Cross Stitching Basics
Getting Started, Common Terms, and Helpful Hints
Casey's Curio - Various Designs
Isle of Skye Crafts - Sunset over
Skye from Balmacara
Ink Circles - Tanglewood
Casey's Curio - Dunnottar Castle in Spring WIP
TWDesignworks - The Castle
Casey's Curio - Crescent and V- Rod
Cross stitching is a form of decorative stitching (embroidery) that is usually stitched using multi-coloured cotton thread on speciality cloth that has a grid. When you cross stitch you are transferring the image of the chart onto your fabric square by square. You count the squares and stitches as you work, so you will also see the term Counted Cross Stitch used.
The main type of fabric used for cross stitch is called Aida, but linen and evenweave are also commonly used. There are many types of embroidery stitches, but the main ones used in cross stitching (and that I use in my charts are): the basic cross stitch, backstitch, French knots, and fractional stitches [three-quarters (¾), half (½), or quarter (¼) cross stitches].
Other tools you will need for your project are an appropriate needle - dependant on the fabric - coloured floss (thread), the chart you wish to stitch, scissors, and an embroidery hoop to hold and stretch your fabric if you wish.
Patterns or Charts
The first thing you will need to start your project is a chart or pattern of the design you want to stitch. Each square of the chart will correspond to one square on your fabric. Shaded squares will be carried over from the previous page. These don't need to be stitched, they are only there for your reference. There will be arrows to indicate the centre line of the design, starting in the middle of your fabric and the chart will keep your image centred on the fabric.
Shaded squares = carried over from previous page. For reference only
Centre arrows-follow each arrow to find the centre point of design
You can find paper charts sold without materials, or you can find kits that will have everything, except usually a hoop, that you will need for the project. You can also find a lot of patterns online that you can download and either print yourself or use with a device. There are even apps that will keep track of the stitches. I like to use paper patterns and coloured pencils to keep track of my progress, so I am not able to recommend which apps are good or not. I learned to stitch in the 80s and like to keep to the system in the same tradition that my mom taught me. In my patterns, I have included multiple page sizes and symbol options that should suit a variety of tastes, but don't hesitate to contact me if you need any changes.
The chart will have instructions along with lists and keys for the materials and threads you will need. Some patterns will also include finishing instructions if it is appropriate.
The design size in stitches: the inches will apply if the patterned is stitched on the fabric specified
The Legend that tells you which symbol is for which colour, as well as how many stitches, and the amount of thread needed
Pattern specific instructions will be here.
Examples of stitching symbols you will see on my patterns.
Backstitch around cross stitch
Basic Cross Stitch
Half (1/2) Stitch
Three Quarter (3/4) Stitch
Quarter (1/4) Stitch
Examples of the stitching symbols over coloured blocks that you will see on my patterns.
Stitching Symbols Basics pattern stitched on 11ct Aida fabric
Stitching Symbols Basics pattern stitched on 28ct linen
Basic Cross Stitch
Backstitch around cross stitch
Half (1/2) Stitch
Quarter (1/4) Stitch
Three Quarter (3/4) Stitch
Basic Cross Stitch
Each stitch consists of an under cross stitch and an over cross stitch. When reading patterns, the basic cross stitch is displayed as a full square of one symbol. When my mom taught me to cross stitch she emphasised two main points. The first was to make sure all of your over stitches are facing the same way: i.e. stitching from the bottom left of the square to the top right of the square, and then the bottom right to the top left. This means your completed project will look neat and odd stitches will not distract from the overall picture you are trying to create. Some stitchers will do a whole row of stitches of the same colour with one half of the cross, and then go back over with the second cross. This method works well for large areas, but can cause problems if you are jumping around the pattern, using dark fabric or threads, or working on fabrics with smaller weaves.
The second point she made was to not use knots when starting a new thread or at any other time. For the first thread of a project, leave a 1 inch tail on your thread when creating the first stitch. Then, with each stitch, make sure you are looping the tail through the stitch to secure it to the back. When you are at the end of the thread, use your needle to guide the end through the loops in the back. When starting other threads, you can use your needle to guide the thread through the back of already existing loops to keep it secure - just like how you ended the first thread. This is much easier to do than describe, but keeping the back clean of loose threads will keep the front of the project clean and prevent loose ends from coming through to the front while you stitch.
My mom once said that the a really good stitcher can make the back of a project look as good as the front. There are some silk embroidery artists that are able to make the front and the back of the stitching indistinguishable from each other. It is an amazing feat. I like to keep mine clean of knots and tangles, but I definitely don't mind crossing colours and jumping around with my thread. Every stitcher is different in how they treat the back side of projects, so it is all up to you. Unless you show someone, it will never be seen anyway. But don't forget to look at the back of the project before finishing to really appreciate your work. There is something beautiful about all those mixed threads on the back, and it will be unique to you.
