Counted Cross Stitch, Part 1

comments: 95

Cross stitch is easy. It's just two little stitches crossed over each other. See that?

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Counted cross stitch is not worked onto fabric that has been pre-printed. Counted cross stitch uses special fabrics that are called evenweave fabrics. These fabrics are woven so that they have the same number of warp threads (or, the threads running lengthwise through the fabric) and the same number of weft threads (or, the threads running crosswise, from selvedge to selvedge). In counted cross stitch (and from here on out, I'll just call it cross stitch) you work each stitch over the grid of perfect squares made by the warp and weft threads of your fabric.

Cross stitch can be done on different kinds of evenweave fabric, including evenweave linen, some woven ginghams, Aida cloth (which has a very ponounced grid that helps you see the holes into which your stitches go), waste canvas (which is a removable grid you temporarily apply to a piece of non-evenweave fabric that helps you place your stitches), and various other types of fabrics made especially for cross stitching. The fiber content and type of weave of the fabric you choose to use is largely a matter of personal preference.

What really matters is the "count" of the fabric. Thread count refers to the number of warp and weft threads per inch in the woven fabric. Stitch count refers to the number of cross stitches per inch you will have in your finished design. Aida cloth, for instance, is labeled according to stitch count; 10-count Aida cloth gives you 10 stitches per inch. Evenweave linen, however, is labeled according to thread count; 32-[thread]-count evenweave linen will give you a stitch count of 16, since cross stitch on this kind of linen is worked over 2 warp threads horizontally, and 2 weft threads vertically.

Count is very important when choosing fabrics for cross stitching because the number of stitches per inch can drastically change the look of a design. In general, fabric with a lower stitch count will produce a coarser looking design, where the crosses will be larger and more pronounced. Fabric with a higher stitch count will produce designs that are smaller and finer. For the Winterwoods sampler, I will be using 28-count Cashel linen, which gives me 14 stitches per inch. Typically, 2 strands of embroidery floss are used on 28-count linen. This is my favorite size of cross stitching, because the crosses are large enough to still look like crosses, and small enough to give detail without making me go blind. For cross stitching on evenweave linen, I use a large-eyed, blunt-tipped tapestry needle. I like a size 24 needle.

To work designs in cross stitch you follow a chart. Each colored box on the chart represents one set of crossed stitches. Each set of crossed stitches is relative to the other stitches in the design, so you're only ever "counting" a few stitches away from the last stitch you just made. Each color on the chart represents a specific color of six-strand embroidery floss. A color key helps you define each color of floss. If the chart is too small for you to see comfortably, just enlarge it on a color copier. A good full-spectrum lamp is a must in dim light. I use an Ott light.

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Every design should tell you the dimensions of the design area, or the outermost edges of the stitching. In the Winterwoods design, the design area is 111 stitches across by 140 stitches down, or approximately 8" x 10". The fabric you use for any sampler should always be at least 3" longer on all sides beyond the design area. This margin helps hold the fabric in the hoop when you are stitching motifs close to the edge of the design area, and also allows you to stretch the piece properly when it comes time to frame.

Facing a blank piece of fabric and unsure where to start stitching your sampler? One way of starting is to find the center of the charted design (just fold the chart in half lengthwise and widthwise to find the center at the intersection of the folds) and begin stitching from that center point in the center of the fabric (to find the center of the fabric you can fold that the same way you folded the paper). But if you're like me, since you know your design-area dimensions, you can just measure the general placement of the design area in the center of your fabric piece, then just start stitching from the uppermost left corner of the design. Either way works.

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Once you've found a place to start, place your fabric in the embroidery hoop: Lay the fabric over the small hoop, then place the larger hoop over it (making sure to open the screw enough so that it fits easily over the fabric), then tighten the screw so that the fabric is fairly taut. I've wrapped the bottom hoop with twill tape, which helps prevent the hoop from leaving a mark on the fabric. I almost always use 4" hoops. They fit in my hand well, and that makes me happy and comfortable. I move the hoop around as I stitch. I don't worry that this will distort any previously worked stitches, because it never has. Just don't tighten the screw too tight. Common sense. Some people don't use hoops but I always do.

To start stitching, you can either tie a knot in the end of your floss so it won't pull out the front, or leave a few inches of tail hanging out the back side, then weave that end in later by threading it back onto your needle and running the tail end under a few finished stitch (after you've worked several stitches in the fabric). Pro stitchers will tell you that you should never knot your thread to start, but I don't know; for beginners I think that whatever is easiest and familiar is best, just to get you going. There are other ways of working in your ends than leaving a tail on the back and weaving it in later (I sort of hold it out of the way so I don't get it tangled in the stitching); I've tried several different ones but this is the one that I like these days. This always works nicely for me. Some people stitch over the tail as they work, but somehow it always winds up in a tangled mess for me. But if you can do it it will save you a step. (A knotless loop start works well with non-variegated floss, but with variegated I don't use it, since folding a length of thread in half will mix up the variegated color shades and they won't pool properly [see below].)

