The Origin of Counted Cross Stitch
What Is The Origin of Counted Cross Stitch?
The 1980s saw an increasing rise in counted cross stitch as a popular leisure time activity. This was due partly to the re-discovery of this simple yet engrossing craft in the 1960s. A major contributing factor was the extensive choice of fresh, new patterns and an ever-growing palette of embroidery flosses which are now available. These new additions to the stitchers' bag of tricks makes it possible to give the imagination free rein to truly create, not just replicate. Counted cross stitch is very easy to learn and lends itself well to complex designs as well as simple ones.
But what is the origin of counted cross stitch? To find the answer to these and other questions, we need to take a trip back in time to find out when needlework first began and how counted cross stitch evolved from there.
What Is Counted Cross Stitch?
Counted cross-stitch is a form of thread embroidery which uses cross-shaped stitches (x) to create a picture or a design. The design is charted on a grid which uses unique symbols and/or colours to indicate where the stitch is to be located on your chosen fabric and which colour thread to use. The stitcher, using cotton embroidery floss and a blunt tapestry needle, carefully counts the number of squares on the chart and recreates the design on the fabric. The chart is designed to mirror the evenweave fabric and each symbol is placed in its own square on the chart.
Although the cross stitch is the predominant stitch used in counted cross stitch, the back stitch and the French knot are frequently used. The French knot adds texture to the design while the backstitch is used primarily to do outlining and add highlights and fine detailing which really brings the design to life. It can also be used suggest facial features such as mouths, noses and eyes in faces.
In this photo, French knots are used to suggest the texture of the wool on the sheep.
The Origin of Counted Cross Stitch Begins Here
We must go back to the very beginnings of embroidery in order to find the origin of counted cross stitch. Although it is one of the oldest types of embroidery, it is only fairly recently that cross stitch has been used as the primary stitch in a piece.
The earliest fragment of embroidered cloth to include cross stitch dates back to the 6th or 7th centuries AD and was discovered in a Coptic tomb in Upper Egypt. The dry desert climate helped keep it preserved.
During the Tang Dynasty (618-906AD) in China, cross stitch embroidery thrived and is believed to have spread westward along the trade routes.
By the 11th century, work on the most famous of all early embroidery pieces, the Bayeux Tapestry, was already underway. The tapestry depicts the Norman invasion of England in 1066. Despite its name, the Bayeux Tapestry is in fact an embroidered work not a woven textile.
It was during the period from 756-1492AD, when the the influence of the Islamic civilisation of the Moors held sway in Spain, that Blackwork was very popular and is believed to have influenced the development of counted cross stitch.
This embroidery form was thought to have been brought to England when Ann Bolyen became the wife of Henry VIII. The Blackwork stitching can be seen on the cuff and sleeve in the photo.
It was also during this time that folk art was blossoming in Eastern Europe and counted cross stitch was used to embellish household items such as tablecloths. The geometric and floral patterns seen in this picture can still be found in modern pattern books today.
The Origin of Counted Cross Stitch Samplers
It was with the working of samplers however that counted cross stitch really came into its own. The earliest known printed pattern book was produced in Germany in 1524. However, it would be many years before pattern books became readily available. In the meantime, stitchers would record samples of their favourite stitches and patterns by stitching them on long strips of narrow cloth. This is where we get the name "sampler". These linen strips were rolled up and kept in a drawer until needed for reference. These early samplers became family assets.
The popularity of embroidery in Europe grew with the invention of printing. Early pattern books offered designs for counted cross stitch as well as others forms of embroidery such as Blackwork. Cross stitch patterns were printed as black squares or dots. Unlike today, there were no colours arbitrarily assigned to the symbols. The choice of colours was left entirely up to the embroiderer. The stitcher would count the pattern onto the fabric. Alternatively, she could detach the pattern, prick holes through it and transfer (pounce) the design onto the fabric through the holes using coloured powder. This is a very similar technique to the one used today when working with waste canvas.
Sampler making grew in Germany, Holland, Britain and America during the 17th century. As pattern books became more accessible, the purpose of samplers began to change. Samplers evolved into educational instruments. Stitching their alphabet and numbers helped children learned basic literacy and numeracy. The young girls also learned the needlework skills which were essential for making and decorating household linen and clothing.
