Chapter 1

1. Selecting the Fabric
2. Selecting the Floss
3. Selecting the Needle
4. Setting the Floss Color
5. Preparing the Fabric
6. Hoop or Hand
7. Thread Length
8. Number of Strands
9. Where to Start Stitching
10. How to Start the Thread
11. Making the X
12. Fractional Stitches
13. Carrying Threads Over
14. How to End the Thread
15. Backstitching

  Chapter 2  Chapter 3

Needlework FAQ:
Counted Cross Stitch Tutorial

Created by: ©Kathleen Dyer
All Rights Reserved.



1. Selecting the Fabric - Aida vs. Evenweaves/Linen

Counted cross stitch has few rules. The main one is to enjoy yourself. You may follow or ignore any of the tips listed in this FAQ and still be a "real" cross stitcher.

People often learn to do counted cross stitch on aida and later learn to stitch on linen or other evenweaves as they become more experienced. Many stitchers who know how to work on linen prefer it to aida. As always though, this is a matter of personal choice. Some very experienced stitchers prefer aida.

An evenweave is any fabric which has the same number of threads per inch in both the vertical and horizontal directions. The individual threads might not all be the same thickness--you can see this in linen--but the number of threads are the same.

Aida is worked with one X over one square, while linen and other evenweaves are generally worked over two threads. This means that a 28 count (28 threads per inch) linen produces the same size picture as a 14 count (14 squares per inch) aida. See section: 18. Stitching On Linens and Other Evenweaves in chapter 2 for a more detailed explanation of stitching "over two."

Most evenweaves aren't as stiff as most aida. This can be a plus or minus, depending on your own preferences. The difference in stiffness isn't usually a factor if the fabric is worked in a hoop or on scroll bars.

Fractional stitches (1/4 stitches and 3/4 stitches ) can be much easier to do on an evenweave material. On aida, the needle needs to punch through the middle of the little square in order to complete the stitch. This can made somewhat easier by using a small sized needle (#26 or #28). No "punching through" is needed on an evenweave, as the needle simply goes between the two threads. See section "12. Fractional Stitches" for a more detailed explanation of fractional stitches.

Some people find it easier to see the holes on linen and other evenweaves, others find the aida easier.

The look of the cloth in the background is also important when selecting a fabric. Both texture and color should be considered.

Aida is generally less expensive. Whatever fabric you choose to work on, always buy the best quality you can afford. The amount of time invested in a project can be quite large and is far more valuable than a small savings up front.

Also make sure to know the fiber content and if the fabric requires any special care.


2. Selecting the Floss/Thread/Fiber

Commercial charts suggest which type and color of thread to use. Kits even supply the thread for you. However, there are times when you want to select the thread yourself.

Situation: The floss supplied in a kit is of poor quality.

If you are lucky, the chart supplied with the kit lists color numbers and a brand name. This doesn't happen very often, at least with kits that supply ugly floss. If there is no list, try to get a color card for one of the big-name brands of floss such as DMC or Anchor. Look for one which includes thread samples. Match the colors from the kit with the colors on the card as carefully as you can. Do it in natural light. Write down the numbers of the colors you need on the chart next to the correct symbol. If you can't find a color card, take the bad floss with you to your local needlework store and do the matching there. Be careful, because the lighting in some stores can make the colors look wrong.

Situation: You want to use a different brand of floss than suggested.

Some charts supply color number information for two or three manufacturers' floss. If not, try to find a floss conversion chart. Keep in mind that many thread colors don't have exact matches in other brands so don't try this on your important projects or intricate designs.

Situation: You created the chart yourself, or you want a different texture or finish.

If you are experienced enough to create your own chart, you are probably experienced enough to select fibers. Consider using the many new types of fibers which are now available, such as metallics and hand painted silks. Always keep in mind the final use of whatever you are stitching. For example, don't use a non-colorfast silk for a baby's bib.

Situation: You want to use different colors than suggested.

If it is a geometric design or a simple picture with no shading, replace the colors anyway you like. More care must be taken for complex pictures. Compare the values of the old set of colors and the new set to make sure they are the same. You can do this by looking at the threads through red glass or cellophane, or by photocopying them in black-and-white.

While we're on the topic of fibers, here is a definition, just in case you ever see references to "Z-twist" or "S-twist."

From: Noeline McCaughan <noeline@styx.equinox.gen.nz>...

Just to make things a little clearer -"Z" and "S" are used to describe the twist in a yarn - any yarn regardless of what fibre it is spun from. Just take a piece of thick yarn and hold it up in front of your eyes. If the twist goes from top right to bottom left it is called "Z" (the slant of the twist equaling the slant of the downstroke in the letter). If it slopes from top left to right bottom it is of course an "S".


