The ABC's of Cross Stitch
A: Aida, evenweave and linen are the most common types of fabric used for cross stitch. Aida cloth is woven with the threads grouped into definite blocks, forming a pattern of "squares" and "holes"; stitches are formed over the blocks by passing the needle through the holes. Evenweave refers to fabric where threads are woven singly - the "even" part of the term refers to the fact that the number warp and weft (horizontal and vertical) threads is the same - no skipping over threads to form a "design" in the fabric. Evenweave threads can have some small variation of thickness, though it is not as extreme as linen, in which "slubs" (varying thickness across a single thread) are characteristic of the weave. Cross stitch can also be done on silk gauze, perforated paper or plastic, or on "regular" fabric with the use of waste canvas.
B: Breaks are important! Be sure to sit up and stretch, and to rest your eyes and hands. Stitching can be very addictive, so be sure to take measures to avoid a stitching-related stress injury. Lap- and floor-stands exist in many styles to hold your needlework at an ideal height, and there are many styles of lamps with flexible necks to put the light where you need it. Support gloves and wrist braces can aid those with weak and/or arthritic hands. Remember to stretch your back and hands occasionally - your body will thank you for it.
C: Cleanliness is super-important! Always wash your hands before handling your fabric and threads, and wash your finished piece at the very end. Even if your work looks clean, you probably haven't noticed that the oils from your skin and dust from your environment have worked their way into your materials. Washing will bring out the true beauty of your piece.
D: Details, details, details! Don't shy away from backstitch or French knots or Algerian eyes or bullion bars because you think it's hard. Oftentimes these small details are what really makes a piece pop, and any technique can be mastered with practice.
E: Enjoy what you're doing! Stitching is something you should do for fun, and you can lose sight of that in the midst of a difficult piece. Remember to sit back and remind yourself that you are stitching because you want to, not because you have to. Don't be afraid to put a piece aside in favor of something easier: you can always come back to it later, and every stitcher has at least one unfinished piece hiding in a closet.
F: Finishing can really make or break a piece. I prefer to have my framing professionally done with museum-quality materials: it is expensive, but worth the cost to preserve the piece for years to come. If you choose to frame a piece yourself, take the time to properly clean, iron and center your work; nothing ruins a beautiful piece than poor finishing. Framing is, of course, not the only option: stitching can be used in pillows, cards, table linens, or stitched "just for the heck of it" and put into storage until you decide what to do with it.
G: Gridlines can be marked on your fabric, to help with counting. Some stitchers use water-erasable fabric marking pens; if you do, be sure to read the instructions very carefully, as some inks can become permanent and thus ruin your piece. I personally prefer to baste my gridlines in with thread; the process can be time-consuming, but the thread will not permanently mar your fabric the way ink can. Tutorial linked below.
H: Hand- and over-dyed fabrics and threads are materials that have had an additional dye treatment on top of the base color, often yielding a marbled or variegated effect. Hand-dyed materials can add a great depth and interest to a piece, but should be treated carefully: the additional dye can bleed upon washing, though it is uncommon. If dye does bleed, keep rinsing the piece in cold water until all the dye runs off and the water runs clear.
I: Initial and date your piece! A stitcher's version of signing your work is to backstitch your initials and the year on the piece itself; choose a subtle color and an unobtrusive corner of the design for placement. You can also stitch below the design, such that the information is hidden by the frame, if you so desire. In addition, I like to print out a label on my computer containing design information, starting/ending date, and a small dedication to the piece's recipient: the label I adhere to the back of the frame.
J: Jump into a project head first! Don't get discouraged because something is meant for "advanced" stitchers...everyone started as a beginner. Complicated designs just take a little extra patience, and a little practice. Remember to go slowly, check your progress against your chart, and take a break to work on something else if you feel overwhelmed.
K: Knotting your thread on the back of your piece is a no-no: the knots create lumps under the stitching, making it appear uneven. The proper way to secure your thread ends is to run them under the backs of completed stitches: I like to make sure my ends are secured by 4 to 6 stitches on the backs of my pieces. Be careful, however: if you secure dark threads under light stitches, the dark can shine through the fabric, making your lighter colors look dirty.
L: Light! Natural daylight is, of course, the best option for stitchers because it allows you to most accurately see subtle shades of color. A daylight lamp is good too, and a bright incandescent bulb is better than nothing. Make sure you have adequate light that you are not straining your eyes while you stitch: position your light source over the shoulder opposite your main stitching hand (over the left for right-handed stitchers, and vice-versa).
M: Mistakes can be "design opportunities". Don't get discouraged because you mis-counted a whole section: look first at your pattern, and see if the mistake can be worked around. Very often something that you thought was a mistake can end up looking better than what the designer had originally planned.
