Counted Cross Stitch, Part 1

comments: 96

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.


fabulous tutorial!

I just wanted to know where I could purchase a needle with an eye that big. Just teasing :+} Enjoyed your tutorial.

Great tutorial! I'll share my little tips:

Sometimes it is hard to keep track of where you are in the pattern so you can use a post it right under the line you are working or get something called highlight tape which is a see-through tape you can run the entire width (or length) of the pattern for the line you are on. You can get super fancy with a metal stand and magnet strip too but I find the highlight tape and post it are a bit more portable.

Kristen from MA says: January 24, 2012 at 03:02 PM

I'm a long-time cross stitcher, and I think your tutorial is fantastic! I can't wait to get my hands on this sampler!

Thank you for the great information. Even though I have cross stitched before, I think I would like to give it a try again. It's always good to see how someone else does it and learn something new. I am glad you don't care what the back looks like because mine always look frightful!!

YOU make counted cross stitch look easy. I've tried it before and felt frustrated, but reading your words (now and earlier) has made me consider giving it a try again. You really do make it look user-friendly :-)...and even "inviting" -- thanks for that!

As always: really great photos.

thanks for writing this! my mom used to cross stitch when i was little and i always loved looking through her "book" of colorful embroidery floss. i am interested in trying it out myself, so it was helpful to read this post, and i look forward to trying your sampler! : )

thanks for all you do!

Huh...that was unexpectedly surreal, reading someone else's explanation of all those little details I also figured out through trial and error over the years. I can't think of anything to add. Other than: I'm *super* excited to order the kit :)

Oh you put my mind at ease! Thanks for sharing your wisdom on counted cross stitch.

Your floss box is so nice and neat. Mine ... well lets just say it doesn't quite look like yours :)

I have done cross stitch before but only on aida fabric. The challenge for me is counting. Believe me I get muddled counting stitches on my knitting needle, so it's a big issue with me! I came across a couple of pieces from your book on this blog here the other day and I think that the bunny sampler (under the blackwork if you scroll down), is a good place for me to start as it's only one colour and I can concentrate on counting. I have the book and it is superb and has lovely designs in it.

Many thanks for your tutorial, you truly are an enabler as you explain everything so beautifully, not easy either. I really appreciate all your information. Seeing the back of your work was interesting too. No idea why we all have the fascination but we do don't we?

so great. you're such a wonderful teacher! I always worry about doing things the "right" way, but I like how you encourage beginners to just get in there and start already! I love this sampler and anything variegated, so consider me a pre-order :)

You are so sweet! I know how to do counted cross stitch but I just read your whole post anyway :) I think your explanation is just perfect, and I totally agree about the thread & kitty thing. I've had to pull thread out of my kitty's throat...but luckily she'd only swallowed about 10" and no needle. shudder!!

Oh and I've never cross stitched with variegated thread...I'm intrigued.

I always wondered what was up with that ugly cross stitch fabric. Now I know it is really waste canvas! I guess that is what happens when you teach yourself and don't read anything about it before you start. I've been doing cross stitch for almost 20 years and I just learned a ton from this!

So many questions! Where to start? Okay, I am not a complete cross stitch novice. I have completed a few projects LONG AGO. I have stitched on aida and on linen. I have not stitched anything for years but just got back into it when I found the nicest Scotty dog pattern that I want to complete for my brother who just lost his precious Stanley to cancer. It is not at all cutsey and is mostly done in muted brownish blackish tones so very subtle.
Ok..the questions.
1.I am doing this on Aida 18 count (although I'm not that fond of it..seems kind of clunky) because I have discovered that since the last time I stitched..I have gone blind. I have to look at the pattern without glasses (farsighted) and then put on my bi-focals to see the actual holes in the fabric. The pattern changes colors ALOT. I am thinking that because of this, the best plan of attack is to thread about 8 needles and then switch back and forth just like you said above. Otherwise I will have the messiest looking back. And I'm afraid that I'm neurotic enough to care. Ugh.
2. Do you always use a hoop? This piece is fairly large and I've never used a hoop. I have always worried about pulling my stitches out of shape. Does an iron take those hoop marks out?
I love this tutorial!
On another note, I just completed reading your entire archive. Oh honey! It took me a week of dedicated reading because sometimes I would have to stop and take notes on recipes, crafts, etc. I feel like I've been put through the wringer! You are a fascinating all the best ways! I have to say that sometimes when I look at the pics you take of Clover, she looks as if she is on the cusp of speaking..actually speaking in human language. She's obviously so intelligent. :) On my end, I live with an incorrigible Chihuahua, an illusive basement cat and the world's naughtiest Labrador (also the sweetest!).

