The Creative Corner · Vintage Needlework

Lessons in Embroidery: Cross Stitch

A cross stitch embroidery design in two colors. A light blue outlines a mountain and horizon line. Two sailboats and a group of trees appear in dark blue. Water ripples in dark blue in front of the trees and one of the boats suggest the lake or ocean.
Cross stitch can be very effective with simple designs and only two colors. Design from 1927.

In the late Twenties Needlecraft Magazine published a delightful series of lessons in embroidery. Cross stitch appeared as the first lesson since it was the best known type of embroidery then and now. I am really excited to bring you the entire series of lessons. The first one I found was Lesson 2, and I’ve used it over and over through the years. But for today, back to cross stitch.

Not only the most popular, cross stitch is also the easiest of the embroidery stitches. You’re simply making X after X with your needle and thread. The best thing is that you can cross stitch on any fabrics you like. They don’t have to be “cross stitch” fabrics.

If you can find a fabric that you can count over the threads of the material as you go, it will give the best result. This is how the old samplers were done. You can use any fabric that has a regular square weave. This means the same number of threads to the inch lie in both directions, across and down.

You can embroider on a heavy fabric like linen where you can see the threads to count over them. Or you can embroider on a canvas-style fabric like Aida, where the fabric weave shows you where to put the stitches. You can also make cross stitches on regular cotton or wool fabric if you want. And you can also decorate an item with cross stitch if it’s made from a fabric where you can’t even see a square weave, like denim or velvet.

Rules for cross stitch

Cross stitch rules are simple.

  • All the top threads of your X’s should point in the same direction. Tradition says that the lower cross stitch starts from the lower left and goes to the upper right. The second half of the stitch comes from the lower right and crosses to the upper left.
  • Keep your tension as even as possible. Pull your threads tight enough to lie flat on the fabric but not so tight that the fabric pulls. (That’s a different type of embroidery and we will get to that later.)
  • It saves thread to do a batch of half crosses in one direction and then turn around and finish the crosses going the other way. You can do it one X at a time, but you’ll use a lot more thread that way. Some multicolored threads (called variegated) actually work best with one X at a time.
  • An embroidery hoop will keep your fabric taut while you stitch.
  • Choose your thread to match your fabric. A fabric with an open or coarse weave requires a thick thread. A close weave fabric requires a thin thread. Aida 14 count fabric usually requires two strands of six-strand embroidery floss. (Cut your thread to a good length, then pull each strand individually and put them back together before putting them through your needle.)
  • Select a needle size that will carry the thread easily without catching every time you pull it through the fabric. The right needle adds greatly to the enjoyment of any embroidery.
  • Embroidery uses no knots at the ends of the threads. Pull your thread through until a couple inches remain, and hold that end underneath the current line of X’s. Catch the end with the first three or four stitches and it will hold fast.
Image of cross stitch instruction. A needle with thread is in the middle of making a cross stitch, with six already completed and seven yet to go. Text reads: This is how the stitches should point in cross stitch. Lower left to right, upper right to left.
All the top stitches should slant the same way in cross stitch.

Today you see most embroidery patterns designed for Aida cloth or specialty linen fabric where the stitch count is the same both horizontally and vertically. Thus, cross stitches made on these fabrics make perfect squares. You can find Aida or embroidery linen in any craft shop where embroidery thread is sold. The fabrics may be under the Zweigart, DMC, Charles Craft names, or even a house label if the store distributes its own line of fabrics.

You can use any cross stitch pattern, chart, or design made on checked paper. Each square of the pattern represents a cross on the linen, and different symbols or colors in the squares stand for certain colors. In the top illustration the pattern is made from two colors. Further down you can see both the original illustration and the checked pattern I made from it.

Because you use filled boxes on graph paper as a foundation for cross stitch designs, you have a wonderful opportunity to exercise individual talent and original ideas.

What you need

In order to begin cross stitching, you only need a few things.

