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The Basics

Taken from Cross Stitch Designs by Graeme Ross, Greenhouse Australian Crafts, 1993. Available for purchase from Australian Retail Outlets and Overseas Distributors.

It is all too easy when you are very familiar with a particular technique to talk about it in terms that may mean a great deal to you, but are quite alien to the public at large. I admit that I can be at fault in this respect, so lets begin with the basic terminology.

Cross Stitch

Cross stitch is a form of embroidery that consists of stitches in the shape of small 'X's. The crosses are worked, in most cases, in horizontal rows, with the first half of the stitches being the diagonals that go from bottom left to the top right (or vice versa) to the end of that particular area of colour, then working in the opposite direction, that is, from the bottom right to the top left (or vice versa) over the first line of stitches. Individual crosses are worked only when stitching vertical or diagonal lines of a single stitch. It is very important that the first half of the stitch slopes the same direction throughout the entire design. The background is normally left unworked.


The embroidery that is often called tapestry in Australia and the United Kingdom is known as 'needlepoint' in the United States of America and, to be perfectly honest, the Americans are correct. True tapestries consist of threads woven horizontally through a vertical warp with the cartoon or design sketched or painted onto paper behind the warp as a guide. These woven tapestries are mostly very large and frequently used as wall hangings. Needlepoint is stitched on a fairly coarse canvas and usually worked in wool, with the stitches all sloping in one direction only. All the background in needlepoint is completely covered in stitches.


The size of your stitches is governed by the fabric count, that is, the density of the threads of the fabric you are working on. Most of my designs are worked on 14 count, as this is kind to the eyes when working. 14 count means 14 stitches to the inch; 18 count means 18 stitches to the inch, 22 is 22 stitches to the inch, and so on. The higher the number, the denser the fabric and the smaller the stitches you make. This means that the completed work will be smaller too. Most printed needlepoint (or tapestry) canvases are 10 count.

Petit point, Gros Point

Petit point is a tent stitch (that is, a single diagonal stitch) worked over a single thread of canvas. 'Petit' is the French word for small. Gros point, as the name implies, is larger, and is tent stitch worked over a double thread of the canvas on the diagonal. It is common for printed canvases to be on Penelope canvas, which has dual threads running both vertically and horizontally. It takes four petit-point stitches to replace one gros-point stitch.


Cross stitch is normally worked in stranded cotton (also called embroidery thread, depending on which school you went to or where you were brought up). For reasons unknown to me, the English often refer to stranded cotton as 'silk'. Maybe silk has a more prestigious ring to it. The manufacturers, DMC, call it 'Art 117', and that is what I refer to it as in the book.

Stranded cotton is comprised of six individual strands of cotton twisted together and made up into skeins. These skeins will release the thread if you pull gently on one end - and on one end only. This is usually the longer end and easier to locate than the wrong end which, if pulled, will cause headaches and hassles by tangling the skein badly. Hold the skein in one hand and gently pull the end from the skein until the desired length is free. How many strands you should use is normally indicated somewhere on the chart. Grip the required number of strands between your finger and thumb and pull, sliding the unwanted strands away (but make sure to save them for later on).


Now, it is obvious what a needle is, but for both cross stitch and needlepoint a tapestry needle should be used. This has a blunt tip that will not split the fabric as much as a sharper needle. As for the fabric count, the higher the number for the needle, the smaller it is. I prefer to work with a size 26 but, in many cases, a size 24 is not all that different. The smaller the eye of the needle the better, because it will not enlarge the holes in the fabric too much. This can be important, especially if you make a mistake and work the wrong area and the stitches have to be unpicked, as a large needle will leave unsightly holes that are hard to camouflage.

Why limit yourself to only one needle? This means that you are spending much of your time threading. I keep as many needles going as possible. When I finish an area of colour and have cut the thread, I then leave that thread in the needle for the next time and thread the next colour in another needle. Please do not try to work with several needles at the same time by running threads across the back of your work. You will end in a tangle and it will surely spell disaster.


There is a type of frame to suit every taste. If movies are to be believed, in the olden days ladies of leisure sat at their embroidery with the fabric held in a ring that was known as a 'hoop'. A hoop is great for working small pieces, but I find them tiring to hold for long periods, and the work always gets soiled around the outer edges of the ring. The hoop can also stretch the fabric and cause distortion of the stitches if the ring has been placed over a worked area, which happens when the design is too large to fit into the hoop. The hoop is, however, ideal for travelers who like to take their work with them in their bag. Next in size is the lap frame that, as the name implies, is held on the lap. Being rectangular, the lap frame is great for larger pieces as the fabric can be rolled up or down, exposing only the area being worked upon. One up on the lap frame is the table-top model, which can also be used in bed and is, therefore, great for anyone laid up for a few days (or longer). Now we come to the daddy of them all (and my favorite) the floor frame. This is a similar shape to a lap frame but has the added advantage of legs that reach the floor. The floor frame enables the stitcher the luxury of having both hands free at all times. Personally, I would not use anything other than a floor frame. I have the luxury model that stays permanently assembled at all times and a collapsible model that I can pack up and take away with me. There's nothing worse than being stuck in a hotel or motel room with nothing to work on!

It is usual for a frame to have a coarse band of tape over the rollers, and it is to this tape that you attach the fabric. I like to work so that the rollers are uppermost and the fabric below. The reason for this is that, no matter how clean you are, the fabric on the rollers can become soiled and, if the work is attached in this way any soiling will be on the back of the work. The correct way to fasten the fabric to the roller is to tack the fabric to the tape with neat little stitches. Always being busy, I cannot find time to stitch mine, so I merely pin it to the tape, ensuring that the pins are close together so that they do not form waves on the fabric when it is tightened. However, there is another reason to stitch it to the tape: in many climates the pins can rust and you will just hate yourself if this happens.

And this reminds me - never leave your needle in any part of the fabric that is going to be visible when the work is completed and framed. If you are rushed and cannot finish a thread, then let the needle and thread hang loosely, but better still, complete the thread and leave the needle where you are sure to find it next time.


Sometimes your work will get soiled and require washing. It is perfectly safe to wash it gently in tepid water with a tiny dash of dishwashing detergent. Gently rub the soiled areas with another piece of the fabric, then rinse it thoroughly in clear water, dry between a folded towel and hang out in the shade. Lightly iron on the reverse side. It is most unlikely that the colour will run, but if it does, soak the piece overnight in clear water.

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© 2001 Ross Originals.
Home | About Ross Originals | Alphabetical List of Designs | Designs by Category
Australian Retail Outlets | Overseas Distributors | The Basics | Let's Start | Links of Interest
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