3. Selecting the Needle

Counted cross stitch should be done with a tapestry needle. Tapestry needles have blunt points and much larger eyes than sewing needles. The blunt points prevent the needles from piercing fabric threads.

Tapestry needles come in a variety of sizes. A larger size number means a smaller needle. Cross stitching usually requires a #22, #24, #26 or #28 needle.

One traditional rule says you should use a #22 needle if the fabric is 14 count (14 threads per inch) or less, a #24 or #26 needle if the fabric count is 16-18 count, and a #26 needle if the fabric is finer than 18.

The needle should be large enough to move the fabric threads out of the way just a tiny bit. This reduces the friction and wear on your stitching fiber.

The floss or fiber thickness and number of strands used can also affect the choice needle size.

The usual "rule" holds--find a size (or sizes) you like.

Some people lose the finish on their needles over time. Besides being ugly, this can make the needle more difficult to use. Special finishes, such as gold and platinum, are available. They cost more but some stitchers find they last longer. Try different finishes until you find the one that works best for you.

Chair arms are very convenient for holding needles, but such use can cause other members of the household to acquire a more intimate acquaintance with the tools of your craft than either they or you desire. A pin cushion is an obvious solution. Needle safes also work well. These are small, flat cases lined on the inside faces with magnets. Needle safes can cost from US$5 for a small plastic one to more than US$30 for a good, handcrafted, wood-and-brass box. People have also had good results with magnetic paperclip holders, available in any place that sells office supplies.


4. Setting the Floss Color

Floss is generally colorfast, but some people like to be very cautious when using dark or intense colors in heirloom quality projects. If you choose to be this cautious, do the following.

Obviously, you should not do this if you know the floss was dyed with a non-colorfast dye.

5. Preparing the Fabric

The following suggestions are very conservative and cautious. It is safest to list many things of which a stitcher might want to be aware. You are then free to use or ignore whatever you choose.

Trim off any selvage edges, as the tightly woven edge may cause uneven tension in the fabric.

Some people recommend stitching on a project so that the warp threads go from top to bottom, with what was the selvage edge at the side. See section "31.1 Warp and Weft and Why and Why Not" in chapter 3 for a more detailed explanation of how you determine the warp and weft and why you may want to do so.

Make sure the fabric is actually the count you think it is. Mark one inch of fabric using pins or some other method. Count the number of squares or threads. If the count is very different than what you believed, you will need to cut the fabric to match the true count. For example, if your 32 count linen is actually 30 count, the stitches and the project will be larger than expected. A bigger piece of fabric will be needed.

Cut the fabric to size for the project. Allow at least an extra 3" to 4" on each edge.

Pre-rinse very dark or very red fabrics to make sure the color will not run. Rinse until the water is clear. Obviously, you should not do this if you know the fabric was dyed with a non-colorfast dye.

If there are folds, make sure they will come out. Dampen and press the fabric.

Prepare the edges. Some of the options:


6. Hoop or Hand?

There is a traditional rule which says to stitch on aida using a hoop and stitch on linen "in the hand". In actual practice, people do whatever works best for them. Many who like their fabric taut do tend to avoid hoops in favor of scroll bars or Q-Snaps when working on linen or other evenweaves, as hoops may damage the fabric or leave marks. See section "30.2 Hoops, Scroll Bars and Such" in chapter 3 for more information on the equipment itself. See section "18. Stitching On Linens and Other Evenweaves" in chapter 2 for a more detailed explanation stitching on linen.

Some people find it easier to control the tension of their thread with one method, some find it easier with the other. The most important thing is to use what works best for you.

For the purpose of this discussion, let's use the word "bars" to refer to all those things which can be used to hold the fabric taut--hoops, stretcher bars, scroll bars and Q-Snaps.

Advantages of "in the hand":

Advantages of bars:


7. Thread Length

Floss should be cut about 18"-20" long, or twice that if the thread will be doubled for the loop method. Some people like to use one arm length when doubling. See section "10. How to Start the Thread" for more information about the loop method.

Metallics or any fibers with rough surfaces should be cut somewhat shorter to help prevent fraying.

Separate the floss into individual strands and then recombine them. This is known as "stripping" the floss. There is less twisting and knotting, and the stitches lie flatter. To separate a thread from the others, hold onto the top end of the thread between your thumb and forefinger. Pull down on it with the other thumb and forefinger, taking all the other threads with you. It looks like a knot will form. Have faith. Everything comes out just fine.


8. Number of Strands to Use

The number of strands of floss to use is, as with most of counted cross stitch, open to individual choice. Traditionally, a certain amount of the background cloth should be visible. However, some people prefer a full, covered look. Some common choices are two or three strands for 14 stitches per inch, two strands for 18 stitches per inch, and three or four strands for 11 stitches per inch. Try a few stitches on a scrap of the project's fabric to see if the look is what you want.


