How To Do Counted Cross Stitch For Beginners

This guide will go over everything you need to get started with the wonderful, meditative craft of counted cross stitch. You’ll learn about basic supplies, fundamental techniques and stitches, how to plan and size your projects, and much much more. Let’s get going!

What is Cross Stitch?

Cross stitch is a form of counted thread embroidery that is worked on evenly woven fabric such as linen, even-weave, or Aida fabric. Rather than embroidering in a freeform manner along the surface of the fabric, cross stitch involves making each stitch across the individual threads that make up the fabric. This method entails counting each stitch meticulously, with the cross stitches worked systematically in a grid-like pattern to complete the design.

Cross stitching has a very unique and neat appearance. Up close it looks kind of similar to pixel art. From afar, more intricate patterns can look like a painting.

cross stitch of a rose

Cross Stitch Supplies

You’ll need a few basic materials to get started:

  • Aida fabric
  • An embroidery hoop or frame
  • Embroidery floss
  • Tapestry needle and embroidery needle
  • Thread snips or small embroidery scissors

Don’t have everything you need? Take a look at this cross stitch supply list for places to purchase.

Getting Started

Selecting Fabric

Cross stitch is ideally done on fabric with a consistent and uniform weave, such as linen, evenweave, or Aida fabric, as the patterns are designed on a grid that correlates with the threads of the fabric. You’ll be keeping track of and counting the number of stitches you make along the fabric, so the weave should be easily visible. The easiest fabric to start out with is Aida fabric.

What’s Thread Count?

You may have noticed that cross stitch fabrics come in different thread counts. Thread count is the amount of threads that are woven together in one square inch of fabric.

The threads that make up the fabric are referred to as warp (threads that run the length of the fabric) and weft threads(the perpendicular threads that run the width of the fabric). Fabrics with higher thread counts contain more warp and weft threads per square inch. Consequently, you’ll be able to create more stitches within each square inch of the fabric. (Take a look at this example to see how different thread counts change the finished size of a pattern if you’re curious!)

When choosing the thread count, consider the requirements of the cross stitch pattern or the desired finished size. We’ll cover how to calculate the project size later on, but it’s important to understand this concept before we move on!

How To Measure Thread Count

how to measure Aida count

If you already have Aida fabric but you’re not quite sure what the thread count is, you can simply measure an inch of the fabric and count the horizontal or vertical squares. This will determine the thread count!

Selecting Embroidery Floss

Cross stitch is easiest to do with stranded cotton floss. This kind of embroidery floss is made up of 6 individual strands of thread that are able to be separated. If you are following a pattern, it will specify what brand of floss to use and specific colors that are required. Each floss color has a number assigned to it to make it easier to match and shop for.

A general rule of thumb is to use 2 strands of embroidery floss when stitching.

Preparing The Hoop

Once you have measured and cut out the fabric, you can place it in an embroidery hoop. Here’s how:

how to use an embroidery hoop for cross stitch photo gallery

Loosen the top screw and separate the inner and outer rings from one another.

how to use an embroidery hoop for cross stitch photo gallery

On a flat surface, place the fabric on top of the inner ring. Make sure that the fabric is centered and there is enough extra fabric around all sides of the hoop.

Place the outer ring on top of the inner ring and the fabric. You may need to loosen the screw a bit more to get it to fit over the layer of fabric.

how to use an embroidery hoop for cross stitch photo gallery

Gently pull the fabric so that it is tight without any wrinkles.

Tighten the screw, and you’re ready to get stitching!

Types of Stitches

There are only a handful of stitches that are used in cross stitch. And some projects only use one, which is of course the basic cross stitch!

How To Do A Cross Stitch

The basic cross stitch is very simple and easy to do.

how to make a basic cross stitch
  1. Make a diagonal stitch by beginning at the bottom left corner and extending to the top left corner, spanning across a single square on the fabric.
  2. Then make another diagonal stitch going in the opposite direction across the first stitch to form an x.

And that’s it. Pretty easy, right?!

Working Rows Of Stitches

You can work each individual cross stitch one at a time, or you can work rows of stitches all at once. This is especially helpful when you have large areas of the fabric that require the same color of thread.

There are a few benefits to working them this way: you’ll work each stitch in the same order so your stitches will look more uniform and it also helps to speed up the process a little bit.

working rows of cross stitches
  1. Make a diagonal stitch across each of the threads you plan to cross stitch.
  2. Work your way vertically or horizontally until you’ve filled in the desired area with diagonal stitches.
  3. Work you way back through the row of cross stitches to fill in the other diagonal stitch, completing each cross stitch.

