Monday, June 12, 2017

Conversations About Cross-stitch

Antique Lithuanian tablecloth, blue cross-stitch on white linen
Antique Lithuanian tablecloth, blue cross-stitch on white linen
Last week, I was standing by a table covered with needlework books and materials at a sale, and got involved in conversations with several ladies who were looking at the items on the table. I was surprised at how many questions and requests for advice were about cross-stitch. It reminded me that I hadn't discussed the technique in these posts for quite some time. Today I hope to remedy that situation. I have combined and reworded some of the questions, putting them in italics. But first, a little background information.

Assisi work butterfly on monks' cloth
Assisi work butterfly on monks' cloth
Cross-stitch is a very old form of embroidery, probably used for more than 2,000 years. It is practically impossible to determine where and when it was first used because fabrics seldom survive for long periods. The stitch seems to have been “invented” a number of times, because it is present in ethnic embroideries almost worldwide. By medieval times, it was used in nearly every part of Europe, but also in Africa, Asia, the Near East and South America. Churches used it liberally for their linens and vestments, and royal courts used it for heraldic designs. It wasn't long before the technique spread to the village housewives, who used whatever fabrics and threads were available to them even human hair. It was called “cushion work” in medieval times because of its widespread use in durable covers for chair seats, footstools, and kneeling mats. Here, in colonial times, it was so popular in ladies' samplers of their handiwork that it was known as “sampler stitch”. It combines nicely with other embroidery stitches and is particularly attractive in blackwork, redwork, whitework, Holbein embroidery and Assisi work.

Why do the stitches have to be done the same way?

It is a matter of light. Light strikes the upper and lower halves of the cross-stitch in different ways. This is most important when you are using glossy floss or metallic threads, but it is noticeable even with crewel wool or acrylic knitting worsted. When stitches are not all done the same way, the surface doesn't look even. People will probably not know why this is so, but they will notice it and think “Something just doesn't look right about that.” Besides, as my grandmother used to say, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” So take the trouble to cross all your stitches the same way. Perhaps the easiest way to do this is to put in all your bottom stitches in an area and then go back and put in all the top stitches, rather than making one cross-stitch at a time.

Does it matter which way you cross the stitches?

The English way to do this is to make the bottom half of the stitch from lower right to top left and the top half from bottom left to top right. The American and European way is to do the bottom half of the stitch from the bottom left to the top right and the top stitch from bottom right to top left. I work both ways, depending on where I start in the design. Left-handed stitchers may have a stronger preference for one way than right-handed stitchers. Try both ways and use whichever is mot comfortable for you. I don't think it makes any difference so long as you do the same thing consistently throughout the whole piece of work!

Samples of two styles of cross-stitching
Samples of two styles of cross-stitching

I have done a lot of cross-stitch, but sometimes I do areas I don't like. I've never been brave enough to take the stitches out and do them over. What is the best way to do that?

If there are a lot of stitches to remove, use very small, sharp scissors to clip each stitch on the right side of the fabric. Then use small tweezers to gently pull out the threads. Make a small pad of cellophane tape by wrapping it around your hand, sticky side out. To remove any “fuzz” from the area where the stitches were removed, pat the area gently with the pad of sticky tape. Turn the fabric over and do the same thing to that side in order to pick up any stray threads or fuzz. Then you should be ready to start over.

So far I have just done counted cross-stitch on things where the little X's are stamped on the fabric. Now I'd like to work from charts, but I don't know how to get started. What do you suggest?

Rose cross-stitched on 1/4 inch gigham
Rose cross-stitched on 1/4 inch gigham


I like to see beginners start on one of two fabrics. The first is ¼-inch checked gingham because it is so much like graph paper and it is easy to match the checks to the squares in the charts. Also, by stitching into the four corners of each “check”, you will make equally-sized and equally-spaced cross-stitches.









Monks' Cloth
Monks' Cloth
The other fabric is monks’ cloth, which has evenly-spaced holes for the ends of your stitches. Either one should be backed with non-woven interfacing, muslin, even a man's handkerchief. This will support your stitches and help keep you from leaving them too loose or pulling them too tight. (Too loose leaves the stitches easily snagged; too tight pulls the whole design out of shape.)


Downloadable cross-stitch snowflake pattern
Downloadable cross-stitch snowflake pattern
Choose a simple pattern with only a few colors to begin with. Remember it will be larger on either the gingham or the monks' cloth than it would be on the even-weave fabric the pattern was probably designed for. Try it all in one color first, so that you only have to be concerned with the placement of the stitches. If you like the result, then work the design again in colors of your choice. Here's a simple pattern of mine that you may use in any way you choose. You can find others on these past blog posts: August 26, 2013, June 18, 2015, March 21, 2016 and January 1, 2017; or, use "Search My Blog" in the right hand column to find these and other downloads.

Is it harder to do needlepoint than cross-stitch (indicating a piece done in tent stitch)? I already know how to do cross- stitch. And can I do cross-stitch on needlepoint canvas?

It is actually easier to do the tent stitch because you only do half a cross stitch each time! I work in continental stitch. I consider the half-cross stitch used in most commercial kits an inferior stitch for several reasons. (Don't get me started!) But, if you use a better stitch when working with a commercial kit, you will run out of yarn halfway through the project.
Gros-point butterfly with tent stitch background
Gros-point butterfly with tent stitch background
You can certainly do conventional cross-stitch on any even-weave canvas, including rug canvas. When you do this, it is called “gros-point”. You just have to remember that, instead of using the two “holes” in the canvas that you used in doing tent stitches, you need to allow for four “holes” for the top and bottom cross-stitches. This is a good technique both for beginners and for older women whose hands and eyes are not as good as they once were.

Do you have suggestions about working from patterns in books?

Here are a few:

a) Purchase a little more background fabric than the pattern calls for. You may eventually decide to use your finished project for a pillow top, quilt block, applique, etc. which requires seam allowances or margins to turn under. If you are using a different gauge of fabric than what they suggest, carefully count all the horizontal and vertical stitches to determine how much fabric you will need for the design and then add margins.

b) Buy an extra skein of floss or tapestry yarn in the most often used colors in the pattern just in case you have to take out stitches so you don't run out.

c) If you change colors or shades from those called for in the pattern, write the names or numbers of the ones you actually plan to use (lightly in pencil) on the pattern beside the ones you are replacing.

d) If you have trouble following a pattern, color the stitch squares in with colored pencils before you begin. That saves a lot of time and frustration!

colorful onion domes
Holbein embroidery featuring cross-stitch with other straight stitches
Stitch away!





 Creative Commons LicenseThis post by Annake's Garden is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.