9. Where to Start Stitching

You're finally ready to make that first stitch on a new piece of fabric. What's the right location in which to start? The center of the cloth? The upper left? The lower right?

The design should be centered. Find the center of the fabric by folding it in half, then folding it in half the other way. Mark the center with a pin, a stitch, or some other method.

While the design itself should be centered, where you start stitching that design is up to you. Here are some different schools of thought.


10. How to Start the Thread

And now for a strong suggestion--do not knot the thread. An exception might be made for a special case, such as an isolated stitch with no other stitches near it in the design.

So, what is it you should do? There are several methods listed below. Many people use more than one, depending on the circumstances.

Running Under

Run the thread under four or five of the stitches on the back, if they are right next to where you want to start. You may choose to whip stitch around the second or third stitch as you are running under. This helps to lock the thread in.


Sometimes dark colors show through when woven under lighter colors. Check to make sure this isn't happening.

A variation--if you stitch in a manner that leaves vertical lines on the back, try whip stitching or weaving the thread up (or down) a few of these vertical stitches. This technique makes for a very neat looking back.


Loop Method

The normal version of the loop start only works for even numbers of strands.

For two strands, start with one strand twice as long as you need. Fold it in half. Thread the needle so the two ends are near the needle and the "loop" is the end farthest from the needle. Start the stitch with the loop end dangling a little bit below the cloth. When the needle comes back down to the underside, run it between the loop and the cloth, and gently pull the loop tight.


People who like using loop starts have come up with methods to do something similar to a loop start with uneven numbers of strands. I have mixed feelings about some of the methods as they take quite a bit of extra effort, but people say they make the backs of the projects very neat.

Here's one from Jim Cripwell <jim_jill@freenet.carleton.ca>...

Cut the main thread twice the length as usual, and fold it in half. Take a second thread the length you use for stitching, and place one end unevenly with the two ends for the loop start. The third thread should be short at the needle end, and long at the loop end. Do a normal loop start, pulling all three threads through the loop. Unthread the needle, and thread the long end of the third thread, now at the back of the work. Finish this under some threads at the back, but do *not* cut it. Carefully pull this third thread, until its end is buried nicely at the back. It will then be nearly even with the other two threads at the needle end. Re-thread the needle with all three strands, and start stitching.

Knotless Waste Knot

Start the thread from the top side, an inch or two from where you want to begin stitching. Leave a tail of thread on the top side. Careful placement of the tail before you start will cause the tail on the back to be covered as you stitch. When you have completed some stitches, pull the tail to the back side. Run it under the new stitches if necessary.


Waste Knot

This is similar to the knotless waste knot described above. One difference is that the tail on the front is knotted, to act as an anchor. Start the thread from the top side. Careful placement of the knot will cause the tail on the back to be covered as you stitch. The remaining tail on the back is run under the new stitches if necessary.


Away Waste Knot

This is similar to the waste knot described above. The tail on the front is knotted, to act as an anchor. Start the thread from the top side. It should be placed out of the way so the tail does not get covered while you stitch. At a later time, the knot on the front is cut away and the remaining tail on the back is run under existing stitches. An away waste knot gives you much more control over the tension and the way the first and last stitches appear from the front.



11. Making the X

One of the few rules in counted cross stitch is that all the stitches should go in the same direction. It doesn't matter if the bottom half goes "/" and the top goes "\", or vice versa. Just make sure that every stitch in the project is done the same way. And to be perfectly honest, there are exceptions to this rule such as 3/4 stitches.

Stitchers who use the traditional method complete each X as they go:

XXXXX/

Stitchers who use the Danish method do the bottom stitches first, and complete the X's as they return:


Many people use a mix of the two methods. They may use the Danish method for most stitches, but do the occasional isolated stitch as a complete X. Another school recommends doing rows with the Danish method and columns with the traditional method. This causes the thread on the back to make vertical lines.

Apparently, some antique samplers which were done in the traditional method survive today because the X's hold the fabric together, and the thread forming the X's themselves is less stressed. The "one-X-at-a-time" approach works well when stitching over one thread, rather than the usual two, as it helps stop the thread from disappearing behind the fabric.

Many people find the Danish method to be faster, and to result in less confusion about current location.

Choose a method which you like, preferably one which results in neat backs. While a neat back isn't required for a good looking front, it usually helps.


12. Fractional Stitches

Fractional stitches (1/4, 1/2 and 3/4) are simply cross stitches with missing arms. They are used to provide a rounded look to a picture (1/4 and 3/4), or an airy look (1/2).


Fractional stitches (1/4 and 3/4) can be much easier to do on linen or other evenweaves. On aida, the needle needs to punch through the middle of the little square in order to complete the stitch. This can made somewhat easier by using a small sized needle (#26 or #28). No "punching through" is needed on linen, as the needle simply goes between the two threads.