Now, go. Count stitches on the chart and work them, one by one, on the fabric. Keep the legs of all of your stitches going in the same direction — if the ones on the bottom are going from lower left to upper right, they should always go from lower left to upper right, and the ones on the top should go the opposite (from upper left to lower right). Because the Winterwoods sampler uses hand-dyed, variegated floss that contains several different colors or shades of color in the same length of thread, I recommend completing each stitch before moving on to the next.

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I always do cross stitch this way, anyway, though some people, when they're doing a large area in one color do all of the bottom legs first, then work all of the top legs on their way back to the starting point. I don't like the way the thread pulls on the fabric when stitches are done like this. And with variegated floss especially, working one stitch at a time helps "pool" the shades of color and gives a better effect, I think. So don't do it like this:

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Unless you want to. Like I said, no one is watching. Keep working stitches in the same color until you've finished all of the stitches of that color in that motif. To end a thread, turn your work over and run the floss under a few stitches on the back, then snip it off. Don't carry threads from one motif or letter to another because they will kind of show through from the front. Finish off each color and each motif.

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To start a new motif, you will count the "empty stitches" between the motif you just worked and the starting stitch of the next. I always start the next motif with whatever stitch is closest to the one I just worked — that way I have the least number of empty stitches to count. I walk my needle across each empty stitch space (remember, that's 2 threads), counting in my head. When I get to the starting point of the next stitch in the next motif, I take my needle and gently work the threads away from each other, making the "hole" large enough for me to keep my eye on as I bring the needle around to the back, and come up to the front.

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And then I make that first leg of my first stitch on the next motif. And on and on and on through the alphabet!

I am always amazed at how many beginners truly worry about what the back of their stitching looks like. As you improve, you'll find lots of ways to perfect your technique, so if you're just starting out, please don't worry about stuff like this too much. For one thing, once it's in a frame, you will never see the back of it. For another, you are the only person who is going to care what the back looks like. If you don't care, I really don't care. (Even if you do care, I probably still won't care, 'cause I'm like that.) And I can tell you that Andy Paulson did not care for even one little second about what the back of his stitching looked like. And I don't think he has any regrets about that. So, there you go. The back improves as you improve. For what it's worth, here is mine:

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Using variegated floss is pretty cool, because it allows you to have several different colors or shades of the same color in one motif, all without changing your floss. You just stitch, and color variations appear. It's a lot more expensive, but very worth it in terms of giving texture, depth, and ease of stitching to a piece. I love it. To keep my floss organized, I buy plastic boxes and bobbins designed specifically for storing floss. I unwind any skeins onto the bobbin (or onto the cardstock label), and label the number and manufacturer on the bobbin with a waterproof pen. After separating strands for use, I rewrap unused strands back onto the bobbin.

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When I'm working a project with lots of different colors, I thread several needles with floss so that they are always ready to pick up and use. I stick them into the side of the sofa and then frequently forget about them, but don't do that. You should stick them into a pincushion. But remember to unthread every single needle in the house when you aren't using them, or put them into a sealed container, like a floss box. Kitties love to suck up thread, and I was at the vet once when a lady had to bring her cat in because he had swallowed a threaded needle. Not good at all. Remember to always unthread everything and put your stuff away if you have kitterses.

Also, I will again be offering my favorite embroidery hoops, scissors, twill tape, and these tapestry needles in my web shop when the kits and pattern become available (sometime this spring). You can purchase these supplies a la cart, and I'll ship them all together with the kit.

The company that makes the flosses I like says its hand-dyed flosses are colorfast (or will be soon), but I don't wash this sampler when I'm done, I have to admit. I don't want to take the chance. I press it face down into a terry cloth towel with a dry iron, spritzing a bit of water on the back with a spray bottle. I frame all of my flat pieces myself, with the help of a local do-it-yourself frame shop. To see how I do it, you can check out this tutorial I wrote.

These are all just my ways and opinions and by no means a totally comprehensive tutorial, of course. You will find the ways that work best for you as you practice. I'm exhausted now (muscles have atrophied from lazy winter break), so if you have any more questions just let me know and we can talk again later. If you are a cross-stitch enthusiast, please feel free to add your tips and suggestions (or corrections!) to the comments. There are lots of good resources out there, including the best embroidery book ever written in the entire universe. I'll show you some pictures from that and I can tell you about my other favorite books and shops and sources, too, but right now I have to go . . . do something else.

95 comments

I learned to Cross Stitch in high school and love it. For some reason I haven't done it in awhile. I'm excited for your kit to come out. One thing I was told is that you should never put glass in a frame with fabric, moisture can get caught behind the glass and cause your fabrics to mildew and break down.

Gwen Payne says: January 25, 2012 at 02:02 PM

I can't wait foe Spring!!! Looking forward to buying this kit. Do you ship overseas? You have a lovely blog and I always look forward to seeing what is new.