Various backs of projects
The bold lines that outline some of the squares on a cross stitch chart are for backstitching. Backstitching is used to define detail in a finished piece. It is usually stitched last, but double check the chart instructions for clarification. For most backstitching, one strand of floss is used. In some of Casey's Curio charts, I use 2 strands for more detail, but I will list it clearly in the chart instructions. Backstitching is a straight stitch that follows the outline of the cross stitches. It is usually best to only stitch one block at a time, but sometimes the line will cross 2 or three blocks to create the correct angles.
Another way to add detail is through French knots. They seem complicated at first, but are quite simple once you get the hang of it. The key to a nice looking knot is to keep the thread taut while pulling it through. On the chart, a French knot is a circle with the appropriate colour symbol in the middle.
French knots on the Speedwell Pattern
To start the French knot, use two strands of thread and come up from the back where the knot will go, then wrap the thread around the needle twice. While holding the thread taut, place the needle slightly to the side of where you came up. Then, while still holding the thread tightly, pull the needle through to tighten the knot. Here is a great video of what I mean by River Birch Threads. As with most things, practice will help with creating perfect French knots, but don't worry about making anything perfect. Just like any other creative, work the processes should be enjoyable, and be a reflection of you not a direct reproduction of a standard ideal.
In some of the larger charts on Casey's Curio, I use fractional stitches to help provide detail. They are easy to do, but can be confusing when first encountered. The stitches are displayed on the chart as a box with a diagonal line and one or two smaller symbols in the corners.
For the ½ stitches there is only one colour symbol within the box with the diagonal line - meaning you would only do one half of the cross stitch on that square. For example I use ½ stitches to create the tartan look for my Celtic Knotwork Scissor Case. It allows you to add subtle hints of colour. As with full cross stitches it is important to keep your ½ stitches facing the same direction unless the chart specifically says otherwise.
Half (1/2) stitches used to give texture to the Celtic Knotwork and Tartan Scissor Case and Keeper
For the ¼ and ¾ stitches, the chart will have two smaller symbols within the box with the diagonal line, one colour symbol for each half of the square. Since the symbol is the same for both stitches, it is up to you what stitch to use unless the instructions specify for you. A good guide is to consider the backstitching if the stitch is crossed over with backstitching, generally you only need to do a ¼ stitch, but if there is no backstitching, then a ¾ stitch will look the best. Occasionally, you may find a ¼ or ¾ stitch with only one colour symbol in a chart (leaving it looking like the ½ stitch) if the ¼ or ¾ stitch is next to an unstitched area. Be sure to check the image that should accompany your chart for clarification.
Dunnottar Castle in Spring pattern uses both 3/4 stitches and backstitching to add detail.
Aida fabric is the most commonly used for cross stitch. It comes in many sizes that are determined by the number of squares per inch, called the count or ct for short. The smallest and most common size is 14. This means that for every inch of fabric, there are 14 blocks to stitch over. Other common sizes are 16ct and 18ct. The smaller the fabric weave, the larger the number because there are more blocks to stitch over, so 18ct has the smallest squares, and 14ct the larger squares.
11 count Aida
14 count Aida
16 count Aida
18 count Aida
Linen is also used for cross stitch, but instead of stitching over one block as with Aida, you stitch over two strands of linen. This may sound difficult, but once you are started on a project it is easier than you would think. It does make it more difficult to skip around while stitching because blocks are harder to count. Common sizes for linen are 28ct and 32ct. Since the stitches are crossed over two strands per stitch, the number of squares is the count divided by 2. That means a 28ct linen will be a similar six to a 14ct Aida fabric, and 32ct similar to 16ct. PIC-Finished Linen
When stitching on linen, you will generally stitch over two threads.
The size of fabric you need will depend on the size of the pattern. A great calculator for fabric sizes that includes the border and finishing amounts needed can be found here from yarntree.com. You simply need to input the stitched chart size which is included in the instructions, your desired border amount, and the size of your fabric.
Once you have the required size of fabric, it is important to keep your edges from fraying while you stitch. The easiest way is to use masking tape around the edges, but I don't like how the edges look when the tape is removed. I use a loose running stitch to secure down the edge of my fabric. I usually count in 5 or so rows, fold the fabric down by following the line, and then loosely stitch it in place. When the project is finished, it is easy to remove the thread and iron out the fold. There are products that are like glue you could also use to keep your edges from fraying.
Another idea for small pieces that don't fit into your hoop is to backstitch scrap fabric of any kind to the edges to make the piece bigger. This is handy for small projects.
If your fabric is too small for your hoop, you can use a running stitch to attach scrap fabric to the edges. This will let you stretch it in the hoop and also keep your edges from fraying.
Different kinds of tape work to stop your edges from fraying, or try using a running stitch to secure down the folded edge.
To ensure your image is centred on the fabric and you are left with even borders when finished, make sure to start your stitching in the centre. The chart will have centre arrows you can follow to find the exact middle. To find the centre of your fabric, make sure you have even edges and then fold the fabric in half both diagonally and vertically. Put your needle in the square where the two folds converge and you have your centre.
