can buy wooden frames where you sew the fabric onto tabs on the frame and then tighten the wood, or you can get plastic ones with little teeth to grip the fabric. You can also use embroidery hoops if you want.

Onwards to part 2...


  1. What a great post - and a grand idea! I have been cross stitching since I was a was about 10 but have never ventured past anything other than counted designs from magazines etc. Great intro for those who are just starting out. You are right - it IS thereputic :)

  2. Just de-lurking to say nice post, and also the gold plating on the gold plated needles wears off and you end up with part gold and part not needles. I don't think it affects anything except how the needle looks though. Also you can use hole punched paper to keep threads on!

  3. Thanks for the input both, pleased that I'm learning from this post as well!