Yes, your tutorial is fantastic! I have done some cross stitch (counted) but have a Frank Lloyd Wright one that has me totally intimidated, mostly because of this instruction:
"When cross-stitching and back-stitching on even-weave 28-count fabric, cross two fabric threads with each stitch."

Does that really just mean I use two strands of embroidery floss? Is this the same thing as "cross two fabric threads for each stitch"? It feels trickier than that, particularly as the weave of the fabric is so small.

Thanks for all your help!

Lots of good tips and info Alicia. My biggest question forever was how to do cross stitch on non Aida fabric. While I was living in France a few years back, they had the most gorgeous cross stitch patterns I had ever seen. I have never really liked the ones I have seen in the States, because they were a tad too "cute." What I noticed though, was that they used regular linen most of the time, and I could never figure out how they were abel to count the stitches on such a tight weave and not get confused. So, do you think they used the waste canvas then?

Thanks for taking the time to do this tutorial it was quite helpful :)

I have cross stitched before but your post was so helpful in adding clarificaton to certain things, i.e., linen and thread count.. thank you for a wonderful post and I look forward to the kit!

I have been waiting for the pattern to your design. I have tons of x-stitch fabric and threads. I hope you will be offering your pattern without the kit.But either way I will buy the kit cuz I just like your blog and you..oh, and you are quite the talented lady!

What a marvelous tutorial! So glad to happen on your blog today!

Your lovely pictures and reminder that "no one is watching" make me want to give counted cross stitch another try! I did lots of it in college but I was taught the "bottom legs first" way and hated it when I got a whole row or section done and then realized that part of the design was shifted one square over. Snap!
I may have just burnt out. I did my first sampler the summer I finished high school and had so much fun I decided to do 8 more in the same palette and put them in a quilt. Of course they were all different sizes and I had never made a quilt. But I truly learned algebra at last. :)
I have been very happy with the freedom of embroidery, but those tidy little stitches are so appealing!

P.S. I stick my needles in the sofa arm, too! My husband found one once, the hard way. I got in trouble.

Waiting waiting for the pattern - it's so lovely.

I'm an expert stitcher and I would say your tutorial is spot on - and the up close photos are great.

Hurry up spring!

Thank you so much for this tutorial! I just bought some 28-count evenweave and ordered your book. Eagerly awaiting the kit. :)

Also, I wanted to mention that as a lifelong-but-currently-displaced Northwesterner, visiting your blog provides me with some much-needed glimpses of home. Thank you.

I love cross-stitching. Thanks for the tutorial!

I haven't finished a cross-stitch project in a year or two now. The only thing I do that is different from your tutorial is railroad. By placing your needle between the two threads as you are inserting it into the fabric, you make the two threads more likely to stay side by side rather than stacking on top of each other. It makes the front a small amount neater, and looks very good with the variegated flosses.

Jo Walter says: April 21, 2012 at 02:40 PM

Hello - I have just read your great tutorial on the computer - and intend to put it to good use. I am 89 (and a half) and haven't done crosstitching for a good many years - really liked the results and now I am going to try it again. I may find I can't do it right any more - and I'll let you know how I get along. I received a starter project for Christmas and it has been waiting for me too long. Wish me luck

very very nice thank you so much ;)

me, pockets sticks unfocused, rebound, i Selling the family home.
Chocolate: heard shit stopped to feel nurses acceptance experts me found.
.. In a position to hire you, slamming is, death representing earlier.

Clothespins new pai

Adorable blog! I enjoy Stiching and seeing other people work. Thanks

Alicia,

I am (finally) finishing up by ABC Daisychain sampler kit that I purchased from you but the link for the framing tutorial no longer works - it tells me that the webpage doesn't exist?

Any chance that you can put the link for the tutorial back?

Thanks!

Ann

This tutorial is awesome! I'm starting my first cross stitch project today, and although I get the basics, this tutorial helps answer some of the questions I had. Fingers crossed that my little project (a whimsical cross stitch family "portrait") turns out well - if so, I'm going to frame it for my husband for Christmas!

Marie Hogan says: January 14, 2015 at 04:22 PM

Looking for this for a former patient of mine. She's an xcellent crosssticher and ask me what I'd like ....I'd like the Ten Commandments or the Lord's Prayer in cross stitch . Not a problems she say however I will need you to find a pattern for 10 stitch, 10 holes to inch with color numbers, not thread. I've tried and tried....I give up can you help or make a recommendation as to how to find such a thing ? Lost! Sincerely Marie

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About Alicia Paulson

About

My name is Alicia Paulson
and I love to make things. I live with my husband and daughter in Portland, Oregon, and design sewing, embroidery, knitting, and crochet patterns. See more about me at aliciapaulson.com

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Since August of 2011 I've been using a Canon EOS 60D with an EF 18-200mm kit lens and an EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens.