Counted Cross Stitch, Part 1

comments: 95

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


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.


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.


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.


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:


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.


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.




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:


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.


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.


Great tutorial! You've inspired me to get stitching again! I have one that my father did but couldn't finish (he has Parkinsons and the shaking made it too hard for him - sad) - so I'm planning to finish it for him. It's his favorite prayer (Prayer of St Francis) and I want him to be able to display it before something happens. I really suck at framing so I usually let Michaels or AC Moore do the framing for me.

I've done so many pieces over the last 30 years - the back of mine usually look like a hot mess!!! I learned the hard way about not dragging thread across the back - man, does it show thru :(:(

Thanks for the wonderful instructions.

Wow! All I can say are amazing! You spent a lot of time on this post! You cross stitch the way I do-and was taught. And you even take care of your thread the way I do (I had to figure this out myself). Then I checked out your framing tutorial and you do it the way I do too! (so that means it's right...LOL!) Keep up the great work. I hope many will take up this great hobby since you showed them how. Blessings, xoxo

I have the same question as Jeanie about the hoop lines - no matter how forcefully I iron, I can never get them out all the way, so I've abandoned hoops. How do you deal with them?

Fabulous tutorial ~ as usual!!

When my mother in law taught me to cross-stitch, she taught me to leave a tail when I started, but to 'catch' it in my first few stitches, that way, I didn't have to go back and weave it in :-)

I love all of your posts ~ your photography is just gorgeous and you and Andy and the girls are so, so likable!

I'm really looking forward to this. Thank you so much for the wonderful tutorial! My grandmother always did cross stitch and she taught me when I was young. She used preprinted cross stitch samplers to teach me so I've never done counted cross stitch. I can't wait!!

I used to cross stitch many years ago but let it go after finding knitting/crocheting. I think I need to start again, and this is exactly what I needed!

Do you know very very roughly how much you would be charging for the kits? Since it won't be available until the spring I would like to start saving now.

Thanks, Rebecca

ALICIA! Oh my gosh, you're home is featured on Houzz Tour!!!
SOOO excited for you & Andy! Loved every single room.
And of course I instantly pinned it on Pinterest. And everyone is repinning my pin! haha!
Btw, you inspired me to change out my woodstove mantel after 26 years of NEVER changing it. I went with a Scandinavian them mantel. Come see ~

Alicia this is a wonderful tutorial - it takes me back to the high school when I used to make little ornaments I'd frame and give away to my family and friends. I did some bigger pieces too (like a gorgeous wood duck cross stitch for my Dad for Father's Day - he still has it framed and hanging in the hallway.

Now instead of counting stitches I'm counting notes and measures playing the harp - but I still have such fond memories of the time and space I had doing cross stitch.

Thanks for the great intro! I sew and knit, but I think I might want to venture into the world of cross stitch. I always love anything I can do while curled up on the couch with the dog! Thanks for sharing!

Just stalked you and Andy on Houzz. I love everything about your place.

Excellent discussion on the basics of cross-stitch. I have done a lot of cross-stitch over the years, but have not strayed too far from the Aida cloth, so I appreciate your knowledge of doing work on other kinds of cloth and using the verigated thread, which I am not familiar with. I bet it adds a wonderful new dimension to your average cross-stitch pattern. When I begin a color I simply leave a small bit (about 1/2")of thread and secure it with the stitches. You can secure it with your first stitch and then continue to work over it with each stitch. Works really well and you don't have to go back later to work it in. When I finish with a color, I just run my thread under a few completed stitches to secure it. I hope your readers find that cross-stitch is incredibly easy, but it's just like any other handwork in that you just have to pay attention. Thanks, Alicia, for writing this post. By the way, isn't St. Dalfour tea delicious? More mild than your average (non-organic) tea.

Hoorah!! Great instructions. I'm excited about beginning this project. Thanks!!!

How timely! I recently picked up cross-stitch again after almost 20 years! I suddenly decided I had to make my own patterns, and I've been having so much fun. I appreciate the "permission" to complete each x as I go. That was my preferred method when I was a rebellious teenager (doing cross-stitch as a 'rebellious' teenager? I realize it sounds ridiculous!), but I've been experimenting with the other method - which I was taught was the 'right' way. Now I can concentrate on what works best for me, which seems to depend on the shape and size of the area I'm working on. Now excuse me while I go read the framing tutorial as I will be giving my complete projects away as Christmas gifts (yes, months late!)...

Hi Alicia, wonderfully informative post and a reminder for me to pull out that cross-stitch project I started more than 13 years ago but never finished.

Hope all is well. Enjoy your day.

I love your tutorial - and I know for someone just starting out, this will be the explanation that makes sense to them and gives them the AHA! moment.

