How to Design a Cross Stitch Chart

This is a guide to creating your own simple cross stitch chart, based on a drawing, photograph or image, without using specialist software. Here’s the step-by-step process I followed to create the eight cat designs (bottom right), from a copyright-free picture I found on Google Images (top right). I will take you through each step in detail. These instructions focus on making sure the finished design is the size required, as well as showing you how to create a chart.

I will cover the following points:

  1. What you need
  2. Determining the size of your design
  3. Choosing and preparing the image
  4. Adjusting the size of the image
  5. Tracing your design
  6. Colours and design
  7. Finishing touches, including backstitch lettering

Before we go any further – everything you need to make these cats, including charts, fabric, and threads, is available to buy in my web shop here. Each of these designs is also available as a kit with everything you need from the needle to the card mount here.

1. What you need to design the chart

  • some graph paper, here I’ve used paper with 2mm squares
  • a ruler
  • a rubber
  • a pencil
  • a fine black permanent pen
  • colouring pencils or fine liners
  • a frame or aperture card
  • scissors for cutting paper

You might also find the following items useful:

  • a light source – this could be a lightbox, a window, or even a mobile phone inside a translucent plastic box
  • a computer and printer – I use MS Word on my MacBook

What you need to stitch your design

  • aida fabric
  • needle
  • embroidery threads
  • a hoop or frame if you use one
  • small sharp scissors

You can buy all of the things you need to stitch your design here

2. Determining the size of your design

It can be very frustrating to finish a beautiful piece of cross stitch, and then try to scour the shops for a frame or mount the right size for it. So the first thing to think about is how big you want your finished design to be. You will need to start out with a specific size of frame or mount in mind, unless you are planning to have your cross stitch piece professionally framed. If size is not an issue for you, skip ahead to point 5.

I know that I want to stitch a greetings card showing a cat. My first job is to decide on the size. I am making a greetings card using an aperture card, so the size of the card will govern the size of the piece of fabric and therefore the design.

Having cut a piece of aida that is comfortably bigger than my finished piece will be, I open out the aperture card, lay it flat on the aida fabric (see below) and carefully count the squares across the width of the fabric showing through opening, and down the length. I use the tip of a needle to help me count.  I write the numbers down and count again, just to double check.  In this example, there are 35 whole squares visible across the width, and 60 down the length. This gives the area I can stitch on.  You could work out the gauge of the fabric and do the sum based on the size of the mount, but actually counting the visible holes is the best way to be sure.

For information, the picture shows a piece of 14hpi (holes per inch) aida measuring approx 10cm x 15cm, and an A6 card with an aperture measuring 6.7cm x 11.4cm (available to buy here).

An aperture card opened flat on a piece of aida cross stitch fabric

Next, I draw a rectangle on my graph paper, 35 x 60 squares, the same as the number of squares showing in the aperture.  I can now use the paper as a “blank canvas” on which to place my design, confident that it will be the right size for my card when I stitch it.

Sometimes I draw my design directly into my rectangle on the graph paper, but I am not a confident drawer, and don’t always get the proportions right, so I find an image online, adjust it till it’s the right size, print it and transfer it to the graph paper. The next two steps show how I do that.

You may already have an image you want to base your design on, but it’s not the right size – you can scan it into your computer and then follow the instructions below.

3. Choosing and preparing the image

I  search for “copyright-free cat outline” on Google Images, and import the images into a Word document (see explanation below, you may prefer to use a different application). These are the ones that make it to my shortlist for this project.

Shortlist of cat pictures downloaded from Google Images

I now need to think about the proportions. My working area is quite tall and narrow, the rectangle on the graph paper measures 12cm x 7 cm, so I will not choose cat number 1, because the tail sticks out to the side too much. I really like cat number 2, and will definitely use that one in the future, but for this project I want a whole cat. I decide on cat number 7, as it best fits what I have in mind, and the proportions are about right.

