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Hundreds of tiny squares, metres of thread, a pattern that looks like something a SNES threw up and a tiny, stabby needle. Where to begin if you’re a complete beginner?

Once you know some key points it’s pretty easy to get to grips with.

Tools:

Fabric
Invented by some wizard in Germany many moons ago. Aida is perfect for beginners as it is quite clear where you need to place your needle and that tends to be one of four holes. It can come in different colours and 'counts'. Aida is bought in thread counts, meaning there are ‘x’ amount of squares to each inch of fabric. The math behind it is the BIGGER the count the SMALLER the stitches. You know, just to be all confusing. It is best off to start with a smaller count as the stitches will be larger, kinder to the eyes and easier to manage. To put it simply; a 14 count aida has 14 squares to stitch per inch. There are other fabrics out there that you can use for cross stitching, such as evenweave and linen but it is best to nail aida first before moving onto the big guns.

Needle
Blunt. Tapestry. Needles. Not only are you at less risk of a DIY piercing and painting your work a beautiful shade of crimson but the bluntness means your needle slides through the holes and not through the rest of the fabric. The needle size depends on what size fabric you use. My kits and PDF patterns will always recommend or supply the correct size needle for the job.

Top tip - never leave your needle in the fabric when you’re not stitching. It can leave dents and marks in your piece. Then you’ll be swearing.

Scissors
A small, pointed pair will do to cut the thread. I've got a little pair of thread snips. Larger, sharper fabric shears are best for cutting the fabric. A little unpicker tool is quite useful for any mistakes but not a necessity.

Thread/floss
Thread (also known as floss) is sold in skeins. Little, floppy bundles of joy if treated kindly. I am a massive advocate of DMC. Other contenders are Anchor (who are UK based) and my favourite for speciality threads (such as metallics, pearlescent and glow in the dark) are Kreinik, a family run business from West Virginia. Each company uses different codes to identify colours, much like a hex code if you are of an IT nerd disposition. Patterns will give you these codes so you can go to your local store and get the correct shade. Or piss all that into the wind and get whatever colour YOU want because at the end of the day, you’re the cross stitch boss here *flexes muscles*

Once you’ve opened a skein its best to keep it wound up neatly on a little thread bobbin and remember to note the colour in case you need to use in another project later. You can download and print these FOR FREE on cardboard for you own use. God bless the internet. You can buy sturdier types made from plastic from your local craft store if you desire but Mother Nature will slap you. Be kind to the environment and all that jazz.

Skeins are usually made up of 6 individual strands. I’ll explain more about this later on.

Top tip - There are colour converters on the internet available to convert DMC colours to Anchor and vice versa.

Pattern
Also known as a chart. Essentially it is a picture of what you will be stitching split up into a grid. Sometimes it will use symbols and a key, other times just blocks of colour. All my patterns use the latter as I feel it is easier to work with. Every pattern includes a colour coded key.

Embroidery hoops
It is all about the tension. Sloppy fabric = sloppy stitches. Hoops make sure the fabric is taut so there is less distortion and makes the holes clearer to see. Aida is pretty stiff and can be worked on without a hoop. However, for a more even appearance and better finish it is pretty wise to use one. You can get different sized hoops. Smaller hoops are easier to handle and seem to hold their tension better but do note you may have to take your piece out and move it around which can lead to squished stitches. Yikes. I mostly use ye olde wooden embroidery hoops. I explain more on how they work further on.

Top tip - don’t leave your work in a hoop when not working on it. Put it somewhere safe and away from dust. It sounds really trivial but there is nothing worse than taking your work out to admire your blood (or hopefully lack of as you have used a blunt needle), sweat and tears and realising there’s a great, dirty ring mark on it.

Starting on aida
Find the middle of the fabric. By starting in the middle you run less risk of starting a piece and then finding out you don’t have enough fabric to fit it all in. And that truly blows. You can mark the middle with some tacking stitches which can be removed at a later date. You can put as many guidance stitches in as you want. Try making an axis from the middle.

Thread
You’ve found the centre. You have selected the first colour. It isn’t quite go time yet. How much thread do should you cut? A good rule of thumb is to cut it as long as your forearm. Any bigger and it gets into one tangled bitch of a mess, plus its extra work for your arm pulling all that damn thread through the fabric. Depending on what aida you use will determine how many strands you will need to separate from the pack. Again, the pattern you are following should advise. Sometimes it is down to personal preference. I’m not keen on big, overly bulky stitches that completely cover the fabric so I tend to use 2 strands when working with 14 count. Do a couple of practice stitches and see what you like. My kits always use full skeins so you should have plenty to go around.

