Cross Stitch Approach

 Dear Reader,

   Welcome to the land of peace and quiet. No chatting visitors, just you with your best friend sitting next to you, reading a book and knowing not to interrupt your concentration; maybe bringing you a cup of tea with a smile, but not saying anything. All this, because counted cross-stitch needs all your attention if you want to do it right.

   When you have found a pattern which appeals to you, it is time to get all the needed materials and equipment together and start to enjoy yourself. I will try to explain the whole routine as clearly as possible, but the number one rule is:

   Remember, you are NOT on a time-clock, you are NOT in a hurry, you are going to have a great time creating something beautiful for yourself or a loved one, which will adorn a wall for years to come. Some pieces will show places where you have been, there may be pictures reminding you of your family, still others will show favorite objects, like the one depicting a sail-boat I made for my son, some pertaining to the Christmas season and so on, you get the drift.

   When I was working on my latest project, I realized, that it included all the pleasures and frustrations of cross-stitching, so I decided to set up a sheet of instructions for that form of needlework for my granddaughters, just in case they might want to do some cross-stitching someday. My daughter suggested, that I put it on the internet so that I could help more people; but being in my mid-nineties and not experienced enough on the computer, I decided to write this booklet with instructions, so that everyone who is interested can buy one and have it handy when questions come up.

   About that project I was working on when I got this idea:

   It was for a friend in Holland, so when I saw a pattern with tulips, I said: Eureka, she will like that and started. Half way through stitching the colorful tulips, I realized, that they were put into a pink vase and that I never would I have done that, in my view, they belonged in a pewter, brass or at least a glass vase with the stems showing. Of course, I could have switched to any color of my liking, but it was not for me, but for her and she liked pink, so pink it stayed and she was happy with the results, which is what counted.

   All this was to warn you to please, when choosing a pattern, make sure it is the one you will be happy to work on or it will become another MUST DO project and you have enough of those already; or, when you really start to dislike it, abandon it.

   For a while, I was volunteering in a thrift shop where we sold all kinds of needlework, both new and unfinished projects, the proceeds going to the senior center in town. You have no idea how many unfinished needle work items we received there for re-sale; what a waste of time, energy and money! So, I ask you again to choose a pattern which you will enjoy working on and of which you will admire the end results.

Again, counted cross stitch is fun and rewarding, but not a social activity like knitting, crocheting, printed cross stitch and the like, which you can do in groups; counted cross stitch needs all your attention or you make too many mistakes. The nice thing is, that because of all that concentrating on your work, you have no time to think about the various mishaps in your daily life and you will be rewarded with something beautiful.

Equipment needed: 

  • A good daylight lamp, incandescent light distorts colors.
  • A comfortable chair with foot rest so that you can sit comfortably with your feet up, to the left of which a tall stand with tray holding your pattern. Of course, if you prefer to sit at the table, you can put your pattern in a smaller stand there. In either case, the light must come from the left otherwise your hand with needle will cast a shadow. Again, if you are left handed, the opposite is correct.

A work basket with:

  • Scissors:
  1. small one for cutting floss, let no one use it for anything else.
  2. medium one for cutting fabric.
  • Needles     
    • Tapestry # 24 and 26 to use depending on the gauge of fabric you use.
    • The larger one for l4 to the inch, the smaller one for finer fabric
  • Markers      
    • little paper squares to identify symbols and colors
  • Pallets
    • to put one length of floss of each color in the holes and identify them with their symbols and numbers
  • Floss bags   
    • to put the remaining floss in
  • Ruler            
    • for counting gauge of fabric
  • Rod              
    • with lengthwise slit and pins to put on the left side of the fabric you are using; That is if you, like me, are stitching in the sewing mode about which later.
  • Frame or Hoop       
    • if you use the stabbing method
  • Pattern        
    • in kit or from any other source
  • Floss            
    • made of  cotton, silk, metallic and more
  • Beads           
    • if called for
  • Magnifier    
    • if you need it
  • Fabric           
    • there are several to choose from: Aida, linen, even-weave, Hardanger and more. I put Aida first, not because I like it, but because you will find it in many kits. Later more about this. 

Do you have all the above ready in your cozy corner? Then, let’s get on with the instructions and happy stitching.