  • Fabric you can use for embroidery. If you can see the threads to count them, all the better. You can count as many threads to make a square as you like. Use blocks of two, three, four, or even more threads, depending on what you’re making and how thick your fabric threads might be.
  • Embroidery thread. This comes in little hanks with six threads loosely wound together. Only in rare instances will you use all six strands at a time for any type of embroidery. Cut a length 18 to 24 inches long and pull one, two, or three strands out to work with. Most cross stitch uses two strands of thread at a time. You can use any brand you like –– DMC, Anchor, Sullivans, or that old stuff your grandmother gave you that she used in the Forties (if it’s still good).
  • A needle. Embroidery needles are different from general sewing needles. Their eyes are larger to hold multiple strands of thread at a time. If your fabric has holes in it or you are counting threads and going between them, use a tapestry needle in size 24 to 26. (Larger sizes are smaller). If you are using regular fabric, use an embroidery needle with a sharp point, usually simply called embroidery needles.

Note: I know that embroidery thread comes in a dizzying number of colors. You do not need to run out and buy a skein of every color under the sun. Really. Especially if you are interested in vintage embroidery patterns, where the instructions might say that you need three shades of green, a blue, a brown, and a red. For vintage embroidery, buy only the colors you love, or the ones that coordinate with your decorating or favorite clothing colors. You will never need 460 different shades of floss for vintage embroidery. Not if you live to be 150.

Begin with boats on the water

The illustration at the top gives you a great first project. This is quick to do, and quite effective as a Twenties design. The outlines are easy to stitch, and the two colors give the project depth without making it difficult.

Originally, this was a towel border, like you will see below. You could purchase the hand towel via mail order and it came with X’s stamped on the fabric to show you where to make each stitch. You covered the inked X with your thread so that it no longer showed.

Photo of cross stitched towel. Towel is embroidered with simple boats and trees on the water in two shades of blue.

Since the stamped towel is no longer available for purchase, I copied the pattern and reproduced it onto 14-count Aida. (14-count means that the fabric has 14 blocks to the inch). Done this way, the pattern measures 1.5 by 6 inches. The towel was probably 14 inches across, so you see that the stamped X’s were much larger than the ones you can make when you count threads or woven blocks of fabric.

I reproduced the pattern in two shades of blue, as suggested. This model uses DMC 798 and DMC 826. I found them in a box of extra colors I had stashed away. What if your room is decorated in shades of pink? Light and dark pink would be darling in this pattern. So would greens, purples, grays, or browns!

You use whatever colors speak to you. That’s one of the joys of vintage needlework. The designers suggested colors –– they may have even sold skeins with the stamped fabric –– but you could use whatever you liked. Frankly, I’d love to see this pattern done in pinks or greens.

Uses for a simple pattern

One of the great things about cross stitch patterns is that once you have one, you can use it all sorts of ways. You can:

  • Work this on the bottom of a towel, as suggested.
  • Work it onto a strip of Aida fabric like I did, and then sew that onto a tote bag or backpack to decorate it.
  • Cross stitch this border over and over along the bottom of a pair of curtains.
  • Use the entire pattern for one thing, such as to decorate a kitchen towel, and then use the trees to adorn a set of potholders.
  • Rotate the pattern at a 90-degree angle, and flip it so that the trees turn a corner and are repeated going the other way. Now you have a corner design that would look great on placemats or corners of a special apron.

Sailboat charts

Here is the chart I used for the finished cross stitch above.

Sailboat and water beginner cross stitch pattern.
A great Twenties beginner pattern that only uses two colors.

I took the original pattern and turned it around a corner. This is what it looks like. I also added a little extra water in the corner so that the design comes to a point.

Ships around the corner.

Choosing your fabric

Regardless where you buy it, you will get the best results if you use fabric that is 100% cotton or 100% linen. This is especially true if you are using vintage patterns. The designers of the 1920s – 1950s had no concept of polyester or acrylic needlework supplies. Everything was designed for a type of cotton, wool, linen, silk, or that new kid on the block, rayon (which was made from wood pulp and/or cotton fibers too short to spin).

Traditionally, embroiderers used whatever fabric they had handy or could get their hands on. If they wanted to decorate a new tablecloth, maybe they had access to a nice heavy linen. They could cross stitch directly onto the fabric by counting the strands. On the other hand, perhaps the needleworker found a beautiful heavy muslin for an everyday tablecloth. The threads are too close for counting, so the pattern would have to be stamped onto the cloth as a series of X’s. If you want to have a go with counting on a traditional linen fabric, take a look at’s heavy weight 4C22 linen. Fabrics-store has been online almost since the beginning of the Internet, even though you may not have heard of them before. They sell great linen at great prices.

Look for an upcoming post that talks more about cross stitch as we finish the first Lesson in Embroidery: Cross Stitch.