Cross Stitch 101: Basic History and Tools

By Suzanne Karioki

Embroidery is both a calming activity and creative outlet for making stand-alone work or decorating that one pillowcase you found floating around in your closet. If you’re looking to start, cross-stitching is a great place. There are thousands of free patterns online, and most of them only need one basic stitch. If you’ve ever had trouble sticking to a crafting project, cross-stitching is a simple activity that can yield beautiful results.

Cross stitch has been around for a while - it’s the world’s oldest form of embroidery that dates back to the Middle Ages and can be found all over the world. The first pattern book was published in Germany in 1524, but before then, women passed down their patterns and stitch styles down to their daughters, and families developed their own traditional patterns and stitches.

As women were taught embroidery in schools, the designs became more intricate and decorative. As machine embroidery gained prominence in the 1800s, people bought rather than made their pieces, and the skill began to disappear. But in the DIY boom of the 60s, modern cross-stitch was revived  by new pattern books, and later flourished in the 21st century with the growth of the online embroidery communities. Free patterns and guides can be found all over the internet, and some expert stitchers sell their designs online for others to use. Cross stitching might seem like something older women to make Bible verses to hang in their kitchens, but there are some interesting, modern designs in books and online, like this book of feminist icons.

But how do you start cross stitching today? Don’t worry - it’s not as complicated as it might seem. You can find countless tutorials online, but this is a basic guideline for what you need to get started

Basic equipment

These are the things you absolutely need to get started, and will be the bulk of your initial cost. Fortunately, most items are relatively cheap (with basic embroidery thread around 50c for 8m/8.7yd, and embroidery hoops starting at around $1.50 at craft stores).

Embroidery hoop

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The embroidery hoop is what keeps your fabric tight. If you’ve ever tried to patch up your pants by yourself (because they’re your favourite and you can’t let them go even though they should’ve been thrown out years ago), you’ll notice that when you’re done, you end up with a puckered line where the stitches are. Stretching your fabric eliminates the puckering problem. Start with a 6-inch hoop for your practice stitches and first patterns.

Aida cloth/Linen

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Cross stitch is usually done on Aida cloth or linen (or others, if you’re feeling adventurous). Aida is denoted by counts (i.e. how many stitches can be made per inch). The higher the number, the smaller the design will be. Always remember to keep your hands clean when working on a project - you don’t want to realise that you got Cheeto dust on your design after you’re already halfway through it. 14-count Aida is great for beginners.

Embroidery Needles

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Embroidery needles have larger eye holes than regular sewing needles (which makes it easier for thicker embroidery thread to pass through) and sharper points (for precision). They come in packs with several different sizes. Don’t underestimate how sharp the points are.

Embroidery Thread/Floss

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This thread is thicker than regular stitching thread, and comes in a variety of vibrant colors. Two of the most popular companies that provide thread are Anchor, and the more popular DMC.  DMC colors are found at all popular craft stores, including the craft section of Walmart. DMC sells individual spools, or kits with a variety of colors.

Embroidery Scissors

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These are sharper and smaller than regular scissors and are absolutely essential. If you cheap out on an embroidery hoop, save your money for these. You’re going to use them for cutting fabric, thread and loose ends. Just don’t use these for other things, like cutting open your Amazon packages, because they need to stay sharp.

Extras

If you’re still interested in embroidery after working through a pattern or two, you might find that you have a plastic Michael's bag full of thread, scraps of fabric, and a pair of scissors floating around in a sea of coupons you’ll never use. In this case, it’s worth investing in a bag or box to keep your things organized. DMC makes a compartmentalized box for embroidery thread, with a section for extras like scissors or fabric scraps

DMC also makes small cards (pictured) for organizing thread - if the sleeve ever falls off, good luck figuring out exactly which color it's supposed to be. The numbered cards really fix this problem.

First stitches

The number of  tutorial videos and articles online are endless. Once you figure out the basic stitch (and maybe a few more advanced stitches, like french knots), it won’t take long before you can make simple, but very pretty designs. There are tons of free patterns, and even better paid patterns for $5 or less, or kits (which include fabric and thread colors) for around $20 on places like Etsy.

If you don’t care much about the pattern, you can even find some kits in Michaels or Walmart for under $5, but most of these patterns seem to be designed for grandmothers and children, so online patterns are the best place to go for fresh, modern ideas, like these:

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Hogwarts House crests on 16-count Aida. Pattern by Colleen Carrington. Finished project by me.

Once you finish your pattern, don’t forget to frame it and be proud of your work! You might also find that people are so impressed by your finished projects that they’re willing to pay you for one. Even if you never sell your designs, cross stitch projects make excellent gifts that look far more beautiful than what it actually cost to make them.

Happy stitching!