Basic Resources

Cross Stitch Beginner’s Guide

Have you decided to try your hand at cross stitch? Great! It’s a relaxing hobby that doesn’t take a lot of time to learn yet can be customized in so many different ways it can keep your interest for years to come.

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Things to Know

Before we get started, let’s set some expectations.

  • Everyone makes mistakes, and I mean everyone. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been stitching for 2 days or 2 years. Mistakes will happen. Let them!
  • Don’t worry about what the back looks like, or if your stitches are even. Don’t fret about whether to use a hoop or stitch in hand. Right now it’s more important for you to learn the basics, relax, and have fun. Everything else comes with practice.
  • Pick your first project based on your personality. If you feel overwhelmed, a small simple pattern might be best. If you know a large project will keep you motivated, do that! Larger projects are not any more complicated than small ones. They just take more time.
  • If you don’t want to spend much money to try out a craft you’re not even sure you like yet, get a kit! Or check local thrift stores for donated materials. Buy off brand thread if it’s more affordable. It’s okay.

What to Buy

Since we’re talking about materials, here’s a brief list of the bare minimum materials you need.

Cross stitch materials. A pattern, colored thread, aida fabric, a needle, and scissors.
Basic cross stitch materials

Picking a Pattern

Don’t jump ahead and try making your own from the get go. Find a free pattern online, purchase one off etsy, or buy a pattern book from your favorite book/craft store. You might even find some at your local library! But pick a pattern that you like. There’s so many designs out there there’s no reason to settle for something you don’t absolutely love. If you’d like it, the design in my example photos is a free pattern.

Choosing Your Fabric

Make sure you’ve picked out your pattern first. That determines everything else you’ll need. Since you’re just starting out, pick up some 14 count Aida. Aida is a stiff fabric with clearly defined holes that will make stitching much easier on you. ’14 count’ just means there are 14 stitches per inch (2.5 cm).
Now, some patterns tell you what size fabric you need. If not, you just have to do some simple math. The pattern should at least tell you how many stitches tall and wide it is. You’ll want to divide those numbers by 14 to figure out how many inches that is.

Now add a few inches for a border around your project. I like to add at least 1.5″ on all sides, but once you’re comfortable with stitching you can add more or less if you prefer. You’ll need this extra space for framing and so you don’t have to worry about a little bit of fraying on the edges of the fabric.

What Size Needle

Let’s be honest. The size/type of needle really does not matter. It will work either way. You really want to experiment with this once you get into the craft to figure out what feels best for you and your fabric choices. That said, if you want something specific to look for I recommend a size 24 tapestry needle. It’s dull, so you can’t stab yourself, and is a comfortable size for working with 14 count fabric.

Selecting Embroidery Thread

The most important part! Your pattern should include a list of color numbers. Unless otherwise stated, these are probably DMC brand color numbers. For most patterns you only need to buy one skein of each color. You’ll likely have plenty of each color left over to go on to use in future projects. If you pick up a large project in the future, it will often specify how many skeins are needed.

If your craft store has a different brand of thread, you’ll need to find a conversion chart online. Here’s a DMC to Anchor chart, for example.

And that’s it! This is basically what comes in most cross stitch kits, and is the bare minimum you need to get started. You’ll need a pair of scissors, but you probably already have some. They don’t need to be fancy. Anything that can cut thread will do.

There’s plenty of quality of life things you’ll want to get further down the road, like a hoop or Qsnap, but if you’re just starting out they’re really not necessary.

Let’s get started!

Everyone does things differently. And it will change depending on the project, fabric, what you plan to do with the finished piece, etc.

I’m just going to be outlining the most basic way to do things. But don’t be afraid to branch out and try other methods. Start in the corner instead of the middle. Stitch all of one color before doing the next. Experiment! There is no ‘wrong’ way to stitch, no matter what anyone tries to tell you.

Find your center

Like most tutorials, I recommend starting in the middle of your project and working your way out. This ensures your design is properly centered on your fabric and you know you won’t run out of room.

To find the center, simply fold your fabric in half vertically, then horizontally. Where those folds meet is the center point. You can mark this spot with something if it helps. But make sure the side you mark ends up being the back of your project.

Now find the center of your cross stitch pattern. Some designers mark this clearly with arrows on either side of the grid, others don’t and you’ll have to count.

Each color of the pattern is indicated by a symbol. Pick a symbol near the center of your design and find the color that goes with it.

