This guide is written by Rachel Walker. Rachel used to teach sewing, dressmaking and cross stitch classes. She also used to design contemporary cross stitch patterns and kits, inspired by vintage and retro styles.
Aida is the fabric of choice for cross stitch beginners and ideal for pieces you want to frame. Aida fabric is woven to form a grid of squares, each of these squares can be worked over to form a cross stitch. Aida fabric is made in different counts, most typically 14 count (14 squares per inch) but a range of sizes are available and in many different colours. The grid system makes it easy to count the number of stitches from the pattern onto the Aida. Evenweave fabrics, such as linens, are ideal to use for making cushions and other items that require softer fabrics. These fabrics typically have a higher count and due to their nature are more challenging to use for cross stitch.
Needles and embroidery scissors
The best needle to use for cross stitch is a tapestry needle with a blunt tip and larger eye. For other stitches such as French knots and backstitch, use a sharper pointed needle. Ideally the size of needle to use for Aida fabric would be 24 and 26 for evenweaves. A pair of small sharp embroidery scissors is also essential to cut your threads neatly.
Embroidery threads, also known as stranded cottons or skeins, are available in hundreds of different colours. Each thread comprises six individual strands, which can be separated. Usually the pattern key will tell you to use two of the six strands together to do standard cross stitches and a single thread for backstitches. Well known brands include Anchor, DMC and Madeira, which are available from haberdashery shops and larger department stores. These companies produce colours charts, listing each coloured thread with a colour swatch and corresponding number. The pattern key will indicate which colours are recommended for your pattern. There are also a number of threads that produce a glittering, multicoloured and satin appearance.
Hoops and frames
Embroidery hoops and frames are useful for holding the fabric in position and keeping stitching tension even. Select a hoop that is bigger than your design, so you can complete the project without repositioning the frame over stitched work. Embroidery hoops should also be removed in between stitching sessions so that the fabric does not stretch.
To find the centre of the Aida fabric, fold the fabric in half and then in half again. Mark the centre point with a needle. Cut 1 m of thread and separate the strands according to the pattern instructions and thread through the eye of the needle.
Start your first cross stitch at the top of the design (top left if you are right- handed and top right if you are left-handed). This way, as you continue to cross stitch you will not rub your hand over existing stitches. Use the centre point of the pattern to count the number of squares (each one represents a stitch) to the top starting point of the pattern.
At the end of every cross stitch row, release the needle (let it hang freely) so the thread can unwind – this will prevent knots forming. When creating a half stitch or completing a full stitch, stop pulling the thread through the fabric when you feel resistance. This keeps the tension loose and creates more even looking stitches.
TIP: Stitch with clean hands and avoid applying hand cream as this can mark the fabric.
Full cross stitches
Bring the needle up through the back of the Aida, leaving about 2 cm of thread behind (A). Next, take the needle back down through the Aida, creating a diagonal half-stitch (B). Then bring the needle back up through the Aida (C), making sure that the remaining 2 cm of thread at the back is held in place (D, reverse view). Continue until you have completed all the half stitches in the row (E). Then go back to create full stitches (F, G). Try to follow this same process, so that the stitches are uniform in direction.
Continue to stitch until you have finished the motif. At the end of the last cross stitch, the needle should be at the back of the fabric. To secure the last cross stitch, thread the needle through the back of 4 – 6 stitches and cut off with scissors (H, reverse view).
This stitch is ideal to add detail or highlight designs with an outline.
Use a single or double strand of thread, see pattern key for instructions. Bring the needle up through the fabric at the point of the first stitch (I), leaving 2 cm at the back, and bring the needle back through the fabric at the point where the stitch will end (J), this creates one backstitch. Next bring the needle up at the point where the next stitch will end (K) and back down through the point where the first stitch started and continue until all the stitches have been completed (L).
This is an alternative way to start cross stitching. Use a single 2 m strand of thread and create a loop (M). Thread your needle with the two cut ends and bring the needle up through the back of the Aida and back down again to create a diagonal stitch (N, reverse view). Loop the needle through the hoop (O, reverse view), securing the thread to begin stitching (P, reverse view).
Fractional stitches are useful to provide more shape to a design than full stitches. On a pattern key, fractional stitches will be either squares filled with two different colours or partially filled (e.g. quarter stitches).
Multi-coloured fractional stitches
Multi-coloured fractional stitches are made up of two different thread colours. Bring the thread of the first colour up through the Aida and back through the centre of the square, this creates the first part of the stitch (Q). Then using the second colour, bring the thread up through the corner of the opposite square and back through the middle of the square (R). Finally, using the second colour, complete the stitch with a diagonal half stitch (S).
Bring the thread up through the Aida and back through the centre of the square, this creates the first part of the half stitch (T). Then bring the thread up through the corner of the square and back through the opposite corner, finishing the half stitch (U).
Bring the thread up through the Aida and back through the centre of the square, this creates the first part of the quarter stitch (V). Then bring the thread up through the corner of the square and back through half way between the opposite two corners (W).
Bring the thread up through the Aida and back through the centre of the square, this creates the first part of the three-quarter stitch (X). Then bring the thread up through the corner of the square and back through half way between the opposite two corners (Y).
Framing your cross stitch design in an embroidery hoop
First, iron the Aida fabric if it has become creased (by ironing the back of the cross stitch design). If there are any marks on the Aida fabric, gently hand-wash the area in lukewarm water. Cut out a circle of cardboard (approximately 2 mm thick) by drawing around the outer edge of the smallest hoop and put to one side. Repeat this process to cut a circular piece of Calico fabric.
Take the Aida fabric and place over the smallest hoop. Place the larger hoop on top of the Aida fabric and tighten the screw to hold the fabric securely. Turn the hoop over, fold in the Aida and cut off the excess fabric at the corners. Attach the Calico fabric to the circular piece of cardboard using double-sided sticky tape or fabric glue. Press the fabric covered cardboard inside the back of the hoop. Now the hoop is ready to hang on your wall.
TIP: Embroidery hoops are ideal to paint too, so you could decorate your hoop to co-ordinate with your cross stitch design!
If this tutorial has you inspired then do check out Rachel’s fabric covered cross stitch button tutorial on the Village Haberdashery blog.