What a wonderful tutorial. You explained the details so well. The pictures were great. I can't wait to start on this one ! Very exciting. I don't know what the price will be for the kit and I don't really care ~ it will be well worth it. If I am going to take the time to create something I like to do it well and with quality materials. I finished the Daisy Chain Sampler and gifted it to a dear friend. I must admit it was hard to part with as it turned out so beautiful but I have to give you the credit for much of the success of the sampler. You inspire and are so encouraging. YOU and your creativity are a very special gift and I am so grateful you share it with all of us. Thank you Alica, and Andy too :)

Spring! Very excited :)

So timely!
I used to do this, but I would need a refresher to pick it up again. But not five minutes ago our friends gave Maria, our seven year old daughter, a cross stitch kit of an adorable Australian wren... the "Supreme Blue Fairy Wren!"
Not sure if this is too ambitious for her, but I feel more confident having your tutorial on hand. Thank you!

I have always loved cross stitching ~ beginning with a blank sheet of fabric and having it become an artwork!
Thank you for the tutorial ~ can't wait for the sampler!

I do the bottom legs first and then come back over rather than whole stitches. I've not used variegated threads so will bear your advice in mind if I do.
I always photocopy my chart and then use a "highlighter" pen to mark off the squares as I complete them.
I used to use a hoop but now prefer to work without one (even on my large North Wind picture as I seemed to spend so much time adjusting them.
I have the "best embroidery book in the whole universe", it is excellent.
Carol xx

Oh, such teasing!!! No full-size, completed-work-of-art pictures yet! Ack!!!! Can't wait to get my hands on this.

Just when I think the fabulousness of Alicia can't get any greater, up pops a wonder like this post. :-) Such great info and tips. THANK YOU! And the link back to Andy's "man sampler" haa haa haa, how my husband and I laughed all night last spring when we read that one. Now I just need that Winterwoods kit, several rainy days and the cozy kitters piled on my knees. Heaven!

well written! My mother is a cross stitch expert. I always remember her sitting around doing cross stitch everywhere we went when I was growing up. I'm slowly following into her footsteps via your inspiration. Thank you for the refresher course.

I'm trying to understand this...
The stitches on the pattern are marked BETWEEN the lines, but the stitches on the fabric go OVER the lines? How do you keep from getting confused about that? I think I would need to draw in the fabric lines on the pattern. Do you think that would help?
(Do you see why my mom beat me the one time she tried to teach me this?)

In college, I worked in a cross stitch store. It was heaven. The owner, an avid stitcher, shared a fabulous technique with me. To begin, cut a long piece of floss, fold it in half, and then thread the needle. Come up from the back with the needle, go back down, and thread the needle through the bent portion of the thread. No tail, no knot, very neat end. Best tip I've ever gotten for cross stitch. :)

I recently found your blog, and have been in heaven ever since. My mother was always handy with a needle - knitting, sewing, cross stitch. I have never done cross stitch, but you have given me the courage. I will order the kit when it becomes available and look forward to creating something lovely. I just love your blog and have already made your lentil soup, black bean soup, apple streusel bread, and that wonderful Dutch oven bread. I have also gotten so many ideas I want to do in my house. Thank you so much for your beautiful posts - I know you work hard.

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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