Threading the needle

A needle threaded with 2 strands of cross stitch / embroidery thread.
Make sure you split off 2 of the 6 strands of thread before threading your needle.

IMPORTANT: Embroidery thread comes in 6 strands. You do NOT want to use all 6 strands or you’re going to struggle to get your needle through the fabric in areas with a lot of stitches. For the most part, you’ll want to use only 2 of those strands while cross stitching. Though if you feel like too much of your fabric is peeking through the stitches you can try 3 strands. It’s all personal preference, really.

Find the color thread you’re starting with and cut a piece around the length of your forearm. This is another thing you’ll want to experiment with in the future. You don’t want it too long or you’ll encounter knots more often as the thread gets twisted from the motions of stitching. You also don’t want it too short, or you’ll have to re-thread your needle frequently.

Look at one of the ends of that thread – you should see it’s made up of 6 strands. You’ll want to grab 2 of the strands and gently pull them away from the rest. Take your time with this until you get used to the motion, or it’ll just bunch up and knot.

Now, use those two strands to thread your needle. Make sure you don’t accidentally fold the strands over, or you’ll actually be stitching with 4 strands and it may be a bit too thick to stitch with comfortably.

Your first Stitch

Finally, the first stitch! Basically, for each symbol on the pattern you’ll be making a single X-shaped stitch on your fabric. Each stitch will be placed in relation to your last.

Pick a square to start with near the center of your design and bring the needle up from under the cloth in the lower left hole of a square. Don’t pull it all the way through, as you’ll want to leave a tail of thread on the back.

Now push your needle back down through the upper right hole of your square. It’ll just look like a / stitch now. Bring the needle up from the bottom right hole now, and back down through the upper left to complete your X. You’ve made your first cross stitch!

Stay consistent

A close up demonstration of how to make a cross stitch.

Side note: You could instead start in the upper left or bottom right and make the \ stitch first, then the /. It really doesn’t matter as long as you end up with an X. But you’ll want to make all of your stitches in the same direction so it looks even in the end.

Now, determine the next square on your pattern with the same symbol and make another cross stitch in relation to the first one you made.

You’ll want to hold the loose end of string under this new stitch you’re making so that it pins the end to the fabric while you work. That can be tricky at first, but keep trying and the motion will come naturally in time.

Keep stitching!

Either way, keep making stitches as seen in your pattern until you get low on thread or there are no more stitches of that color on your cross stitch pattern.

A cross stitch project in progress, showing how to mark off your pattern as you go.

Side note: If the next stitch in your pattern is several squares away, it may be best to hold off for now. You’re more likely to miscount if it’s 5+ spaces away even if you’re entirely confident in your ability to count higher than 5.
If you really don’t want to re-thread your needle though, you can ‘jump’ to that stitch. This will leave a trail of thread on the back of your project. Keep in mind that if there are no stitches over that area, these trails can show through on the front. So decide carefully!

Demonstration of how to tuck the end of your thread behind your cross stitch.

Done with your first color? Great! Flip your fabric over and tuck your needle under the stitches you already made to secure your thread in place and keep the stitches from coming loose. Don’t forget to cut off any extra length of thread.

Now pick the next color near the stitches you already made and repeat the process! Keep going like this and eventually you’ll have a completed project!

A finished cross stitch project.
The finished design

Tips and Tricks

Got the basics of cross stitch down? Great! There’s a few more things I’d like to tell you about to help make things easy on you.

  • Every once in a while, stop stitching and hold your project in the air, letting your needle dangle on its thread. It will spin, and then settle into a position. Your thread will naturally get twisted as you work. This leads to your stitches being uneven, and also cause knots in your thread. As you get more experience, you’ll start to notice when this needs to be done if the thread isn’t laying flat on your fabric.
  • If you can, print out or photocopy your patterns and mark off the stitches you’ve done as you go. This will keep you from getting lost on the pattern. You can also mark off digital patterns using photo editing programs, or even MS paint.
  • After you’ve made those first stitches, you can easily start your next thread by tucking it under the back of the finished stitches just like you finished off that last thread.
  • Don’t pull your stitches too tight. You don’t want to stretch out the holes or make uneven stitches. Just let the thread settle into place as you start the next stitch.
  • Have fun. Mistakes are okay. You can undo them if you think it’s really out of place, or just stitch around it and make the pattern unique!