Putting aida into a wooden embroidery hoop
Firstly, loosen the tension screw and separate the two hoops. Place the fabric where you intend on working over the smaller hoop. Then place the outer hoop (the larger hoop with the tension screw) over the top. The bottom ring should fit snuggly inside. Pull the fabric starting from the corners to make it taut then tighten the screw as you go along. The goal is a nice, even tension that sounds a bit like a drum if you tap it.

Knotting vs. loop vs. trailing starts
Knotting is good if you want a quick, easy start but remember if you are intending to present the work flat in a frame then it can be prone to be a bit lumpy. Loop starts are good as it means the back remains flat and is a pretty robust starting point (no worry of the knot slipping through or not catching a trailing start properly), the only disadvantage to this is that you can only use this method if you are using an even amount of strands. If I don't start out with an even number of thread I deploy the trailing start. Pull your thread through the aida, leaving a couple of centimeters on the back. Hold the thread flat against the back with one hand whilst running a few stitches with the other. Then incorporate the trailing tail into the back of the stitches to hold in place.

Reading patterns
Every pattern manufacturer will be different, so follow the guidelines and count carefully. The pattern should be in a grid. Each box will correspond to one stitch. A good habit to get into is not to trail long bits of thread from one block of stitching to another. You might be able to see this through the aida and it can make the back a mess.

How to stitch
Cross stitch. It is in the name. The stitches are made up of crosses (little X’s) which results in the finished piece having a pixel-esque vibe. For the sake of this how to I will only write about full (X) and half stitches (/ or \) but there are many more out there!

You can either straight out X it up and move on to the next square, or do a row of half stitches and then work back on yourself the opposite way to complete the X (this method is pretty neat if you have a large chunk of colour to conquer). Start in one corner of the square, bring the needle and thread up through the hole, out and then back through the opposite corner to make a diagonal stitch then repeat in the next square. Once at the end of the row go back the other way. The real key is consistency; keep all your stitches the same way. It makes for a slicker finish.

Finishing a piece of thread
You have finished the piece of thread you are working with. This can either be tied for speed and ease but take heed of knotting issues as mentioned before. I deploy the trail tactic again. Run you needle and thread behind the back of some stitches to secure in place.

Top tip - don’t sew thread until the bitter end. Leave a bit – it makes tying or trailing a lot easier.

Completing a cross stitch
The last stitch. Congratulations on your persistence. You can begin the ceremonial last cutting of the thread and securing the end however you see fit. Take out the tacking (if you have any left), and if you intend on framing your work, remove from hoop and give it a good blast with an iron. Be sure to press this wrong side up over a clean, fluffy towel to avoid flattening the stitches. And do press using an up and down motion, not back and forth.

I like to use the embroidery hoop as a frame (the tension screw doubles up quite nicely as a hanger!) Simply centre up your piece in the hoop, make sure it isn’t saggy, cut excess fabric leaving about half an inch around the hoop then glue into place to the back of the hoop. UHU is my vice but any strong glue will do. Hide the bum (the sometimes unsightly backside depending on how neat you stitch) with some nice fabric or felt cut into a circle. Romeo done.

Stitch troubleshooting:

Have a query? You can tweet me. I’m happy to help to the best of my ability!

Help! My thread has knotted!
Cripes, that’s a nightmare isn’t it?! You can usually get the knots out with a little patience (and using the needle as leverage..and tugging...and swearing). If it is totally stuck then admit defeat. Cut that thing out. Unpick the last few stitches, secure the end and get yourself some new thread. Knots tend to happen when the thread twists. If you notice this happening just dangle your needle and thread, it should twirl its way back into place and you’re good to go again.

Unpicking. Sob.
It is unfortunate but sometimes for the greater good. If you notice a counting mistake with a pattern and there’s no way around it then that’s an unpick. I use the eye of the needle. Take your thread out of the needle and gently pull the stitches out using the eye (in the direction you have stitched) The key word here is gently. Be kind. You can salvage the thread if you unpick it, it might be time consuming but some kits out there may only come with just the amount of thread you need. If you’ve ballsed up big time then it might be time for your tiny scissors or an unpicker, speeding up the process however soul destroying it is.

My eyes. MY EYES.
Your eyes hurt? You either need an optician, some daylight or a break. I highly recommend this fancy daylight lamp