N: Needles. Use a needle size appropriate to your work and comfortable in your hand. The general is 24-gauge for 14 stitches-to-the-inch (14-count), 26-gauge for 16-count and 28-gauge for 18-count. Change your needle after each project (or during, if it's a large project): with the constant motion of going through the fabric, your needle's surface gets worn. A new needle will glide through your fabric more easily (and cause less damage to neighboring threads) than an old one. Gold- and platinum-plated needles slide the best through fabrics, though the standard nickel-plated ones you can find in most stores work just fine.
O: Order your stitching! That is, look at your pattern and form a plan in your mind as to how to approach it. I like to work by color within an area, starting with the darks and working to the lights. Try to keep your stitches going in the same direction as much as possible, such that the back of your work stays as neat as possible.
P: Practice new techniques on a scrap of fabric before trying them out on your masterpiece. Nobody gets everything right the first time, and it is better to practice on a scrap than to continuously rip stitches out of your work piece - especially since you run the risk of weakening the fabric's weave if your ripping method is too harsh.
Q: Quality of your materials is important if you want your finished piece to last through the years. I'm not saying that you have to buy $50-a-cut linen or $2-a-skein thread, but definitely take the time to explore your options. If it looks and feels cheap, it probably is. Consider too the intent of your stitching: are you making a bib that a baby will drool on, or a wedding announcement that will become a family heirloom?
R: Railroading is a technique used to help your threads lie flat so that your stitches appear "plump" and give the best fabric coverage; the same effect can be achieved through the use of a laying tool. Tutorial linked below.
S: Scissors! Sharp, fine-pointed scissors are an essential tool for clipping threads and thread ends: just be careful not to clip your fabric! Some embroidery scissors come with curved blades, to help you maneuver around the edge of a hoop or frame. Additionally, I keep one pair of scissors that I use only for metallic threads: these threads will dull your blades after a while, so I make sure not to cut them with my good scissors. I prefer scissors with 3- to 4-inch blades.
T: Tension is important if you want even-looking stitches. There are several ways of stretching your canvas, including hoops, scroll frames and stretcher bars. Hoops (I prefer a brand called Q-Snaps, linked below) provide all-around tension, but you've got to be careful "hooping" over completed stitches, as you can crush them. Scroll frames secure the fabric on top and bottom, allowing you to "scroll" to the part on which you want to work, however, the tension on the sides of the fabric can be loose/uneven. Stretcher bars are what artists use to stretch canvas for painting: tension is great, providing that you've stretched your fabric evenly, but you've got to stretch the entire piece of fabric (which, when stitching a large piece, can be unwieldy).
U: Unraveling (fraying) fabric edges can lead to trouble: if your fabric frays too much, you may not have enough of a border to stretch for framing. There are many ways to secure your fabric edges: some people use masking/painters tape, though it can leave a sticky residue that's hard to remove. I prefer sewing a hem: this can be done with a serger, by using a zigzag stitch on a "regular" sewing machine, or by turning under and securing with hand stitching. Fraying can be used to your advantage, however: evenly fray the edges of a small piece and glue it to some cardstock for a personalized greeting card. A line of backstitching can help prevent the fabric from fraying too far, though you must still be careful.
V: Verify the size of your design before you select your fabric! Just because a designer suggests you stitch with a certain stitch count, does not mean you are locked into using that size! Be sure to calculate the design size by dividing the finished size in stitches (usually listed on the chart) by the count of your fabric (i.e., 14 stitches per inch). Add at least three inches to the horizontal and vertical measurements to ensure that you have enough of a border for your finishing work.
W: Waste Canvas is designed to help you cross stitch on "normal" fabrics. It's a great way to put a design on shirts, bags, table linens, etc. Waste canvas is basted to the fabric, centered over where you want the design, and removed after stitching. Tutorial linked below.
X: eXamine your finished piece carefully! I find that, no matter how careful I am, cat hair always manages to sneak into my stitches. It's quite easy to remove this annoyance with a pair of tweezers, just be careful not to tug on your stitches as you do so!
Y: Yarn, fuzzy floss, metallic braid, and silk ribbon are only some of the specialty fibers available to stitchers. Do not be afraid to experiment with specialty threads: make Santa's beard fuzzy, or make the dragon's gold shine. Specialty threads can be worked in conjunction with or instead of regular floss.
Z: Zero in on you stitch location, both on your chart and your fabric. A highlighter or colored pencil can be useful for marking your chart with the stitches you've already done, which in turn can help prevent mistakes. I like to make a photocopy of my chart that I mark up while working - that way I can always refer back to the original if one of my marks obstructs a symbol.