   First, take one of the pallets and the floss you will find in the kit. If you have no kit, but work from a pattern, find the recommended floss in solid or combined colors; put those in your pallet and mark them with their symbols and floss numbers. If you are working from a kit, often you will find floss 18inches long; the correct length for cross-stitching, but if you find yard long floss there, you are lucky, because there is a trick to make casting on easier, about which later. 

   Is your pattern large enough or do you have to enlarge it to see comfortable?

   Are the colors the way you like them or do you need to change some of them?

   Do you like the quality or gauge of the fabric in the kit? 

   All sorts of questions even before you start, so let us assume for now, that you start with a small project out of a kit. In it you will find the pattern, fabric, floss and needle.

 Often only one of the last, but you have plenty in your needle holder.

 The pattern which you put on your stand at eye-level.

 The fabric which often is Aida. This is, because it is thought to be easier for beginners with it’s clear square blocks. I find however, that there is a difficulty with those; as you can see in the illustration, next to the main weave on either side runs an additional tiny thread, which is easy to be left unseen when you stitch, therefore not perfectly completing the stitch. That may be a problem, because cross-stitching is different from embroidering in the way stitches are being made. In embroidering, it is often preferable to stitch into an adjoining one to make the whole look fluid; in cross-stitching, each cross must be completely individual. Therefore, if that tiny thread is allowed to stay on the outside until the next half-stitch covers it, one cross will be too small and the next one too large, which create unbalanced work. 

Of course, if I sat next to you and watch you leave that tiny thread there and go on, I would tap you on the shoulder and make you take that offending stitch out and do it properly. Oh, how sometimes my pupils would dislike me for being so persnickety, poor things; but my motto is: if you do something, do it right, otherwise it is not worth doing. Besides that, if you left in your mistakes, nobody might notice them, but you would know that they are there for the rest of your life and be irritated by that, so what are a few moments more now compared by that frustration?

   Warning: When you do take out a stitch, do not put your needle back through the hole, that often causes frustration, because it may not be the exact same hole and you end up with a tangle, better take the thread out of the needle and then take out the offending stitch(es). 

   If you decide to work with the Aida, that of course is fine, provided that you are aware of the above. I prefer to work on either linen or even-weave, each of which have their pros and cons. Linen is woven from flax, which has an uneven fiber, so it is better for accomplished stitchers, who know how to tighten or loosen the stitch to make everything even. That extra caution is well worth the effort, since the background of your work is beautiful. Even-weave also is very nice as background and slightly easier to work with since that is exactly what it says, woven evenly  and always making perfectly square stitches.

Even weave



Those two, linen and even-weave are also better when you must make 1/4 or ¾ stitches, because the tighter woven Aida is hard to penetrate with your rounded point tapestry needles.

After you have chosen the fabric you want to use, count the amount of stitches in the pattern, top to bottom and left to right; then, depending on the gauge of the fabric measure the amount you will use plus extra on the top, bottom and the sides, to accommodate the framing of your piece, then zigzag the perimeter to avoid raveling. When you are using a kit, the right amount of fabric is enclosed of course.

  On the top, bottom and sides of your pattern you will see arrows pointing to the middle. That middle is the place where instructors often tell you to start stitching. I have another idea however; because in that middle often is the most complicated pattern, made by many different colors of only a few stitches each. I do the following:

   Fold the fabric in half, left to right side, corners exactly matching, put a pin approximately in the middle of the fold, again fold it in halve, bottom to top, corners matching; now you have found the exact middle, put your pin there, count the amount of stitches from the middle to the bottom of your pattern. Have needle with a piece of waste thread ready, start in the middle and weave down to the bottom; in Aida every square, in all other fabrics every two threads until you reach the required amount of stitches; that is where you start your cross- stitching, but before you can do that, you must needle your thread.

Yes, you heard that right, not thread your needle, but needle your thread. When I was about ten years old, I often visited my cousin, who was an old-fashioned tailor, sitting cross-legged on his table, teaching me to needle a thread, which is much easier than to thread a needle, especially for us cross-stitchers, who must work with a double thread of floss.

   To do this, you pull a yard of floss out of a 6-strand yard of floss, hold that apart and put the rest where it belongs in the pallet. Now fold that single thread double and hold the ends together; about an inch from the ends fold the floss over your needle and put it between the thumb and forefinger of the left hand, pinching it tightly; pull out the needle and slip the eye over the pinched thread and push it through. Now you have a threaded needle with double floss, two matching ends and a loop at the other end.

