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9 Pro Tips for Cross-Stitch Beginners to Set You Up for Success

Becki has been cross stitching since she was ten years old. Now an avid cross-stitcher, she enjoys daily stitching.

I first learned to cross stitch nearly three decades ago. My grandmother taught me, but she wasn't an excellent stitcher herself. Thirty years ago, the internet wasn't available as a source for tips on better stitching, and until recently, Flosstube (stitchers on Youtube) wasn't the resource that it is today. Unhappy with the results of my labors, I abandoned many projects.

It was only recently that I discovered how rewarding this hobby can be, when you're getting the results that you desire.

If you don't have anybody to personally teach you how to cross stitch, please read on! I provide several tips I wish I'd known twenty years ago, along with additional resources to help you to stitch better and to get the results you've always dreamed of!

Get the most out of your cross-stitch projects by learning how the "experts" stitch their projects!

Get the most out of your cross-stitch projects by learning how the "experts" stitch their projects!

First, Wash Your Hands

Even if you think your hands are clean, you should wash them before you touch your cross-stitch fabric or your floss (embroidery thread).

This is because the natural oils on your hands may mark the fabric and floss. You may not be able to see the marks immediately, but over time they may yellow the fabric and stain the floss. Make sure to wash your hands with mild soap before you prepare your fabric or begin stitching.

I personally like to wash my hands frequently during the stitching process. Any time that you touch your face or hair you transfer oils to your hands which may then be transferred to your fabric. Avoid staining (and general grime) by washing your hands frequently.

Prepare Your Cross-Stitch Fabric: The Edges

One of the biggest mistakes that I made when I first started cross-stitching was not preparing my fabric. Because cross-stitch is done over a woven fabric (such as Aida or evenweave), the fabric will fray if it's not prepared properly for stitching.

Now I know what you're thinking: If you have a wide enough margin on your fabric, a bit of fraying isn't going to hurt anything. Right? Wrong.

The problem with fraying is that it produces loose threads from the fabric. When I first started stitching and didn't prepare the edges of my fabric properly, these threads sometimes got tangled in my embroidery hoop or stitched into the work. What time I saved by not preparing the edges of my fabric were wasted when I had to pick all those threads out of the work!

When possible, the best way to prepare the edges of your fabric is to serge them on a sewing machine. If you do not have a serger, however, you have three options:

  1. Fold the edges of the fabric over and sew a running stitch to keep it in place. This is a better option as it will keep the edges out of your way as you work and is quite secure. Bear in mind that this option may not be preferable where there is little margin to work with. (I find that newer Dimensions Gold kits lack the margin I need to make this work.)
  2. Whip stitch the edges of the fabric (without turning it over on itself). This will help to hold the weave in place and prevent fraying, and is the quickest route to preparing your fabric (other than serging on a sewing machine).
  3. Tape the edges with masking tape. I don't like this option (and have stopped using it, even in a pinch) because the masking tape pulls at the fabric and can become unstuck from the edges, getting in the way of my work.

Wherever possible, I prefer to have serged edges to my fabric. However, I do not have a serger on my sewing machine, and therefore am left to stitch the edges of my fabric by hand. I never use masking tape any more.

When possible, the best way to prepare the edges of your fabric is to serge them on a sewing machine.

Prepare Your Cross Stitch Fabric: Gridding

Once your cross-stitch fabric has been measured and the edges have been prepared, consider whether you want to grid your fabric. While this step is by no means necessary, it helps you keep count of your stitches and allows you to use a method known as "parking" if you prefer.

For many years, the "frog" (rip it, rip it!) visited my house. I'd have to tear out hundreds of stitches I'd put into my work because I'd mis-counted by a stitch or two. Then I discovered gridding and gridded fabrics (which can be purchased from sites like 123 Stitch).

Gridded fabric is marked in 10x10 boxes containing 100 stitches (or holes) each. This makes it easier to count your stitches because you'll never be counting more than ten spaces at a time.

If you prefer to grid plain fabric yourself, you may use any of the following tools to do the gridding by hand.

  • Regular carbon pencil will wash out when you're finished with your piece.
  • Washable fabric marking pen should be tested on an edge of your fabric before being used. Some of these can leave a shadow of their marking.
  • Very fine fishing line needs to be stitched into the fabric, but is durable and pulls out easily. This can be difficult to thread onto your needle.
  • Blending filament works the same way you'd use the fishing line, but breaks more easily. On the other hand, it also threads more easily.

The following video demonstrates how to use pencil to grid Aida fabric. This method will also work on any evenweave fabric.

Choose the Right Tensioning Device

When cross-stitching or embroidering, most stitchers like to keep their fabric tension consistent by using a tensioning device. While some prefer to stitch "in hand" (which means stitching with the fabric in your lap and not stretched taut), you will probably want to start out with the fabric stretched.

There are several devices used for maintaining the tension of your fabric. Which you choose will depend on your budget, how flexible you want your device to be, how comfortable your hands are with different devices, and how you sit when you stitch.

  • Embroidery hoops are the most common tensioning device used for this purpose, and can be purchased at any craft store. They consist of two circular or elliptical pieces of wood or plastic that fit together with the fabric between them and tighten with a screw.
  • Embroidery scroll frames are more expensive and also more difficult to find in a variety of sizes. They consist of two parallel dowels with a slot in each, which are fitted to a stationary piece of wood on either side. The fabric is wrapped around the dowels to move it into position for stitching. I've included a video below on how to use these frames.
  • Q-Snaps hold the fabric tight on either side and are adjustable depending on the length of the pipes used. They can be purchased or made from items available at a hardware store. Available in a few sizes, they are a good option if you don't want to have a lot of hardware lying around.