Fold in half one way
Fold in half the other way
Place needle at centre point
When you have finished your piece, you may wish to wash it before framing or finishing. When the pattern is complete, it may be hand-washed in cool water with mild soap. Make sure to rinse the project thoroughly but do not wring the fabric. Excess water can be removed by rolling the fabric in a towel. When it is mostly dry, an iron can be used to shape and smooth the finished piece. For more detailed information and for stain removal advice, check this very detailed page provided by yarntree.com.
Stitching is easier when your fabric is taut. For this you need a frame or hoop to hold your fabric. Hoops come in many sizes and materials, so whatever your preference you can find something to suit your needs. I like to use wooden hoops that have adjustable screws for tightening. Your hoop will have two pieces: one that is a fixed size and one that is adjustable. To use them, you simply put your fabric flat between the two pieces with the stitching area in the centre and then tighten the adjustable piece while keeping the fabric taut. You will find that as you stitch and put pressure on the fabric it will become looser, but this is easily fixed by pulling the fabric tight again and tightening the screw.
A blunt needle works best for cross stitch. The ones I like the best are these gold plated tapestry needles by John James. They are smooth, which makes stitching easier and more enjoyable, and they last a long time. The size of the needle you need will depend on the size of your fabric. For Aida size 14ct fabric a size 24 needle will work best, but for fabrics with smaller squares like 16ct and 18ct, a size 26 needle will work best. Size 28 is really small and can be used for projects, but it will cause 2 strands of floss to fray a bit. I only use the 28 for backstitching with one strand and I use the size 26 even for 18ct fabric.
For people like me with joint pain and arthritis, the better quality needles are worth the cost, but as with all things creative, it is up to you. I can tell the difference in quality while stitching, and they help me stitch for longer periods than a regular needle.
Threads or Floss
For many stitchers, including myself, the best part of cross stitching is using all the different colours of threads. There are several commonly used brands, but the most common, and the one that I use the most, is DMC Six Stranded Embroidery Floss. Anchor Threads are also popular and conversion between the two is relatively easy. When you purchase thread, it will come in a continuous strand of 8 meters, called a skein. There are six strands and you will typically use two strands for cross stitch and one strand for backstitching. To avoid tangles and knots, it is best to separate each strand from the floss, and then combine them back together for stitching.
Each colour of thread has a specific number and this is how you find the exact colour the designer selected for the pattern you are stitching. Sometimes substituting threads is necessary and this tool by www.codyhoover.com. is really useful if you do not have a colour card from the manufacturer. I've also linked the DMC and Anchor Thread charts and conversions below.
The pattern you have chosen will tell you how much of each colour thread you will need to complete the project. I like to use thread organisers, especially the ones with magnetic strips that hold your needles. I like to cut my skeins into equal lengths of about 18 inches or so, and then use the thread organisers to store them while working on a project. I then store them in individual envelopes that are marked with the colour code, and neatly organise the envelopes in a box.
Some people like to keep the skein intact and only cut off portions as needed. You will find bobbins to be a very popular storage solution as well. As with other parts of cross stitching, part of the fun is finding your own system that works best for you. It is, after-all, a creative process. Even when you are creating a piece designed by someone else, your choices and craft will create a unique piece that you can feel proud of displaying or using.
A nice sharp and pointed pair of embroidery scissors are another item that you will greatly appreciate when stitching. I have purchased many pairs over the years, and for the most part the nice pretty ones are not sharp enough and the point is dull. You want to be able to cut the thread as close to the back of the fabric as possible in order to prevent stray strands from getting in the way or poking through to the front.
The best scissors are unfortunately usually are bit on the ugly side. I had a pair that stayed sharp and pointed for years. I even brought them over with me from America when I moved to Scotland. But they have an ugly bright green plastic handle. They somehow got bent last year. I still don't know how it happened I was keeping them in a case when I wasn't using them so, it is a mystery. My new pair, which are even better than the green ones, has a bright orange handle. They are comfortable to use, but not as nice to look at as the romantic scissors of the Victorians.
The most important step of Cross Stitch is to relax and enjoy. Keep your stitches firm and flat, but not too tight or loose. Let yourself appreciate your ability to create a whole picture out of some coloured threads and your own hands. For me Cross Stitching has been my saving grace over the last 3 years of being out of work due to illness. I'm able to feel productive while not being able to leave the house much, and stitching while watching a film or TV show helps me forget about the pain and just focus on the present. The best is when you are in a nice comfy chair with a warm drink and a pretty view.
Castle of Park family holiday March 2020
Be warned, you may find yourself saying: 'Just one more stitch before sleep' -more often than you would think.
Thanks so much for visiting Casey's Curio. I hope you are inspired to embark on your next project. Please let me know if you have any questions or if I can help in any way. Check out my Blog for posts on finishing cross stitch patterns and my design inspirations. You may also like to check out my shop for your next pattern. Joyous stitching!