  Next you put the needle into the right- hand top of the stitch you want to make, back to front, leaving about an inch of floss which makes a loop there hanging in the back, now put the needle into the left bottom of the stitch and pull it to the back where the loop is waiting. Pull the needle through that hoop being careful to have the two threads of the hoop next to each other and pull it through, first casting on done. Now put the needle, back to front through the left top of the stitch, pull through and put the needle through the right bottom of the stitch and pull through to the back, first stitch made with the desired 18” long, double strand of floss.

Fold thread over the needle to make a sharp crease, then push the double thread through the needle

Do not use floss longer than l8” since the fabric will wear down the thin floss, making it look ragged. You have put the remaining 5 strands back in the pallet. That is important, because even though right now you know this color goes with that symbol, in the remaining stitches, there may be a very closely related shade and confusion reigns; better to do the right thing and place the remaining floss where it belongs right away after pulling away a strand. 

   Now put the left side of your fabric in the slit of your rod, roll it up to the place where you will be working and pin it in place. The rod is there to prevent you crumbling up the fabric in your left hand while working from the middle of the pattern. As the work continues, re-roll and pin.

   If you are using an embroidery hoop, follow the instructions for same.

   We will start in the middle of the bottom. When we learned to cross-stitch, we were told to begin that first stitch by coming up on the left bottom, leaving a few inches of floss hanging in the back and continue making the first couple of stitches by inserting the needle into the right top, coming up on the left top, pull up the floss into a half stitch, insert needle into the right bottom, insert needle from back into left bottom of the stitch next to it in the same color, etc. etc. After you have made a certain amount of stitches, insert the hanging back thread into your needle and weave it through the back of the stitches made, thus securing it. As you get farther into your work, all cast-off stitches are secured that way and when you do that, before cutting the cast-off thread or beginning of the new color, be sure to check the front of your work to check if those cast-off stitches did not show on the front and if they do, take them out and do it again until correct.

Catching the loop for the first stitch

Above I showed you how to cast on your first stitch if that is done in one color of floss.

All work requiring two strands of different colors each 18” long, must be cast on the old fashioned way, weaving through the back of a few previous stitches,

 The top of a proper cross-stitch ALWAYS goes from left top to right bottom and has the two strands of floss next to each other, which is achieved by so-called railroading. Here again is the loop starting of benefit. If you enter the little loop while it is open with the two strands next to each other, you already end up with the two strands where they belong.

See illustration:

First half cross stitch, starting at right top, to left bottom (over 2 linen threads)

First half cross stitch, starting at right top, to left bottom (over 2 linen threads)

To finish the stitch, go from left top to right bottom

To finish the stitch, go from left top to right bottom

Progressing from half stitch to whole stitch to three and 5 stitches

Progressing from half stitch to whole stitch to three and 5 stitches

You can do cross-stitching either horizontally or vertically. I was taught the vertical way, so I will teach you the same although either way is appropriate and both are often used in the same pattern. Let’s assume, that your pattern calls for ten stitches of the same color going up. While you make the half-stitches, turn your needle counter-clockwise very lightly and on coming back down, turn clockwise, again very little; You will see, that the two threads lie next to each other very neatly, no twisting. It may take you a while to do this correctly and if the thread twists, turn it back and put your needle in between the two strands before inserting it, the so-called railroading maneuver. No more dangling of the thread to untwist it.

   When the ten half-stitches are completed, come back by inserting the needle on the left to from behind pulling through and completing the stitch by going into the right bottom et. etc.

    When no more stitches of the same color are needed there, but a few stitches farther away, do not finish the last cross, but taking one of the small paper squares, write the symbol and number of the thread on it and pin the needle with square in the front of your work, out of the way for future use. Do not bridge the distance for more than 5 stitches because that may create an undesirable pull.

   Eventually you may end up with quite a few of those little squares pinned up there with their attending colors, because those will be needed often only a few stitches away from each other and can be carried there, no reason for endless casting off and on.

   Eventually, you will make 1/4 and ¾ stitches. When you look at the photos of different fabrics, you will see, that both linen and even-weave are created by weaving one strand up and down one way and the one next to it the opposite way. When you work with either one of those fabrics, let your needle come up on the left side of the little bump made by the elevated thread and go down 2 threads up and over on the left side of the next little bump made by that elevated thread, come up on the top left and down on right bottom. To make ½ stitch go from bottom left to top right; ¼ stitch, either left bottom or right top to middle; ¾ stitch make first the 1/4 stitch and finish with a half stitch. (see picture)

   Some day you may want to change one or more colors in your pattern, which of course, you may do, but be careful to mark the new colors with the symbols of the original ones, but the numbers of the colors you choose.

   I did that with the picture I made for my husband. It is a picture of a mother with her children in which the mother was blond – of course, all designers like blonds – and my hair was dark, so I had to change that. In that picture, the little girls were of the same age as ours, perfect, but I also had a son. Now what?  The original pattern was one from the Lavender and Lace company, so I called them and told them my predicament. A very pleasant man told me, that they had two patterns in which a boy about my son’s age was featured of which he graciously sent me copies, one of which was perfect, down to the same age and the little short pants my son wore at that time. Instead of the bushes surrounding mother and girls, I put my little boy there. Perfect present for their Dad.

   When you do want to change a color, be very careful with the shadings, they are not always the ones next in number to the main color, but may be in a totally different category.

I now am talking about DMC, the brand I have always used, because it has a silky feeling and has subtle shine, but of course, there are many other brands you can use. 

   You should plan your work so that you never stray far from the place where you are stitching so that you always are able to check your count against the work already done. Count, count, count, do not allow even one stitch to be too near or far from the ones already done; do not try to make up for a wrongly counted and worked stitch later, this creates more and more havoc; always take out a wrong stitch or stitches and trace it down to the culprit. This should not create too much difficulty if you constantly check against the stitches already done. Do not cast off before you are sure, that all stitches are in the right place and no other stitches of the same color are needed within a five- stitch radius. 

   Have your high-lighters ready and mark the stitches you have already made, but not the ones you intend to make, because you will start wondering which is which.

   If you have a remnant of five or more inches left after you finish a section, mark it with symbol and number and pin it on your pincushion. You may need a few stitches someplace else; no reason to use a long new strand and create another leftover.

   Always keep an eye on your tail, no not yours, but the one on the other side of your needle.

If you kept changing the position of your needle on the thread to prevent it from wearing thin, you wil see when you are coming to the end and are prepared to cast of, the ends will be almost the same length; if, however, you did not constantly slide your needle every couple of stitches, that tail will become too long and get caught in the next stitch. Immediately stop and try to pull out the tail. If that does not work, you cannot pull the thread out of your needle, because it is stuck. Do NOT point your needle to go back through the last hole made, since you may be in the wrong opening and create more havoc. From the backside, gently pull the thread until you come to the eye of the needle and you will be able to pull that through and thus free the tail. All this can be done only if you realize right away, that that tail is stuck. Therefore: always shift your needle on the thread every couple of inches, so that your tail stays short and if things go wrong, take immediate action to remedy the mistake. Another thing about that tail: if you do not do the recommended railroading, one of the tail ends will become longer than the other and will easily get caught as described above, so please beware! 

  After all the cross-stitching is done and you see the picture you envisioned when you started, one more thing must be done to perfect it – back-stitching. This can be done by tracing individual stitches with a single, contrasting thread or by the long-stitch connecting several stitches and in that manner outlining the various parts of the picture. Outlining is done by coming up at the left side of the stitch to be made and going down on the right side, then coming up on the left side of the next stitch and so on. Do NOT come up on the left side, down on the right side and coming up on the left side of the same stitch and from there to the next one etc. this makes for a very bumpy line. 

   At times you may think, that you know how many stitches you need to make after counting once, especially when there is a long column of them and so, you go on your merry way and stitch them, after which you surround that column with all the other stitches, only finding your error of one too many or too few of them in that column, thus making the whole section wrong. Now you can either make up for the error and keep going, or take everything out and start over. To prevent all this, in the first place count several times to see if that long column has the right amount of stitches and always, check the new work against the stitching already done.

   You may decide to keep going and somehow make up the error by redesigning the pattern, which often leads to more trouble, unless you are the designer of the piece.