Variations Of The Cross Stitch

Now let’s go over a couple of variations of the cross stitch. These are known as fractional cross stitches and they allow you more control over how you fill in patterns and designs.

cross stitch variations
  1. The 1/4 stitch is one diagonal stitch that starts at the edge of a square and goes down through the middle of the square.
  2. The 1/2 stitch is simply one diagonal stitch that starts and ends at the edge of one square
  3. The 3/4 stitch is one 1/4 stitch and one 1/2 stitch.
  4. Finally, the full stitch is just a single cross stitch.

If you think about it, there’s a lot of different combinations and ways you can use these fractional stitches to create your design! But don’t feel intimidated: the pattern you are stitching will normally specify which way a 1/2 or 3/4 stitch faces as well as which corner a 1/4 stitch is made.

How To Back Stitch In Cross Stitch

Back stitches can be used for letters, outlines of shapes, and small details in cross stitching. Not every pattern uses the back stitch, but it’s a good one to understand just in case you come across it! When worked on Aida fabric, you can use 1 or 2 strands of floss, following the natural holes of the fabric to keep the stitches even.

how to do the back stitch for cross stitch
  1. Come up through the hole in the fabric where you intend to make the stitch and make a stitch into the next hole in the fabric.
  2. Pull the thread through and then come up with your needle and thread through the next hole in the fabric.
  3. Go back down the hole where the last stitch ended.
  4. Repeat the desired length.

Work the back stitch with holes that are above, below, beside, or diagonal to your last stitch. And depending on what the pattern requires, you can also skip 1-2 holes to make each stitch longer if desired.

How To Make a French Knot In Cross Stitch

how to make a french knot in cross stitch

The French knot is a stitch you will see from time to time in certain patterns. It can be challenging at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s really fun to do!

  1. Come up through the back of your fabric at the corner of the square where you want to stitch
  2. Keeping the needle close to the surface of the fabric, wrap the thread around the needle 1-3 times, depending on the desired size of the knot.
  3. While holding tension on the wrapped thread, bring your needle down through the fabric. If you’re using Aida fabric, this should be in the center of the square; if using linen fabric, it should be in the hole directly beside where you initially came up.
  4. Carefully pull the thread all the way through to the back of the fabric and a small knot will form.

The biggest tip I have for working a French knot is to make sure you don’t go down through the same hole you initially came up through. Otherwise, you’ll accidentally pull the knot all the way through the hole to the back of the fabric.

Starting And Finishing Stitches

Starting Stitches

This first method ensures that the starting tail of thread is securely anchored and hidden within the cross stitches, resulting in a tidy finish on the back of the fabric.

starting stitches by stitching over top of the tail
  1. Leave a tail of thread at the back of the fabric, holding it in place with your finger to prevent it from slipping through.
  2. You can either stitch over the tail, incorporating it into your cross stitches, or use your needle to carefully tuck the tail underneath the stitches once you’ve completed a few full cross stitches.
  3. If you choose to tuck the tail, gently guide it under the backside of the stitches using your needle to hide and secure it.
how to start embroidery thread using the loop method

Loop Start

Another clean and even easier way to start a piece of thread is the loop method.

  1. Begin by folding an extra-long strand of embroidery floss in half, so that you have a loop at one end and the two cut ends of thread at the other.
  2. Thread the needle with the end of the floss that contains the two cut ends of thread, leaving the looped end free.
  3. Bring the threaded needle up through the back of the fabric, starting where you want your stitching to begin. Leave a small tail of thread along the back of the fabric.
  4. Make a half stitch by inserting the needle back down through the fabric, creating the first half of the cross stitch.
  5. Flip the fabric over to the back side.
  6. Insert the needle through the looped end of the thread, pulling it snug to secure the thread to the fabric.

Ending Stitches

ending a stitch

Leave the tail of thread long enough so that you can easily tuck the tail underneath the surrounding stitches using your needle. Trim the leftover end of the thread to neatly finish it.

It’s best practice to avoid using knots on the back of your work. This can make the fabric bumpy and the knots can sometimes show on the front of the fabric.

Reading A Cross Stitch Pattern

Now that you have learned some basic stitches, it’s time to get started on a pattern! The first thing you’ll want to do, even BEFORE starting your cross stitch pattern, is to determine what size fabric you’ll need to use.

Calculate Cross Stitch Fabric Size

To figure out the size of a design, divide the number of vertical squares in the pattern by the thread count of the fabric. Then repeat this process for the horizontal squares. For example, 140 vertical squares / 14 count Aida = 10 inches. 100 horizontal squares / 14 count Aida = 7.14 inches. The finished design would be 10 x 7.14 inches.

