Want to learn how to cross stitch?
This is a step-by-step guide on how to cross stitch for beginners. Learn what materials to buy, how to start cross stitching, prevent knots, sew backstitch and work a pattern from start to finish with professional tips. This article will teach you the traditional basic method of doing cross stitch embroidery needlework. For the purpose of this tutorial, we will be using the Ulysses butterfly cross stitch pattern, but you can use any pattern you like.
Cross stitch is a relaxing hobby that is easy to learn and affordable to make. At Lucky Star Stitches, pattern specifications are on the individual website page where the pattern is listed for sale. This tells you what cross stitch fabric to buy, how many colours there are and what skill level it is. If you are brand new to cross stitch, pick a ‘beginner’ cross stitch pattern with less colours and minimal or no backstitch.
To create a finished cross stitch, you will need the following items:
- Aida fabric
- DMC embroidery floss
- Tapestry needle
- Wooden embroidery hoop frame
- Sharp scissors
- Coloured texta
- One pin
- Printed out cross stitch pattern
Aida is a brand name. You can get many brands of cross stitch fabric and it doesn’t matter which one you buy, but Aida is a standard brand to get. The fabric should look like the fabric in the photo below. It comes in different ‘counts’ – the smaller the count, the smaller the ‘boxes’ in the fabric. Hence, beginners are better off starting with 14 count Aida fabric or a higher count, for larger size boxes to work with. Buy a colour that you think will suit the cross stitch pattern.
You will need a tapestry needle to make cross stitch, in a size that fits the holes of your Aida fabric. For 14 count Aida, buy a size 24 tapestry needle.
‘Floss’ is the embroidery thread used to sew the actual cross stitches. DMC is the best quality and most well known brand of thread to use. Other brands (Semco, Anchor etc) are cheaper, but you’ll need to check the DMC equivalent number on the label to get the right colours. DMC have a standard universal colour system, where each colour has its own number and these numbers are used worldwide in cross stitch patterns. Semco, Anchor etc have their own colour numbering systems but these aren’t the same numbers as DMC.
Print out the cross stitch pattern and take the list of required DMC colours to a craft shop. Buy all of the DMC colours listed, or their equivalents. You can also buy floss winders to wrap the thread on and floss boxes to keep the winders neatly stored for future cross stitch projects (but only do this if you’re thinking of crafting more than one project).
The hoop frame is a useful tool for sewing the cross stitch and is also used to present it nicely at the end. Hoop frames come in different sizes and your Lucky Star pattern specification will tell you which size you need. Hoop frames are usually measured in diameter, so a 6” hoop frame will be 6” across the width of the centre of the frame. Hoop frames with a screw/bolt at the top are preferred, especially if you want to decorate the frame later.
Cut the fabric
Lay your hoop frame on top of the Aida fabric and cut a square around it, leaving a large 3” border of fabric on the four sides. If your fabric is creased or won’t sit flat, iron it first.
Mark the exact centre
Fold your fabric into quarters and put your tapestry needle through the centre ‘box’. This marks the exact centre of the fabric for working. This isn’t the visual centre, which we’ll talk about later, but you do need to mark the exact centre for working.
Hoop the fabric
Unfold the fabric and place it in the hoop frame, doing up the screw on top of the hoop frame to tighten the fabric in the frame. Leave the tapestry needle still in the centre ‘box’. There is no right or wrong side of the fabric until you start stitching.
Mark the first stitch
Locate the centre on your cross stitch pattern (by following the arrows on edge of the pattern with your finger – don’t mark it like I have in the photo). The centre on the pattern matches where the centre is in your hoop frame.
Cross stitch is traditionally sewn from left to right, top to bottom. Locate the leftmost, topmost stitch in your pattern. You need to count from the centre how many boxes to go up and how many boxes to go left to reach the starting topmost leftmost stitch. There’s no need to mark it on the pattern like I have, but you can make a note somewhere if you like. Count it twice on the pattern to make sure you’re correct, then count it twice on the fabric to find the starting box. Insert a pin to mark it.
Beginning The Cross Stitch
Find the floss colour required for the first leftmost topmost stitch in your pattern key (the bit with the symbols/colours). Cut a 30cm length of floss and separate it into three parts (two strands in each part). Apologies, my photos were taken when I was using three strands, but I have since discovered that two strands work better.
There are six strands in each floss and different amounts of them are used depending on what count size your Aida fabric is. For 14 count Aida, two strands works well. Take the tapestry needle out of the centre of your hoop frame and thread it with the two strands just like they’re one thread. Do not knot the end of your thread.
Attaching The Thread
(1) The pin marking the starting stitch location. (2) Flip over the hoop frame to the reverse side and locate the pinned box. (3) Remove the pin while marking the box with your finger. You will sew the thread through the nearest horizontal warp. (4) Without going through to the front of the fabric, hold the end of the thread with your fingertip to do so. (5) Leave a 1cm thread tail. Sew again twice more. (6) When you look at the front of the fabric, you should have a slight hint of thread showing and this marks the starting box.
Stitching The First Row
(1) Flip the hoop to the front side and (2) stitch diagonally from the bottom left to the top right of each box, following the row in your pattern. My butterfly pattern says I need to stitch three boxes in the first row, but your pattern may be different. (6) When you’ve finished however many stitches/boxes are indicated in your pattern’s first row, start working back along the row by going from bottom right to top left.
Stitching The Second Row
(1) Finishing the first row. (2) When you’ve finished the row, you should have some neat looking crosses in the boxes. This is cross stitching! (3) Mark off the first line of your pattern with a texta and do the second line. (4) Bring the needle up through the bottom left of the box where the second line starts and repeat the process of the first line. (6) Do the amount of stitches as shown in your pattern.
