Last week my walking buddy Jill said ‘I think I need a hobby!’ I am probably the last person you should ever say that to, as you know, but I limited myself to just the one suggestion and that was to take up cross stitch. It’s pretty straightforward: if you can count and thread a needle (and there’s gadgets to help with that) you have the basic skills to take up cross stitch. OK, OK, I know cross stitch for me was a gateway craft which has led to all sorts of other things – up to and including a shed – but I’m assured by some other people that it is possible to have just the one hobby. No, really, it is. Stop laughing!
As I have mentioned before, my adventures in cross stitching started when I couldn’t find a Valentine card for a boyfriend back when I was 21, and it all got a bit out of hand after that. I spotted a design in a magazine and decided it couldn’t really be that hard, so I took myself off to B’s Hive in Monmouth (a much missed town feature as I discovered earlier this week when I posted an image on Facebook of a paper bag from the shop). I bought fabric, needles and floss with the help of one of their very knowledgeable staff, and became hooked pretty quickly. Those were the days before internet shopping – 1995, in fact – and these bricks and mortar shops were treasure troves of yarn, fabrics, beads and buttons. B’s Hive even had a tiny one-table cafe. The boyfriend didn’t last, but the hobby did.
And now I have been stitching for 26 years, and have my own trove (well, shed) of fabrics, floss, beads, buttons, hoops, frames and all the other things a crafter accumulates over the years. You don’t really need all the bells and whistles, of course, but things mount up.
So here, for anyone who might be thinking of taking up cross stitching, is all you really need* to be getting on with it:
- Something to stitch. This could be a kit, of which there are millions out there to choose from, or it could be a pattern. I’d suggest a kit to start with, as they come with the fabric and floss that you need, a needle, and sometimes a hoop that you can use as a display frame when you have finished using it to hold your WIP (work in progress). Black Sheep Wools or LoveCrafts are good sources of quality kits for beginners with good instructions. There are a lot of cheap kits on Amazon, of course, but many are from Chinese sellers and the instructions may not be as helpful as you’d like. You could also choose a chart to start from – either a paper chart from a shop or website, or from a magazine or book, or if you’re a nerd like me you’ll find designs from every fandom and for every level of ability on Etsy. If you choose to start with a chart, you’ll need to buy all the other bits to go with it, like….
- Fabric. ‘Proper’ cross stitch fabric is a woven grid with holes in so you know where to put your needle to make each cross. I usually use aida, which comes in a range of colours and sizes. The ‘count’ of the fabric refers to the number of holes per inch – I like to work on 18 count aida but for a beginner I’d recommend a 14 count. This is the same fabric that many people encountered in school, with much larger holes – usually a 6 count binca for young children. You’ll also see evenweave, linen, jobelan and more – but the key thing is that they all have an even grid of holes. Aida fabrics are quite starchy, which helps keep your stitches nice and even. With the higher count fabric – 28 or 32, for example, you’ll usually work over two threads otherwise your design will be tiny.
- Something to hold your work. Some people like hoops for all their projects, others prefer to work ‘in hand’. For small projects like cross stitched cards I like to use a hoop (they come in a range of sizes) that’s a bit bigger than the design I’m working on, as I find that moving the hoop around can crush the stitches. For larger projects I use the Elbesee easy clip frames which also come in a range of sizes. You don’t need them, but you can buy a seat stand or a floor stand to hold these, which keeps your hands free for stitching. There are lots of tutorials on YouTube on how to mount fabric in hoops and frames.
- Needles. I use size 24 or size 26 which you can buy in packs from any needlework supplier, and these are usually the ones that come in kits. Gold plated needles are nice, but I find the plating comes off easily and then they catch the fabric. There are easy threading needles, ball point needles – all sorts of needles, but all you really need is the basic one.
- Floss: Six stranded cotton, embroidery silks, threads. These are the colourful skeins of thread you see on carousels in the stitching shops – you may even have bought them to make friendship bracelets back in the day. The two main brands in the UK are Anchor and (my preferred brand) DMC although some places stock some beautiful hand dyed threads, and you can often pick up packs of unbranded floss in places like Poundland. Beware of the quality of these though – some of the cheap ones get knotty and fray easily and are really frustrating to work with. There are specialist threads too – metallics and rayons, but wait till you’ve conquered the basics as these can put a beginner off for life. Trust me on this! You cut your length of thread from the skein and peel off the number of strands you need for your design – two or three strands for 14 count, for example.
- Sharp small scissors. Nail scissors will do, or embroidery scissors. Small scissors give you more control over how close to the fabric you cut your threads. Hide them from your family in case they use them to trim bacon or something. Bacon does not add to the finished design.
