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3 Cross-Stitch Techniques for Neat Stitches That Lay Flat

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Hello, my name is Sue, and I have been cross stitching for over 30 years. I hope you find the content of this article useful.

Learn about three techniques to keep your cross stitch laying flat and looking nice.

Learn about three techniques to keep your cross stitch laying flat and looking nice.

How Do I Keep My Cross Stitch Neat?

I have been cross stitching for over 30 years, but it wasn't until I started watching cross-stitch podcasts on YouTube that I realised there was a lot I could do to improve the neatness of my stitches. Neat cross stitches will look even, with the top arms of the stitches always laying in the same direction. Another mark of neatness is whether your stitches lay flat.

As we stitch, our thread has a tendency to twist with the repetition of pushing and pulling it through the fabric. If we don't keep an eye on this, some stitches will look bulkier, more rounded or more twisted than others. The usual technique for this problem is to let your needle and thread drop now and then to untwist the thread—but by improving your technique, you shouldn't have to do this as much.

Many of us would like to get our projects done as quickly as we can. However, I've found that accepting that cross stitch isn't quick and that the finished product deserves to look its very best has helped me to get in the right frame of mind to improve my technique rather than my speed.

Recommended Stitching Techniques for Flat, Tidy Stitches

I provide instructions for these techniques by way of text, photographs and video.

  1. Railroading
  2. Reverse Needle
  3. Thread Positioning

Note: There is an assumption made in this article that you know how to do cross stitches and that you use two strands of stranded cotton.

1. Railroading

Railroading is a cross-stitch technique that is probably the most popular method of ensuring neat stitching.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Bring your needle and thread to the starting point of your first cross stitch (e.g., the bottom left corner).
  2. Pull your needle and thread right through, ready to complete the first arm of your cross stitch.
  3. Normally, the next step is to insert your needle and thread into and through the opposite corner (top right). Well, you are still going to do that, but you're going to do an extra step first: Part your thread with the tip of your needle before inserting your needle into the top right corner of your first stitch. This will make your stitches lay flat and even. (See image 1 in the photo tutorial below.)
  4. Now do exactly the same for the top arm of your cross stitch. Go up with your needle and thread through the bottom right corner. Part the thread with the tip of your needle and insert your needle and thread through the top left corner. (See image 2 below.)
  5. Complete your stitch. (See image 3 below.)

Note that many stitchers use the railroading technique for the top arm of each stitch only. This is because the bottom arm is mostly covered up. However, I know some stitchers who railroad every part of their cross stitches.

Photo Tutorial: Railroading

Image 1. Part the thread with the tip of your needle before inserting your needle into the opposite corner of your first stitch.

Image 1. Part the thread with the tip of your needle before inserting your needle into the opposite corner of your first stitch.

Image 2. Part the thread with your needle again when doing the top arm of the stitch.

Image 2. Part the thread with your needle again when doing the top arm of the stitch.

Image 3. This is a completed stitch using the railroading method.

Image 3. This is a completed stitch using the railroading method.

2. Reverse Needle

This is the reverse needle technique in a nutshell: Instead of bringing the tip of your needle through your fabric from behind, you bring the eye of your needle through. This technique causes your thread to twist less so your stitches will lay more evenly.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Bring your needle and thread to the starting point of your first cross stitch (e.g., the bottom left corner).
  2. Pull your needle and thread right through, ready to complete the first arm of your cross stitch.
  3. Insert your needle and thread into and through the top right corner of your first cross stitch. The first arm of your cross stitch is now complete.
  4. Now insert the eye of your needle through the bottom right corner of your cross stitch. Yes, that's right—the eye of your needle. (See image 4 in the photo tutorial below.)
  5. Complete your stitch by inserting your needle and thread through the top left corner. (See image 5 below.)

Photo Tutorial: Reverse Needle

Image 4. Instead of bringing the tip of your needle through the fabric from behind, bring the eye of the needle through. This reduces twisting in the thread.

Image 4. Instead of bringing the tip of your needle through the fabric from behind, bring the eye of the needle through. This reduces twisting in the thread.

Image 5. This is a completed stitch using the reverse needle method.

Image 5. This is a completed stitch using the reverse needle method.

How Can I Stop My Thread From Fraying When I Reverse the Needle?

The reverse needle technique tends to be loved or loathed by stitchers. That's because it can have a tendency to thin or fray your thread. However, you can reduce the chances of this happening by using the right size needle for your fabric, keeping your thread at a manageable length and using softer fabrics. Some cross-stitch fabrics are so stiff that it feels like you are trying to stitch through board.

3. Thread Positioning

Being mindful of the position of your thread can also lead to neater cross stitches.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Bring your needle and thread to the starting point of your first cross stitch (e.g., the bottom left corner).
  2. As you take your needle and thread to the top right corner, make sure your thread is laying towards the top of your work. (See image 6 in the photo tutorial below.) Pull your needle and thread through to complete the first arm of your cross stitch.
  3. Bring your needle and thread up through the bottom right corner of your first cross stitch.
  4. As you take your needle and thread up to the top left corner, make sure your thread is laying towards the top of your work. (See image 7 below.) Pull through and complete your cross stitch. (See image 8 below.)

Photo Tutorial: Thread Positioning

Image 6. Keep your thread laying towards the top of your work.

Image 6. Keep your thread laying towards the top of your work.

Image 7. Make sure your thread lays towards the top of your work as you complete each stitch.

Image 7. Make sure your thread lays towards the top of your work as you complete each stitch.

Image 8. This is a completed stitch using the thread positioning method.

Image 8. This is a completed stitch using the thread positioning method.

Tips and Troubleshooting for the Thread Positioning Technique

  • Droopy stitches? If you let your thread lay towards the bottom of your work as you stitch (as in image 9 below), then the result can be a slightly droopy-looking top arm of your cross stitches (as in image 10 below).
  • Twisted thread? Of course, you will still have to let your thread unwind now and then to untwist it, or you could combine this technique with railroading.
  • Reverse twist? Some stitchers swear by giving their needle and thread a little reverse twist before bringing them from the back to the front of your fabric, but personally I never got on with this method.
Image 9. Don't do this! If you let your thread lay towards the bottom of your work as you stitch, it can cause droopy stitches.

Image 9. Don't do this! If you let your thread lay towards the bottom of your work as you stitch, it can cause droopy stitches.

Image 10. The droopy top arm of this stitch is the result of thread laying towards the bottom while stitching.

Image 10. The droopy top arm of this stitch is the result of thread laying towards the bottom while stitching.

Examples of My Cross-Stitch Projects

The two photos below show examples of my cross-stitch work. I hope you find these techniques useful in your own work! Happy stitching!

A piece of my cross-stitch work.

A piece of my cross-stitch work.

A framed cross-stitch piece I made.

A framed cross-stitch piece I made.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Sue Payn

Comments

Ethel on July 11, 2020:

Thank you so much for this complete and wonderful tutorial.

Regards from Chile

Tori Leumas on September 29, 2019:

I love the photo of the one you made with the snow and trees and fence. It's so pretty! I used to cross-stitch when I was a teenager, but I haven't done it in over a decade.