The lowly cross stitch was probably every stitcher's first introduction to embroidery. I know I started my own children off that way. At the age of 3, my daughter Jessica persuaded me to give her a needle and thread and an embroidery hoop so she could stitch "just like mommy." Like most children being taught by their mums, she said, "Go away, I can do it better all on my own!" And the first real stitch she did all on her own was a cross stitch . . . which shows what a primitive stitch it is.
If you are to do it a little more neatly than Jessica's first efforts, you must work on an even-weave fabric, or on needlepoint canvas, so that you can count the threads to keep your stitches even.
Some of the earliest cross-stitch embroideries came from the Greek islands, where peasant blouses were made, but not all of us have the time for those very fine stitches. Lawn or organza fabric with a weave that suggests a mesh or grid is perfect because it allows you to make a bold pattern, fitting each cross stitch into the square of the fabric so your peasant blouse won't take a lifetime.
There are other materials -- checked gingham for instance -- that are "made" for cross stitch. Use the fabric as you would a sheet of graph paper, and cover each square with a cross stitch. Graph paper is indispensable if you want to create your own cross stitch designs. Gather some colored pencils or felt tip markers and color in the blocks on the paper, creating geometrics, florals or color sampler designs. Each colored square represents one cross stitch on your even-weave fabric.
Since cross stitch is the simplest (and, therefore, the most inconsequential) in a stitcher's repertoire, I am delighted at its resurgence as the industry's newest craze. Cross-stitched pieces are all over the place -- on clothing, quilts, pillows, pictures and even hand towels.
Counted cross stitch is the most popular technique. You simply start off with a blank piece of even-weave fabric. Aida cloth is ideal and comes in many mesh sizes, just like needlepoint canvas. The threads of the fabric are woven so that distinct squares or blocks are formed, making it a cinch to keep your crosses even and accurate.
If your design is taken from a graph (many books are now filled with nothing but graphed designs); you transfer it to the cloth by counting squares on the graph. Many people begin with a design from a kit or book and quickly graduate to making their own designs.
That's exactly what I did with a pair of guest hand towels. Using a heavy black marker, I drew simple baskets filled with flowers on a piece of drawing paper. Next, I placed a piece of graph paper on top so I could see the design through it, then simply colored in the squares in the flower shapes, using colored pencils.
The design is transferred to a piece of Aida cloth, stretched in an embroidery frame, by counting the squares. Each square on the graph equals one square on the fabric. I added a geometric flowered border along the bottom, cut the cloth into a hand towel size, and finished the whole thing with a pulled-work hem.
Depending on the size of the squares of your fabric, your crosses will be large and bold or teeny tiny. And from what I've been seeing in the shops around the country lately, the smaller the crosses, the bigger the craze.
Q. My mother always used a basket weave stitch for the background of her chair covers. Isn't this a waste of yarn?
A. Not at all. Things that get a lot of wear need the extra strength. The basket weave stitch is extremely strong on the back. Because you always go down into the same holes of the previous stitches, it's easy to work large areas very smoothly with the basket weave -- another reason the stitch is ideal for backgrounds.
Q. I want to cover a set of dining room chairs. What kind of needlepoint canvas is best for this purpose?
A. Since you have to buy canvas by the number, I'd better begin by explaining how canvas is calibrated and sold. First of all, the number always refers to the number of mesh threads to an inch. For example, a No. 18 canvas has 18 threads to an inch; a no. 7 has 7, and a no. 12 has -- guess. Choosing the right kind of canvas really depends on the effect you want to create with your needlepoint. If you use a no. 18 canvas, you'll have 18 threads to an inch, and a very delicate effect. You'll find 12 to 14 is a good average, and 7 is quite bold.
Q. After working for weeks on a crewel embroidery wall hanging, I find I must cut out one huge section of long and short stitches. What's the quickest way to go about it?
A. Get a pair of curved scissors and cut through all the close stitches on the right side -- where the stitches are longer and easier to cut. (The curved scissors will prevent any horrifying snips into your background fabric.) It's much easier to unpick if the whole thing is stretched taut in a frame because you can scratch away at the cut stitches first on the underside, then on the front, to loosen them quickly. With a mistake in needlepoint, you would attack the stitches on the reverse side where the longer stitches are easier to cut. In that case, too, it's easier to do if your work is in a frame.