A 1/4 stitch is done by coming up from one corner of the square and going down in the center.

A 3/4 stitch is most often done by stitching the short arm first, like a quarter stitch. It is completed with a 1/2 stitch to make the other two arms. Note that this is an exception to the rule that all stitches must go in the same direction, as the long arm of the 3/4 stitch may go either "/" or "\". There are some occasions where people choose to do the 1/2 stitch first and anchor it down with the 1/4 stitch in order to achieve a certain effect.

Frequently, a 1/4 stitch and a 3/4 stitch share a single square. This means that a decision is left up to the stitcher. Which side is the 1/4 and which the 3/4?

As in just about every other area, this is up to you. Here are some different methods. Each provides its own distinct look.

Sometimes a pattern calls for an entire area to be filled with 1/2 stitches rather than full cross stitches. If there are no definite instructions, it is up to you to decide which direction the 1/2 stitches should go--the same as the bottom half of a full cross stitch or the same as the top half. "Bottom" half stitches are more intuitive for some people. "Top" half stitches tend to blend into the background more, which might be the effect you want. Sometimes the picture itself makes a direction obvious. For example, 1/2 stitches used to represent feathers in a wing should probably slant the way the feathers themselves would slant.


13. Carrying Threads Over

You can carry thread over on the back if there is no stitching between two areas of the design, but only for short distances. This means three or four squares on aida, or four threads on linen.

The thread can be carried farther if the region between the two areas has been (or will be) filled in with other stitches. How far? This depends on the relative darkness of the colors. The carried thread should be woven under the existing stitches, but sometimes dark colors show through when woven under lighter colors. Check to make sure this isn't happening. Even under the best conditions, you probably shouldn't carry the thread more than a distance of five or six stitches.

Try to plan your work so that it isn't necessary to travel very far to do the next stitch.

What if a design has individual stitches with no other stitches near by? Imagine a design that represents snowflakes by individual, scattered cross stitches. It calls for each cross stitch to be done with three strands of white floss on a dark fabric. You try traveling from stitch to stitch, but the white floss shows through the fabric. What to do?

Try the following. Use one strand of floss, but stitch the first half of the stitch three times. Now you have the first slant done, with three strands of floss showing. Do the same for the second half of the stitch. When you travel to the next stitch, a single strand in the background won't show through as much as three strands.

Or, if you want to get a little more radical, use knots--one of the few cases where I think using knots is good. Use a single strand to do the stitch as described above. Then take the two ends and tie a square knot to anchor the stitch and cut the ends short. A knot made with a single strand won't be very large and shouldn't create a lump on the front. If you plan on entering the piece in a contest, don't use knots.


14. How to End the Thread

Not surprisingly, the techniques for ending the thread resemble those for starting the thread.

And now for a strong suggestion--do not knot the thread. An exception might be made for a special case, such as an isolated stitch with no other stitches near it in the design.

One good method is to run the thread under four or five of the stitches on the back. You may choose to whip stitch around one of the stitches as you are running under. This helps to lock the thread in.


Sometimes dark colors show through when woven under lighter colors. Check to make sure this isn't happening.

If you stitch in a manner that leaves vertical lines on the back, try whip stitching or weaving up (or down) a few of these vertical stitches. This technique makes for a very neat looking back.



15. Backstitching

Any backstitching should be done after all the cross stitches in the area are complete. The number of strands to use should be given in the chart instructions. Most often a single strand is used.

A common way to start and end the thread is to run it under four or five of the existing cross stitches on the back if they are right next to where you want to start. You may choose to whip stitch around the second or third stitch as you are running under. This helps to lock the thread in.

Backstitching can be done left-to-right, right-to-left, top-to-bottom, bottom-to-top, or even on a diagonal. It all depends on where the outlines need to be. A backstitch from left-to-right would go like this (up on the odd numbers and down on the even):


To turn a corner without leaving a diagonal on the back side (up on the odd numbers and down on the even):


Some people prefer the double running stitch (also known as a Holbein stitch) to a backstitch. This is especially true if the backstitch will leave them stranded in the middle of nowhere. To do a double running stitch, go forward doing every other stitch (up on the odd numbers and down on the even):


Then come back, filling in the gaps:


To keep the line from looking staggered, be consistent on the return trip. Always come up on one side of the stitch that is already there, and go down on the other side. For example, come up above on stitch 7 and down below on stitch 8.



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Copyright ©Kathleen Dyer All Rights Reserved.
Permission is granted to redistribute this article in its entirety for noncommercial use provided that this copyright notice is not removed or altered and that no portion of this work is sold either by itself or as part of a larger work without the express written permission of the author.