A few weeks ago, my friend Lux Alptraum (who runs the fantastically NSFW porn blog Fleshbot) asked me if I could teach her how to do cross-stitch embroidery. Sure, I said. Needlepoint was actually one of the first crafts I learned, and I still find it extraordinarily comforting. And cross-stitch is one of the easiest kinds of embroidery to learn: it’s all in the counting. The thing about cross stitch is there’s only one stitch. Cross-stitch is the baking to free embroidery’s cooking. Just stick to the pattern, count your squares, and you’ll be fine. And once you get the hang of it, it’s easy to come up with patterns of your own — there are even great online tools that can help.
As a kid growing up in Christchurch, New Zealand, I spent Saturday mornings downtown in a drafty former classroom in the old Girls’ high building (the one Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey attend in Heavenly Creatures) perfecting my chain stitch under the sharp-eyed supervision of the local needlepoint club. All of the other members of the club were elderly women who could do crewel work in their sleep. When I reached middle school age, I started to feel self-conscious about my interest in embroidery — needlework was just so uncool, and back then I still thought I had a shot at being cool — and I quit the club out of shame. But I never forgot what I learned there.
It’s easy, even fashionable, to be disdainful of women’s work like needlepoint and sewing. But knowing how to use a needle and thread is, frankly, a life skill, which practicing embroidery hones — and it’s a means of creating things of beauty that are truly your own (so that you don’t have to buy them from a store owned or managed by some already-rich dude). If you’ve ever thought about picking up needlepoint as a hobby, here’s one way you can start.
Cross-stitch embroidery takes place within a grid. On a paper pattern, the gridded squares are marked with symbols that signify colors — in this case, our pattern is text (“You say the nastiest shit in bed and it’s fuckin’ awesome,” a lyric from a Childish Gambino song Lux loves) and the only colors we are using are black for the text and pink for accents. The cloth used for cross-stitch is called aida cloth, and it’s a very stiff semi-open weave fabric with little holes arranged in a square grid. Aida cloth comes in different gauges — the numbers signify the number of squares per inch, so 12-gauge aida cloth has smaller squares than 8-gauge, and so on. The thread used for cross-stitch is called embroidery floss. Each piece of embroidery floss has six strands. Depending on your gauge, you will likely only need to work with two or three strands of floss to get full coverage.
To begin, Lux ran her text through an online tool that rendered her text as a cross-stitch pattern that she could then print off the Internet. You can choose any font. There are lots of similar tools available; they’re pretty nifty.
To make this project or a similar project, you will need aida cloth in your desired gauge, embroidery needles, embroidery floss in your chosen color/s, sewing scissors, an embroidery hoop (optional, but it makes things easier), and your paper pattern.
First, fold your paper pattern in half vertically and horizontally to divide it into quadrants. Then use a ruler and pen to mark your dividing lines — rule along, not between, the grid lines. Then take one strand of embroidery floss and do a running stitch across your aida cloth to divide it into quadrants. It helps if you come into and out of the aida cloth at regular intervals — every four squares, say, or every five. This helps you keep count of the squares in your pattern.
When you have finished your running stitches, put the aida cloth in the hoop. Try to center it, but as you can see from our photo it doesn’t have to be perfect.
Now take two or three strands of your main floss color — in this case, basically our only color — and thread your needle. Count the squares on your pattern to find out how many squares over from the center and how many squares up the top of the first pattern element begins. Then start cross-stitching.
To cross-stitch, you just sew a little “X” between the four holes of the aida cloth’s grid. First you make one cross — see above, we made all of the “/” stitches first — and then you go back and do the second cross — the “" stitch. You do this because it looks nicer when all the crosses lie the same way. Don’t knot your embroidery floss to start, just catch the thread tail in your first couple of stitches.
Here we’ve finished the cross-stitches on the letter “Y” and done the “/” stitches on the letter “o”.
Things to watch out for when you’re cross stitching mainly include misreading the pattern and getting the wrong stitches in the wrong squares (count, count, counting is your friend), and accidentally splitting the aid cloth by pushing your needle next to, rather than through, a hole. (This is a risk because the cloth has a pretty open weave.) Take your time to double-check that you’re putting the needle in the correct hole and that the square corresponds correctly to your pattern. Basically, embroidery should be fun and not hurried.
Continue to follow the pattern, counting off your grid squares. When you run out of thread, pull the tail through your last stitches to secure it. Don’t tie a knot.
This is Lux’s completed text. I think it looks amazing.
She added a couple pink hearts from a pattern she found online. She took all of these photos, too, by the way.
The last step is to remove the single-strand running-stitch guidelines that divided your aida cloth into quadrants. Just tease each strand up with a needle, and pull gently. They should slide right out from underneath the cross stitches.
Then unhoop your aida cloth, iron it, and do what you want to do with your embroidery — the traditional choices are to turn it into a pillow, or frame it for your wall, which is what Lux has done. You do you. Happy crafting!