Getting Started with Cross Stitch

This is a guide to some cross stitch basics. There are pictures and short videos to help. Here’s what’s covered:

  1. Things you need: fabric and threads
  2. Threading the needle and making a start
  3. Forming cross stitches
  4. Finishing off your thread
  5. Three quarter stitches
  6. Backstitch
  7. Things to watch out for

1. Things you need


Cross stitch is made using fabric with a very regular weave pattern, which makes it easy to create neat, even stitches. The most commonly used fabric is called aida. It’s the fabric I always use, and is the one shown in the photos and videos on this site. You can buy small pre-cut pieces of aida in my web shop, click here. My charts are designed to be stitched on aida, and you will find a piece inside any kit you buy from me at a craft fair or on my web shop, click here for my kits. 

Aida looks like this:

fullsizeoutput_6bd.jpegAida comes in different gauges, which refers to how far apart the holes are. This is called “thread count”, or “holes per inch”, and is often abbreviated to “hpi”. (See note at the end of this post about metric vs imperial measurements). As you can see from the photo, it comes in different colours.

I work mainly on 14 count aida, and the photographs in this post are all of work done on 14 count aida.


I use DMC stranded embroidery threads . This comes in 8 metre skeins like these:

fullsizeoutput_6b5.jpeg…which I keep spooled onto bobbins like these, making sure I label them:

fullsizeoutput_6ac.jpegI have accumulated quite a stash of threads over the years. When I decided to start selling designs, I made the decision to go with DMC rather than Anchor threads, (you may have spotted that one of the skeins in the picture above is Anchor).  I chose DMC because that’s what I had more of, and my favourite craft shop stocks them. I eventually made the decision to stock DMC myself, see below. Anchor are just as good and they are pretty much interchangeable. It is possible to find a DMC/Anchor conversion chart online. I do stress that it is important to use good quality threads in your work, the colours have depth and are consistent, and the threads have a good sheen.

DMC’s standard range of stranded cotton, Mouliné Spécial,  has 500 colours, and there are several smaller, special ranges such as Light Effects (metallic) and Mouliné Étoile (a bit sparkly). The thread consists of six strands. My designs are generally stitched using two strands for standard cross stitches, and one for the backstitches used for outlining and lettering.

I am very happy to have this gorgeous thing in my hallway. You can buy the full range of DMC stranded embroidery threads in my web shop, click here


2. Threading the needle and making a start

I use a size 26 or 28 tapestry needle. This has a blunt end, which helps to avoid snagging threads, especially when you are working several stitches close together. This is particularly important when you have stitches of different colours next to each other. I do sometimes use a sharp sewing needle when I have a lot of three-quarter stitches to do – more about that later.

The first thing to do is cut a length of thread from the bobbin. 18 inches/45 cm is a good length. Next, separate out one thread. Do this slowly and gently, to avoid a tangle. Then bring the two ends of your thread together, and thread both through the eye of your needle. You will have a loop of thread on your needle like this:


Decide where you want to place your first stitch. Most charts will have faint lines which cross at the centre in order to indicate the middle stitch for you, but if not count across and draw a faint ruler line down the middle, then count down the side and do the same. Where those two lines cross is your middle stitch. Once you have identified that, you can count from that to where you have decided to start your piece. I suggest stitching any blocks of pale colour first. This will keep the edges of those areas cleaner, because when you make a pale stitch next to a dark stitch, pulling the needle up through the hole between them might pull a fibre or two of the darker thread through, which can make the edge a little fuzzy.

To start your first stitch neatly, bring your needle from back to front through the hole at the bottom left corner of your chosen site, pull the thread through, leaving a tail behind. Then push your needle from front to back through the hole at the top right corner, creating a diagonal stitch. Be careful not to pull the thread all the way though. Now turn your work over, and put the needle through the loop at the end of your thread. Now gently pull until your stitch lies flat and neat against the fabric, without pulling holes out of shape. Watch this video to see that in action. (You’ll need to click the “back” button on your browser when it’s finished to come back here.)

Watch this short video to see how to start your thread and form your first cross stitch .

3. Forming cross stitches

(See the previous section for the first part of the stitch). If you are sewing just one stitch, go ahead and form the other diagonal of the cross stitch by bringing your needle up through the bottom right hole, and back down through the top left hole, as shown in the short video above. You now have one cross stitch. Throughout your work, always form your crosses in the same direction, i.e. the second diagonal, the one on the top of the finished stitch, will always go from bottom right to top left. This keeps your work neat and tidy, and, when you have blocks or areas of stitches together, you will have a regular finish, and you will be able to see the sheen on the thread.