Ending & Attaching Thread
(1) When you’ve stitched enough rows that your thread runs out, simply repeat the process of sewing the thread through the nearest horizontal warp on the back of the fabric, only this time you’ll do it inside the existing cross stitch instead of using an empty box. (2) Sew the three stitches and cut off the thread, leaving a 1cm tail. (3) Start a new thread the same way as you initially did, choosing a new warp inside the cross stitch area, stitching three times through it and leaving a 1cm tail. (4) The back of the work can get a little messy, but that’s OK. (5) Continue stitching on the front, following your pattern.
Every now and then, you’ll see that cross stitch patterns skip boxes. This is normal and often happens and you just need to match skipping the boxes in the pattern with your actual stitching. To do this, instead of starting at the bottom left of the next box as you stitch from left to right, move the needle across, skipping however many boxes your pattern indicates. The photo below shows how I skipped two boxes in the second last row. Please read The Golden Rule below for more information about this.
The Golden Rule
In cross stitch, there is a Golden Rule to follow to keep your work of a high standard and to avoid a messier back. It is: do not skip more than three boxes in a row when you need to leave a gap. You can see in the below photo that there is a gap of four boxes before the next ‘L’ stitch. It breaks the Golden Rule, so we don’t stitch it. It will either be stitched at a later time in a later row, or we add a new thread and stitch that section separately (later).
Working Other Rows As You Go
Sometimes, it’s possible in the next three rows to do the stitches that weren’t done previously. For example, (1) I started stitching the next row. (2) And on the row after it, I was able to go up a row to do the undone stitches (3-4) and do them. (5) Then I finished the original row. (6) I marked off the lot on my pattern. Feel free to do this, but you still can’t skip more than three boxes/rows/columns to go to the undone stitches (the Golden Rule still applies).
You can also work other rows below your current row, as well as above. This photo shows an extra row stitched below the current row, because it won’t be able to be stitched in the normal manner due to the Golden Rule.
Attaching A New Colour
Sew through a horizontal warp inside existing stitching, like the photo below, to start the next colour (end the previous thread first). Since you’re working from left to right generally for the whole cross stitch, there is usually some stitching in place where you need it. If there isn’t, you’ll need to add the thread on a blank box warp, but doing it is generally not ideal and should be avoided except where there is no other choice.
Errors & Mistakes
Sometimes you might make a mistake and sew too many or not enough boxes in a row. Simply remove the needle from the thread, then use the needle to poke through the top thread of the last box done and pull it to undo it. Do this across the row from right to left and then from left to right until you can thread the needle again and fix the error. Even with errors done on previous rows, it is possible with lots of patience to undo them using this method.
Here’s an example of how the back of your work should look. It’s messy, but you can see that there are clear vertical lines where the cross stitch is and that there are no looped knots, bumps or long threads breaking the Golden Rule.
As you work, the thread twists and this can cause knots. To prevent knots, when the thread is on the front of the work, lift the hoop up and let the thread suspend towards the ground. The thread will unwind itself. You can help it along by pulling on the thread end nearest the needle to unwind the top (see arrow) and then let it go. It’s good practise to do this occasionally!
Knots are an inevitable part of doing cross stitch. Some knots can be undone easily (see photo) and others cannot. If you have a knot like the one below, put your needle through the loop and pull up firmly, away from the thread end coming out of the fabric. The knot should grow smaller (you might need to hold the thread with one hand, while pulling firmly with the needle in the other hand). Remove the needle, then pull firmly on both ends of the thread. The little knot should vanish.
Knots which cannot be undone should be removed by cutting off the knot, ending the thread and attaching a new thread to continue. Occasionally you might get a very small permanent knot (ie 1mm or less in size) and you can still keep going with these, as long as it doesn’t leave a big lump or appear on the front of the fabric.
Backstitch is done at the end, when the rest of the pattern has been stitched. (1) It is indicated by lines instead of squares on the pattern. (2) Choose one strand of floss for a thin backstitch or two strands for a thicker one and attach thread. (3) Start the backstitch at the end closest to the main stitched area – where thread can be attached neatly, the usual way. (4) Backstitch is a running stitch. Stitch it according to the pattern, going in and out of the fabric. (5) Then, go back the way you came, filling in all the gaps. (6) Do the next line of backstitch if there is one and end thread when complete.
Here’s an example of how I worked my cross stitch. The rows are always stitched from left to right, but the colour progression order across the cross stitch is up to you. I like to work in a general left to right, top to bottom progression, but I also like to finish whole coloured sections one at a time. You can see that it would be a lot easier to do sections based on colour rather than finish the top left wing completely, then doing the bottom left wing completely and so on.
I started the black part of the top right wing by counting the pattern and the fabric and adding the thread in a blank box, just like how we began the cross stitch. It was easier to do it this way than to start in the middle of the right wing somewhere and work both up and down the rows required.
Iron Your Finished Cross Stitch
When you’ve done all the stitching indicated on the pattern, remove it from the hoop frame. Iron the back of the cross stitch (so the front doesn’t get damaged). You can press on a high setting such as a cotton setting and use steam if you like. Some people like to use a teatowel in between the iron and and the cross stitch but I find it more effective without one, as long as the iron is clean.
Add The Hoop Frame
Unscrew the top part on your hoop frame so it’s looser and place the top of the frame over the ironed cross stitch, with the inner ring underneath. Try to put the finished cross stitch in the centre of the frame (this is known as the visual centre, which is different to the working centre we started with). You can hold up the hoop parts to the light to get a better idea of what looks centred if it helps. Tighten the screw on the hoop frame. Congratulations, hopefully you’ve now learned how to do cross stitch!
If you want the frame to look as pretty as the one below, check out my Decorative Hoop Frame Wrapping Tutorial for complete step-by-step instructions.