If you’re not good at math and you want an even easier way to calculate this, you can use a cross stitch calculator such as this one by Yarn Tree. This calculator is great because it not only takes into account how many threads each cross stitch covers, but you can also add in a border or extra room you need to finish the project later.

It’s wise to include several extra inches of fabric beyond the final design size in your calculations. This ensures there’s enough fabric to properly finish the project and also provides some leeway for any mistakes or adjustments you may need to make.

Once you’ve determined how large of a piece of fabric you’ll need, you can grab your supplies and get started!

color and symbol cross stitch patterns

Making Sense of Symbols and Diagrams

Reading a cross stitch pattern is relatively straight forward. Patterns will usually list out the thread count of fabric you should use and have a list of suggested thread colors.

The pattern will be laid out similar to a grid or graph. Most patterns will contain a pattern that has symbols and colors and another copy of the pattern that just contains symbols. You can follow whichever pattern you want; from my experience it’s easier to follow the color pattern.

The symbols and colors on the chart may feel a bit overwhelming at first, but don’t worry! There will be a key on each pattern to reference for all of the different stitches and colors that the pattern requires.

Each square on the pattern equals one stitch on the fabric. To help you more easily keep track of where you are in the pattern, the grid is usually numbered or marked every 10 squares.

While it isn’t required, gridding your cross stitch fabric before you start stitching can help you more easily coordinate with the pattern.

locating the center of a pattern and the fabric

Start At The Center Of The Fabric

Before you make any stitches, you’ll need to locate the middle of your pattern and also find where the middle of your fabric is. The easiest way to do this is to fold the fabric in half and then in half again. This will give you approximate crosshairs of the middle of the fabric so you don’t have to count each and every square. Use a pencil or water soluble marker to mark the center point for reference.

Many cross stitch patterns have the middle of the pattern marked out. If your pattern does not indicate this, you can take the total number of graph squares lengthwise and divide that number in half. Then repeat for the width of the pattern.

Once you’ve located the middle, find a stitch on the gridded pattern that is closest to the center. Make note of how many stitches away it is from the center and start there.

Starting in the center of the fabric and pattern will ensure that the design is centered on the fabric and you won’t run out of room!

working on a pattern

Working Your Way Around The Pattern

Follow the symbols and colors to coordinate what colors and stitches you should be making for each stitch across the fabric.

You’ll want to pay close attention to the colors and symbols as well as where you are stitching, especially in areas with large amounts of the same color. It can be easy to lose track of where you are, so a general rule of thumb is to start in one area and then work your way out.

Avoid trailing the thread long distances on the back of your work as this may become visible on the front of the fabric. End each color of thread whenever you are finished in an area for a neater finish.

Don’t jump around in the pattern! Skipping around will most likely result in you making stitches in the wrong place and getting lost. While it may feel easier to stitch all one color at once, it’s an easy way to miscount and mess up the pattern. Work your way around the pattern from one area to the next.

It’s helpful to occasionally stop and check your work against the pattern to make sure you haven’t miscounted or made a stitch or two out of place. Fixing mistakes can get a bit more complicated once you’ve gotten further along in the pattern, so doing this will save you the headache of having to fix it later on.

Fixing Mistakes

Mistakes are bound to happen, and that’s totally expected! Here are a few troubleshooting tips when you need to fix something.

removing a stitch

Removing Stitches

If you’ve caught a mistake early enough, removing stitches is quite simple.

  1. Place your needle underneath the stitch and carefully loosen it to pull it out.
  2. Repeat for the remaining stitches you want to remove.

If you realize that you have made a mistake several stitches back, you have several options to fix it:

  • You can leave it alone
  • Stitch over it with the right color
  • Undo all of the stitches you made with that particular strand of thread all the way back until you have reached the mistake.

Undoing Knots

Knots can happen from time to time when you are stitching when the thread twists around itself. If the knot appears to be looped, it’s relatively easy to remove.

undoing a knot in embroidery thread

Place your needle through the loop and pull upwards. The knot should loosen.

undoing a knot in embroidery thread

Then pull the two ends of the thread to remove it.

removing stitches with a seam ripper

If the knot isn’t budging, the other option is to remove the thread carefully with a seam ripper. This is usually a last resort, because you’ll most likely have to undo several stitches in order to secure the remaining thread once you’re done.

Avoid using a scissors to remove the stitches because this puts you at risk of tearing the fabric.


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