   Let me warn you about other mistakes you will be making and yes, you will be making them, all of us do, I am being one of you. After some 90 years of cross-stitching, I still – or maybe because I am old now – am taking out wrongly placed stitches, but still enjoying the art, so do not let some mistakes discourage you, it is all part of the game.

   Thread too long and consequently fraying and knotting. That one is easy to prevent: Use no longer than 18” floss and move your needle after every few inches. This becomes automatic.

   Wrong placement: keep checking your stitches against all other work done already. 

   Wrong color: You probably used the wrong symbol. This one is very important when you use a pattern with closely resembling shades of one color; it usually does not show while you are working, but it will clearly show when the work is finished. Always be sure, that the color indicated by the symbol is the one of the corresponding number of the floss and that you are using the right symbol. Also, after having extracted the one strand from the 6-strand floss, be sure to put the remaining five back into the proper place in the pallet right away. 

   Unfinished stitches. Those usually show up when you are back stitching or while scrutinizing your work before signing and dating it. It is a good thing, that you kept those leftovers, because now you can use them to finish those stitches.

   Casting on or off and not noticing, that the thread is not completely pulled to the front, thereby making a mess in the back as you are stitching over the loose thread hanging there;

Also, not checking the front after the casting to see whether it is showing in the front.

   Carrying a thread farther than the recommended 5 stitches. That will cause trouble when the piece is washed, ironed and made ready for framing. The stiff thread may cause a bump in the picture. Always cast off when the stitches of the same color are farther away than five stitches.

   I think, that I have answered all the questions asked by former students and others who are interested in doing this kind of needlework. I hope, that counted cross-stitch will give you many pleasant hours and beautiful pieces to adorn the walls of your own home and those of your loved ones. loved ones, 


 P.S. Just in case you are interested in framing your artwork yourself, here are some suggestions:


You will need:

  •  A frame large enough for your picture with a rabbet deep enough to hold mat and mounted stitched picture.
  • Glass for same
  • Proper acid-free mounting board
  • Double sided artist tape
  • Pins
  • Sharp cutting blade
  • Points
  • Hanger or eye screws and wire
  • Backing paper

   Begin by gently washing your work in lukewarm water with a little dish soap; because the oil in your hands will eventually show as a stain in your picture if you do not clean it. Also, due to the new laws, the dyes in the floss are not always permanent anymore, so after the washing, rinse several times until all trace of dye in the rinse water is gone. Have a clean bath= towel handy, put the straitened piece on it and roll it in the towel, squeezing the water out of it. Repeat this several times until the piece is only damp. Pull the piece until it is perfectly square or oblong as the pattern indicates.

   Put another clean, thick towel on your ironing board, your piece face down on top of it and iron it until dry, all the time making sure that it stays in the desired shape. Set it aside until it is absolutely dry.

   Measure the rabbet on the back of your frame from top to bottom and from side to side.

   Cut you foam board to those dimensions, try that in the frame to make sure you cut it correctly, if that is so,

   Put your piece on it, face up, arrange it tightly over the board, making sure, that the borders are the same width on all sides and the woven threads are straight along the edges. Then take your pins and pin your piece all along those edges, all the time checking that everything stays where it belongs. It is easier to start the pinning in the middle of both top and bottom and both sides and working your way out from there. If all looks in place, turn over the whole to permanently fasten the fabric to the board.

   You can do this two ways:

   One way is taking a long piece of very thin crochet cotton and weaving from the left to right side of the folded over extra band of linen and returning from right to left, stitches close together and pulled taught. When those bands are done, repeat it with the top to bottom bands.

   I prefer working with the double- sided artist tape:

   After turning the piece over, backside up, measure the short sides, cut two pieces of tape. Rip off one of the protecting strips of paper, put the tape on either of the short sides in a place where the extra band of fabric will come down when it is folded over, sticky side down, take off the other piece of protecting paper, exposing that sticky side, fold the fabric over that smoothly, but without disturbing the pinned down edges.

Repeat the same on top and bottom.

Put finished piece into frame, check if all surrounding exposed background is even. If you prefer to surround it with a mat, have a framer cut one for you, put the cleaned glass in first, then the mat and last the picture. Fasten the whole with the points, evenly spaced, then cover it with the backing paper and place the hanger precisely in the middle of the top of the frame.

Hang the whole thing in the chosen place, step back and enjoy!