- Something to store your threads in. You can buy special plastic or card bobbins, or stitchbows, but I use basic envelopes – the kind you buy in packs from all paper shops etc. I write the number of the floss on the top right hand corner, and when I am working on a project with lots of colours I draw the chart symbol on it too so I don’t have to keep referring to the key. When I am done with the project the envelopes get filed in numerical order in plastic storage boxes (again, nothing special – I think these were from The Range) and then I can easily see what numbers I have.
- A cotton bag – this is where all those free tote bags from conferences come in useful. Keeping your project in one of these, or a pillowcase for larger projects, keeps it clean. Unless you have a cat, in which case tweezers will be your friend for removing the stray hairs you have just stitched in. I say embrace the cat hairs or you’ll drive yourself mad.
- A highlighter pen for marking off the stitches you have already done on your chart. This is very useful, especially if you are doing blocks of a colour and you have to put your work down a lot. I’d also advise photocopying and enlarging your chart to make it easier to see – you can’t photocopy a chart to give someone else due to copyright, but you can make a copy for personal use. If you have an Android tablet there’s a new app called Pattern Keeper which is brilliant for keeping track of where you are on the chart, and allows you to highlight the colour you’re working on.
- And lastly – this is a new entry to my top ten – magnifying specs. You know, the kind you can buy in the chemist for reading. I have only got the 1x strength but as my eyes get older along with the rest of me they have made stitching SO much easier.
*this is a very personal list, of course: everyone has their favourite gadgets and methods! You also need good lighting, a comfy chair, someone to make you copious amounts of tea on demand, and an ability to ignore the housework in favour of stitching. This last item comes magically the more you get addicted to your new hobby. You can thank me later though your family probably won’t.
As for the how to cross stitch, there are so many tutorials out there – pick up a cross stitch mag from the newsagent and you’ll find a how-to in the back of very issue, look on You Tube, buy a book, ask a stitchy friend for a crafty bee afternoon.
The year of the handmade gift
I have decided that this is the year of the handmade gift, so if you know me IRL you’ll most likely end up with something crafty this year. If you are one of the lucky recipients (and even if you don’t like it) know that if I have made you something it’s been chosen because I think you’ll like it, because I like you enough to spend my time making you something, and that a lot of thought and time has gone into it.
This week I have handed over two cross stitched things:
The off centre framed picture was a 40th birthday present for a friend – I saw the design on someone else’s timeline and immediately thought of Miriam (happy birthday Miriam!). She loves purple, so I found some mottled pale lavender coloured aida for the fabric. I handed it over yesterday with apologies for the wonky rush job framing as I thought her birthday was next month… the design is from an American mag called Just Cross Stitch (the Halloween 2020 special) and I bought it from Annie’s as a PDF.
The card was inspired by the news at the beginning of a team meeting that a colleague has had her contract extended, and by the note to herself that she had written to remind herself to keep us on track during the meeting. I occasionally describe her job – interpretation producer – as more akin to herding kittens as we do tend to head off after metaphorical balls of museum wool on a terrifyingly regular basis. Her note said ‘facilitate!’ so I immediately thought dalek. Lettering by me, Dalek-19 pattern by Highland Murr Blackwork.
My current project is a nice geeky one by Nerdpillo on Etsy, on 18 count cream aida.
Thing 2 has been enjoying tie-dying over lockdown so I challenged her to dye a piece of fabric for me for a watery design – this is what she came up with and I love it!
And finally here’s a blanket update and some French knitting with six pins!
We dragged all the children outside yesterday for a walk round the burial park in the village – it’s in local ancient woodland, part of the Gaynes Park estate, and it’s lovely. Thing Three was concerned about zombies, but as his father kindly pointed out, I’d had my morning coffee and would probably be OK till I got back.
The woods are filled with bird and bat boxes, and we spotted a mouse on a tree trunk, and the burials themselves are simple and marked with wooden memorials. There are dedicated benches and trees, and lovely carved wooden statues and figures like this hare below.
Thing Two stomped in puddles while One and Three complained that they were tired, their legs hurt, they didn’t like being outside…. I enjoyed it, despite.
In our own garden I discovered that we have some very early primroses, the skeletons of last summer’s physalis, and that fungus has colonised one of the trees.
This week’s cover photo shows the glorious sunrise over Tawney Common this morning: so beautiful that we kept stopping to take pictures as the light changed. You can see more of these on my Instagram feed as they have for some reason not pulled through into Google Photos yet.
And it’s finally snowing, so I am going to leave this here and go and watch the Horde playing outside.
Same time, same place next week!
What I’ve been reading:
The Ordeal of the Haunted Room – Jodi Taylor
Nice Jumper – Tom Cox
Baking Bad – Kim M Watt
Urban Drawing (Tate Sketch Club) – Phil Dean