My personal preference is for the Q-Snap. Embroidery hoops hurt my hands and scroll frames can be tricky to get the edge tension (on either side of your fabric) right without additional tensioners. Be aware, however, that both the hoops and the Q-Snaps can damage your stitches if you don't find means to protect them.

To avoid damage to fragile stitches, a scroll frame is a better option for smaller projects. Alternatively, large floor frames are available for bigger projects, but they are pricey.

Put a Contrasting Color Behind Your Work to Help See the Holes

Especially when stitching on high count fabric (that is, fabric with more stitches/holes per inch), it can be difficult to see where the holes are. When you get stuck finding the holes in the fabric, it slows down your stitching speed. Since satisfaction comes from seeing the picture emerge from your work, this can be a real drag!

One trick I've learned for helping me see the holes is to use a contrasting color behind my fabric. If I'm stitching on white (which I usually am), I try to put something black behind my work. I might wear a black skirt if I'm reclining while stitching, or put a black cloth on the table if I'm stitching at the table.

The opposite is true if you're stitching on darker fabric. Try to find something light to put behind it to contrast with the color of the fabric.

This is especially true if you're stitching with light colors on light fabric or dark colors on dark fabric. The harder it is to see your stitches, the more important it is to put a contrasting color behind your fabric.

The tensioning device you choose to use when cross-stitching will impact your hands while you stitch and your finished product.

The tensioning device you choose to use when cross-stitching will impact your hands while you stitch and your finished product.

Count Three Times

Ask any experienced stitcher: At some point, they've had to "frog" their work, tearing out row after row of stitches. It happens even after years of practice, and even with gridding.

It will, at some point, happen to you.

You can avoid this experience, and reduce the frequency with which you have to rip out stitches, by making sure you count three times -- both on your fabric, and on your chart. Make sure you have the correct color, the correct number of stitches, and the correct distance both from the edge of your fabric (or your 10x10 box) and from the most recent stitch made.

Counting may be easier if you choose to "park" your stitches. This method involves stitching only through a 10x10 box at one time and then placing the thread in the next closest hole where it next appears on your chart. Some people find they mis-count less often when they use this method.

Mark Stitches You've Made on Your Chart

If you're stitching from a printed chart, first, make a photocopy of the chart. This means you'll still have the original (without markings), and the working copy on which you will make your marks.

If you're working with a PDF chart, you may want to check out Pattern Keeper (only available for Android at this time), which will allow you to keep track of your pattern as you stitch on whatever Android device you use.

Mark your stitches as you make them by highlighting each box on your chart. A highlighter pen works for printed patterns, or you can highlight the box on your PDF chart.

This will prevent you from accidentally making the same stitch twice, will make counting easier, and (in my opinion best of all!) help you keep track of your progress through the chart, showing you how close you're getting to completion!

Printed ChartsPDF ChartsComplete Kits

Portable and Timeless

Adaptable for Different Devices

Good for Beginners

Great Heirlooms

Must Be Backed Up

Includes Printed Chart

May Bleed When Marked

Easy to Mark Stitches

Manufacturer May Be Generous With Replacements

Floss and Fabric Must Be Purchased Separately

Floss and Fabric Must Be Purchased Separately

Includes Floss and Fabric

Stitch in a Direction You're Comfortable With

Cross stitch looks best when all stitches go in a single direction.

This can be tricky for beginners working from a kit, as most kits suggest you start at the center of your project and stitch outward. If you're anything like me, you'll probably find this awkward, because it means changing the direction of your stitching for each of the four quarters of your piece.

For me, I stitch from the bottom left to the top right (first half-stitch) and then from the bottom right to the top left (second half-stitch, which crosses the first). You might prefer to stitch in a different order, and that's fine! The important thing is to make sure your stitches all go in the same direction as one another.

To make this easier, you may wish to measure your fabric and then start in a corner instead of in the center. Just be cautious if stitching from a kit -- in particular Dimensions kits. These often lack the margin you'd choose when purchasing your own fabric for your projects.

Simple patterns will yield great results for beginners and provide encouragement going forward.

Choosing Your First Pattern

If you're new to cross-stitching, there are some things you might want to take into consideration with your patterns. The cross-stitches themselves are relatively easy to create, but there are other factors to consider, such as the following.

  • Does the pattern make use of half cross stitches and/or back stitch? Back stitching is relatively easy, but I find when I'm otherwise finished with a piece, it can be tedious to finish it off with back stitches. You may want to start with a more straightforward pattern.
  • How big is the pattern? Some of the simplest patterns available come from sites like Heaven and Earth Designs (HAED), or Tilton Crafts, but these can be large patterns. My first HAED pattern was 18 pages, and for a full-sized pattern, that's small for HAED.
  • How many colors are in the pattern? The fewer the number of colors, the easier the pattern. If you do a sampler in a single color, for example, you'll find it easier than stitching small areas with dozens of colors (known as "confetti" in the cross-stitch world).

The best choices for beginners are small, have few specialty stitches, and a small number of colors (fewer than 20).

Follow the advice of experienced cross-stitchers and avoid some of the common mistakes that get beginners down!

Follow the advice of experienced cross-stitchers and avoid some of the common mistakes that get beginners down!

Have Any Tips To Add?

If you're an experienced cross-stitcher and would like to add your tips, please include them in the comments below! There's always more to learn, and it's exciting to expand an already enjoyable hobby with more tips and tricks!

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