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How to do Counted Cross Stitch

Updated on August 20, 2012
My project, magnetic board, and floss box
My project, magnetic board, and floss box

What is counted cross stitch?

Cross stitching is a type of needle and thread embroidery that uses an evenweave fabric like aida and embroidery thread or floss. Floss typically comes 6 threads combined into 1 strand. Threads are separated from the strand in even numbers so the stitches are the same thickness. Stitches are completed in X shapes on the fabric according to a pattern. The pattern uses symbols that represent the different colors. The stitcher follows the pattern and the legend to create a picture. Patterns can be very simple or extremely complex. Beginners should start with a simple pattern that does not use more than 5-10 colors. The term "counted" cross stitch means the stitcher counts the number of stitches and it distinguishes the craft from other types of cross stitching.

How to get started...

Start by selecting a pattern. I am currently working on a Coca-Cola Santa Claus picture, so I will use that as my example. This piece is for more advanced stitchers because of the complicated pattern, numerous color changes, and size of the piece. Beginners should start with something MUCH more simple until they understand the technique and become more comfortable with following a pattern.

After you have selected a pattern, you will need some basic tools including:

  1. Magnetic board with magnets
  2. Scissors
  3. Needles
  4. Fabric
  5. Floss Supplies
  6. Hoop
  7. Good light source

1. Magnetic Board

The magnetic board will hold your pattern in place. I have found it helpful to enlarge your pattern on a copy machine or scanner. A nice large page will make it easier to read the color symbols, as well as allow you to mark off the stiches you have completed. As patterns get more complicated, it is very easy to get lost or misread your pattern, so marking off the stitches on the paper pattern will help keep you organized. As for magnets, the board should come with straight line bar magnets that you can use to underline the row you are working on. Another magnet can be used to hold your color legend in place for easy reference. I have listed the board that I use; it is perfect because it has the magnetic surface and extending arms for taller patterns.

2. Scissors

A good sharp pair of small scissors is necessary for trimming your floss. They need to be sharp to avoid frayed ends. They need to be small to get a nice close trim so you don't have long tails hanging off the back of your piece. My grandmother and mother used these scissors, and I have a pair. They are durable and always make a clean cut.

3. Needles

You will need needles that are specifically for counted cross stitch. They should be duller than sewing needles so they don't pick your fabric. A trick I learned is to have many needles that you keep one needle with each color of floss so when you're working with lots of color changes, you don't have to thread the needle every time.

4. Fabric

You pattern will tell you which fabric you'll need--it comes in different counts and sizes. The count is the number of stitches per inch. Make sure your pattern will fit on the actual fabric piece. If you are using a large pattern, you can buy a roll of fabric rather than a pre-cut size in order to make your pattern fit. There are fabrics that can be used to stitch a pattern on to a shirt or other item rather than just a flat piece. Those are for more advanced users. Fabrics also come in difference colors. Your pattern may suggest a color that will work best for the picture.

5. Floss Supplies

I always use DMC brand floss--it is available at most major chain craft stores. Floss is coded with a number that will correspond to the color legend in your pattern. The floss has 6 threads per strand. You need to wind the strand around a card called a "bobbin" and store in a box to prevent knots. If your pattern is heavy in certain shades, you will need to buy a few skeins of those shades. Once the strand is wound around a bobbin, label the bobbin with the color code. DMC makes some great little stickers to uniformly label your colors, or you can just handwrite on the cards. Store all of your bobbins in a storage box to stay organized.

6. Hoop

A two-piece tension hoop is used to hold your fabric taut while you working on the stitches. I use this 5" hoop for a good size work area. You lay the colored plastic ring down on a hard, flat surface then lay your fabric over it with the picture side down, and then squeeze the metal tension ring into the color ring, pulling the fabric tight in the middle. You should store your project flat; if you leave it on the hoop, it will crease your fabric which will damage your finished piece.

7. Good light source

You will need a good task or work lamp to light up your work surface and pattern. The holes in the fabric can be hard to see. If you have white stitches on white fabric, those are also very hard to see in dim light. You need to be sure to finish all stitches in the correct position so you don't mess up your pattern. Pulling out incorrect stitches is difficult and can risk damage to your fabric. I use a gooseneck task lamp that is easily adjustable and portable. You might find a light source with a magnifer is better if you have trouble seeing your project.

This shows the first half of 6 red stitches, starting in the upper left corner going down through the lower right corner of each X
This shows the first half of 6 red stitches, starting in the upper left corner going down through the lower right corner of each X
This shows the completed 6 stitches where I came back across from the upper right corner down through the lower left corner to complete the Xs.
This shows the completed 6 stitches where I came back across from the upper right corner down through the lower left corner to complete the Xs.
This shows the backside of the project with the loose tails run under existing stitches.
This shows the backside of the project with the loose tails run under existing stitches.
This shows my pattern with the completed stitches marked off.
This shows my pattern with the completed stitches marked off.

Creating your picture with Xs

The best place to start on a pattern is in the exact center. Your pattern should have arrows or other indicator of the center. Find the center stitch and find your center square on your fabric. Start your pattern with the center stitch falling in the center square of your fabric. Work left to right, bottom to top.

In this example on my project, I will be showing a straight line of a solid color. As you look at your fabric, each stitch will have 4 points to make a square X. There is an upper left, lower left, upper right and lower right hole for every stitch.

Once you have your starting point, cut a length of thread from the color bobbin. A 12" piece is manageable and covers a good area, but you can go shorter or longer depending on your preference. Remember that the strand is made up of 6 threads, so you will need to separate 2 threads for your stitches. Slowly peel down the 2 threads and use them to thread your needle.

Start your stitch by pulling your needle up though the fabric in the upper left position and then push the needle down through the lower right position. Make sure you catch the loose tail of your thread so it is locked down and does not pull out of your fabric on the next stitch.

I am going to do 6 red stitches in a row according to my pattern. Your stitches should always go up through upper left, down through lower right. You will cross your Xs on the way back, coming up through upper right and down through lower left.

Start on the next row above your completed row, again going from upper left down through the lower right. If you're working with color changes, try to hit all of the like-color symbols in your pattern in a 10 square radius. Reaching out too far will just waste thread.

When you start running out of thread, run your needle under some of your completed stitches on the back side of the fabric to lock the loose tail down. Trim close with your good scissors. Mark off your completed stitches with a pen and check/count your stitches often to make sure you're still on the right track.

When you're finished for the day, remove your project from your hoop and lightly fold your project to fit into a gallon size ziplock bag to protect it. Store all bobbins, needles and scissors in your storage box. Mark your stopping point on your pattern. I keep my project and all my tools in a tote bag so I'm ready to go everytime I find some extra time to work.

Keep in mind that this is a SLOW craft. It may take months or even years to complete a pattern. I have been working on this Santa for nearly 3 years, on and off again of course. Just be patient and work carefully. If you're not really in the mood, put it away so you don't get sloppy or make mistakes.

When you are finally finished with your whole pattern, gently iron your fabric. You may want to have your project professionally framed for a perfect finishing touch to your hard work. Leftover floss can be saved for future projects, so don't throw it out. My mom used to store her floss in labeled envelopes in a sliding cover box for easy filing and retrieval. Her floss box was kept just for active projects.


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    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 

      8 years ago from California

      I love cross stitch! Thank you for providing these great instructions!


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