If you have a block or patch of the same colour to stitch, start at the top left hand corner of the area and form the stitches in two parts. Go from left to right along a row, forming the first diagonal of each stitch (bottom left to top right), and then come back along the row, forming the second diagonal of each stitch (bottom right to top left). Then go down to the next row and so the same thing. Watch this video to see this in action. (You’ll need to click the “back” button on your browser when it’s finished to come back here.)

Watch this short video to see how to stitch a block of cross stitches

It’s important to mention the tension of your work at this point. You need to pull the thread through snug enough so your stitches lie flat and even, but not so taut that it distorts. Remember, snug, not taut.

4. Finishing off your thread

When your thread runs out, or when you’ve finished with a particular colour, here’s how you finish it off: after forming your last stitch, run your needle gently through the back of a few stitches and then again back the other way, taking care to do this with a light touch in order not to pull any stitches. Pull your needle away and snip the thread off as close to the back of the work as you can. You want to avoid leaving a little dangly bit, which could be visible from the right side of the work. Watch this video to see this in action. (You’ll need to click the “back” button on your browser when it’s finished to come back here.)

Watch this short video to see how to finish your thread

5. Three-quarter stitches

Some designs call for three-quarter stitches. These are triangular in shape, and make the edges of shapes look smoother and less blocky. To form a three-quarter stitch, start the same way as you would for a standard cross stitch, with a diagonal stitch as in picture 1. Then bring your needle up the same way as you would to form the second diagonal. This time you are only going half way across the square though. In effect what you are doing is catching the first diagonal stitch down. To do this,  insert the needle into the middle of the square, making sure your needle goes through the fabric just on the far side of the stitch you’ve just made (picture 2), so that when you pull the thread through, it covers the diagonal stitch and catches it down, but does not pierce the thread (picture 3).  You may find it easier to use a sharp needle when making these stitches, and not a tapestry needle, as you need to pierce the fabric rather than just push the needle through a ready-made hole as for an ordinary cross stitch.

three quarter stitch

6. Backstitch

The other main stitch used in cross stitch projects is back stitch. If you are familiar with backstitch in the context of hand sewing, this is exactly the same stitch, just using the holes as a guide. It’s called backstitch, because of the way the stitches are formed. In the pictures below, the line of stitches is being formed going towards the right, but the part of the stitch visible from the front of the fabric is made “backwards”, from right to left.

In cross stitch this stitch is used largely for outlining, but also for small details and lettering. As backstitch is almost always done using a single thread, you can’t start off in the same way as for a cross stitch. You can run your needle under the back of a few nearby stitches  a couple of times in order to secure your thread in a similar way to how you would finish off ( see above). Alternatively, you can leave a small tail of thread behind your work and catch it down behind your first few stitches as you go. You will need to use this second method if you are starting your backstitches away from any convenient blocks of stitching.

Bring your needle up one space to the right, and then push your needle back through the hole on the left. Then repeat this sequence, moving one space to the right each time.

7. Things to watch out for

Try not to carry your thread across the back of an area which will not be stitched, as it may be visible from the right side. If you have two different areas of the same colour to do, it’s better to stop and start again, unless they are quite close together, and the area between is going to have stitches which will hide it. If you carry the thread a long way across the back of the fabric without catching it down, be careful not to pull it too tight as it will distort your work. If you don’t pull it tight enough, the last stitch you made will quickly start to look loose.

Take care with your tension. You don’t want to pull your thread too tight, or you will distort the fabric, but if you don’t pull it nice and snug, then your stitches won’t be smooth and even. As I said above, snug, not taut.

Keep your cross stitches going in the same direction. I always do my first diagonal, (the one that will be underneath) from the bottom left to the top right. The second diagonal (the one that will be on top) goes from bottom right to top left.

It’s easy to get lost when following a chart. I recommend using a pencil to mark the areas stitched. I have used a highlighter in the past, but came unstuck because I couldn’t rub it out. With a larger chart I use a ruler to help me see along a line on the chart, and tick at the end of the row when it’s complete.

Note: Metric and imperial measurements – keeping it old school

Cross stitch, like patchwork, is a world which still operates largely in imperial measurements – that’s feet and inches. This is most probably because cross stitch and patchwork are very popular in the US, where the imperial system is used. Although you will buy a metre of aida here in the UK rather than a yard, the gauge is still measured in holes per inch. An inch is around 2.5cm.

2 thoughts on “Getting Started with Cross Stitch”

  1. Super useful! I’ve been knotting at the beginning and end but your method of starting and finishing will leave a much flatter finish and a neater back. Thank you!

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