4. Adjusting the size of the image

To get the image to the right size I use Microsoft Word – because I am comfortable with it, and I know how to use it to adjust image size easily. There are many other ways to do this, for example Paint or PhotoShop. Firstly, I need to crop any excess white space from around the edges of the cat on the image, and then use the “size and position” option, which appears on the menu when you right-click on the image in Word (or two-finger click on a Mac). I want it to fit neatly in my graph paper rectangle, which is 12cm x 7cm, so I fiddle with the dimensions of the image until I get the best fit. When fiddling with the image dimensions it’s important to keep the aspect ratio locked, so the proportions don’t skew. I want a little margin around the edges of my stitched design, so I end up with a cat that’s 9.5cm tall, and 6.25cm wide. This means there will be a little more space above and below the cat than either side, but I decide that’s OK. Then I print the picture, at that size. As long as your printer is set to print at 100%, which is the default setting, the image will be printed at the correct size.

5. Tracing your design

Because the picture I’ve printed is now the right size, I can go ahead and trace it onto my graph paper. I have a lightbox, which helps with this, but an alternative is to tape the picture to a window, with light shining from behind, and trace over it. For a home-made lightbox, you can turn on the torch on a mobile phone, and place it inside a plastic food box, then put the lid on.

Tracing the design onto graph paper and refining the shape

Once I’ve traced the picture (cat 1 above) , I move on to stage two which is blocking it out; the design needs to consist of whole squares, one per cross stitch. In picture 2 above, I have left the pencil lines of the original traced cat visible, so you can see how the new version matches up with the original. It’s sort of OK, but the head’s a bit weird. I fiddle around a bit on some rough pieces of graph paper, playing with different versions until I decide to go for a simplified shape for the head, and I finally settle on version 3. Because of the “blocky” nature of cross stitch, there comes a point when you have accept that you can’t always capture the curves the way you might want to. Although, if you’re confident with three-quarter stitches, you can smooth things out a bit more, as I have done in version 4. Having the diagonal lines allows for a bit more definition, for example in the ears, neck and foot areas. Of the eight cats in the picture near the top of this guide, only the one on the bottom right has been stitched using three-quarter stitches as in version 4, all the others are stitched using version 3, and I think they still look effective.

6. Colours and Design

Now you’ve got your outline shape, you get to play with colours and design. As you see from my eight cats, I have not tried to make an accurate representation of what a cat really looks like, although the tortoiseshell-type one is almost realistic. I have enjoyed playing with colours, particularly rainbows. At this point I usually switch to software. I use MacStitch/WinStitch, by Ursa Software (link) to create and print out my charts. However, sometimes I make the chart on paper with crayons and fine liners. I make multiple copies of my final outline shape (usually by scanning and printing), so I can play with different colour combinations, and look at them side by side before I make my final decision. It can be a bit of a mental leap to imagine what your colours and patterns will look like when they are stitched, sometimes I make little swatches and samples on scrap pieces of aida, to get an idea. I’m not going to say any more here, the best way to get a design you are happy with, is to play. This is the part of the process which is personal to you. DMC’s colour palette is immense, I have the full range of stranded thread colours available to buy here.

7. Finishing touches

The cat fits quite nicely in the aperture card, but there is space for a little embellishment, if required. I quite like it plain, (below left) but there’s space for a border, and even some backstitch lettering, if the cat is moved up or down in the aperture. The danger with a backstitch border like the one in the right hand picture below, is that it really makes any distortion of your fabric obvious. Stretching and blocking out aida fabric cross stitched pieces is really difficult unless you have the right equipment, so I usually avoid this sort of border, unless I am having a piece professionally framed.

Backstitch Lettering

Here is an alphabet I’ve designed that you are welcome to use, if you wanted to add something other than “happy birthday”.

Backstitch Alphabet

If you choose to add lettering to your design, you need to think about the position. I find it helpful to draft each word on small pieces of graph paper, and then stick them carefully in position in the correct place on the chart, see above pictures. This helps you to get the wording central.

I hope you have found this guide clear and helpful. Feel free to contact me if anything is unclear, or if you need more information. You can do this by commenting on this post, or by using the form on the contact page. You can also email me direct to About once a month I send out a newsletter with information about what’s new on my site and in my shop. You can sign up for that by filling in the short form at the bottom of my home page.

And finally, these designs and others are available as kits in my web shop, click here. A downloadable PDF with charts for all these cats is available here.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.