During 18th century the role of samplers changed again. They became more decorative and were displayed prominently in the home. This was done to demonstrate to visitors and prospective sons-in-law a girl's skill with the needle. Cross stitch was the main stitch used, and stitchers were becoming more creative. They produced individual designs stirred by events and objects in their own lives such as houses, local scenes, naÃ¯ve and simple figures taken from their surrounding environment. These samplers provide very useful insights into the social history of the period.
During the 19th century, Berlin woolwork became a major craze and was a contributing factor in the decline of sampler making. In Berlin woolwork, elaborate designs taken from nature were painted or printed onto canvas in Berlin. The canvases where then sold throughout Germany, Britain and America. Stitchers, using the tent stitch, half cross stitch and occasionally the full cross stitch, would then stitch over the designs to create articles for the home. Footstools, bellpulls, purses, cushions, firescreens, and pincushions were popular projects.
Despite the Arts & Crafts Movement spearheaded by William Morris (1834-96), embroidery's popularity continued to decline rapidly in Europe and America later that century. With the Joseph Heilman's invention of the embroidery machine in 1828, the death knell for domestic embroidery began to sound.
In 1851 the bell rang even louder when Elias Howe invented the domestic sewing machine and Isaac Singer produced it.
The decline in embroidery accelerated in Britain during World Wars I and II. Women were needed to support the war effort, and embroidery featured less in schools. Those who still had some leisure time and a love of needlework would produce patriotic samplers commemorating events such as the coronation of King George VI in 1937, though the preference was for free-style embroidery rather than cross stitch. In Britain, with the help of pre-stamped cross stitch kits, cross stitch managed to survive through the 1930s to the 1950s.
It was during that time of amazing social upheaval known as the 1960s, that cross stitch began to make a comeback. With more and more labour-saving devices finding their way into people's homes, the result was more leisure time. The resulting spare time was a factor in the revival of counted cross stitch as a pleasant pastime. Stitchers began to use charts again and early kits, returned cross stitching's roots by offering copies of traditional samplers patterns.
Since then, there has been a steadily growing increase in the level of interest in this craft. With it has come a dizzying selection of patterns, threads, fabrics and subject matter. And counted cross stitch is no longer limited to trimming household items. You can create wall hangings, decorative cushions and pillows, make one of a kind greeting cards, place cards, ring pillows, table cloths and matching napkins for weddings and baby items which will be treasured and become family heirlooms.
My Personal Origin Of Counted Cross Stitch
I stumbled on needlework at an early age. My mother had given up on an embroidery kit she purchased. Looking at the picture of what it was meant to look like, I decided it was too pretty to abandon so I asked my mother is I could have it. She agreed and for the next six months I slaved away at it. Sometimes the instructions seemed incomprehensible and I gave up in frustration. But I always returned to it. When I finally finished, after a few minor setbacks, I thought it didn't look half bad. I began saving up my allowance and bought another kit. I was nine then.
I've been stitching now for 40 years and I still look forward to starting a new project, working on a project and finishing a project (so I can start all over again). Many of my projects are usually given away when I'm done. In fact, I often start a project with someone in mind to give it to.
Above is one project I did keep. However my oldest has informed me that this will be hanging in her living room when she gets her own place. Oh, well. At least I have the photo and there'll always be other projects.
If you'd like to find out more about my forays in the world of stitching, you can catch up with me on Stitched Up By Phoenix. Just follow the big arrows below.
Suggested Reading and References
Samplers: Five Centuries of a Gentle Craft by Anne Sebba
Weidenfeld and Nicholson (1979)
Samplers by Averil Colby
B.T. Batsford Ltd. (1964)
Traditional Samplers by Sarah Don
David & Charles (1986)
The Embroiderer's Story: Needlework from the Renaissance to the Present Day by Thomasina Beck
David & Charles (1995)
The Complete International Book of Embroidery by Mary Gostelow
Simon & Schuster 1977
You can check these books out at your local library or purchase them at your local book store.
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If you liked what you read, let me know. If you didn't, let me know. (But be gentle. I bruise easily.)