I also appreciate that you say to do whatever feels comfortable for you and works best for you. That is the way all of us are with our own ways of doing things.

I do all my bottom stitches in a row and come back to do the tops because I like to count that way -- it makes it easier for me. I also like the straight lines in the back as the work lays flatter and knots and extra thread can cause bumps. When I start a group of stitches, I just stitch the tail in on the back as I go so that it holds itself (does that make sense?).

I don't pull my needle out and then back in, up and down, up and down --- too much work on the back of the piece for me. I tuck my needle into the top and bottom of the stitch (the two vertical holes in the fabric) so that I work completely on the front of the fabric. I find that this gives a nice even glossy look to the floss.

I also use thread conditioner and monitor the back for the "feel" of knots with my other hand index finger -- that helps me too.

And I never use a hoop -- too much stretching and smashing for me.

Thank you again for all of your beautiful words and taking the time to post the "how's".

Alicia! Cross-stitch is my first crafty love and I have recently (in the last few years) gotten back into it! It is so relaxing and the finished product SO satisfying. I'm a sampler girl, and am happy to see so many traditional patterns transcribed so that we can do them today! I am a totally sucker for trees and houses.

Anyway, one of my favourite parts of cross-stitching is finding the best path along a river of colour so that I can get to the other side and back (or just to the other side) as neatly as possible. It's hard to describe to non-stitchers, but it is so fun!

Thanks for spreading the word on this simple quiet exciting craft! Hurray for cross-stitch!

I agree with your thoughts on varigated floss, I may just use some in my dolls' eyes this spring. It always looks so lovely when I see it at the needlework shop!

Melissa L. says: January 25, 2012 at 10:14 AM

What a gorgeous tutorial. Seriously, those are the best photos and explanation ever, and no disrespect intended but I HATE counted cross stitch! That has everything to do with nearly losing my mind making a sampler one time, but never mind about that - *THIS* is inspiring!

And so is the back of Andy's man-sampler. Partay on, Mr. Sampler Dude.

I am a self-taught cross-stitcher, and I've been stitching for nearly 30 years. Your tutorial shows me there is always something new to learn. Keeping multiple needles threaded for color change? Genius!

I have a question which you may or may not know the answer to. When stitching on linen, is there a "correct" hole to begin your stitches in? I read something in a novel recently that said cross stitch projects should begin so that you are stitching with the grain of the fabric. It wasn't explained very clearly, though. Something about needing to pay attention to whether the vertical thread of the fabric is over or under the horizontal thread of the fabric in the bottom left corner of your X stitch. (In your example photos, the vertical thread of the fabric is over the horizontal thread at the bottom left of your X stitch. Is that intentional, or not?)

Any beginner reading my question is going to run away in fear! I think it might be overkill to worry about it, because I've been stitching for years while paying no attention to grain of fabric, and everything's always turned out beautifully, but I do wonder now if I could improve my skills by learning about grain of fabric in relation to each X.


what wonderful cross stitch instruction! everything you do is first class....including the thread! i did loads of counted cross stitch in the early 80s when i got married and it is so much encourage anyone to try relaxing and works up quite quickly for almost instant gratification! the sampler is lovely and i have used your embroidery book over and over and over IS the best one in the universe!

A Little Blue Dragonfly says: January 25, 2012 at 11:02 AM

Wonderful tutorial!!! I cannot wait to stitch this sampler of yours! I haven't cross-stitched in a number of years, and have only ever stitched on Aida cloth. I'm looking forward to stitching on fabric for the first time, and am LOVING that variegated floss! I think it looks so beautiful. :)

Thanks for this! I learned from a book, so its nice to hear from someone with your experience! Love the variegated floss!

I'm really excited to the hoops that you offer, because I'm just getting started into embroidery and, frankly, the hoops at the craft stores are crap.

Great tutorial Alicia! I started cross stitching when I was seven. My tip for beginners- use a lead pencil to color in the areas (completed crosses) you have finished on your chart. For example when you finish a row or change colour. That way when you next pick up your work you know exactly where you are up to! Believe everything Alicia says - cross stitching is really fun and nowhere near as hard as you think it is.

Thank you so much for posting this. I already cross stitch but it was your link to FRAMING them that got me all giddy. I know how to frame (graphic designer) but whenever I tried to think about how to frame cross stitch I immediately thought of something else to do. And I never made it to a framing shop either. Consequently I have a lot of cross stitch projects finished and not framed. (Why didn't I think of foam core?!?! Duh!)

Can't wait to see the Winterwoods kit! Thanks again.
PS Great photos, by the way!

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About Alicia Paulson


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




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.