***This post was originally part of our Stitched Podcast series.***
For a few summers of my childhood we spent a good portion of our days out of school on road trips. My father’s employment was in advertising sales and his job was to sell ads for newspapers and magazines. He did most of his sales face to face with clients and since we lived in the Midwest, many of his “sales territories” were quite large. He would travel from Ohio to Nebraska and all the states in between. So, he was on the road a lot.
And for part of the summer, the rest of the family would join him. First, in a wood paneled station wagon where we loved to roll around in the “tippy back” as we called it (back in the day of no children’s seat belt laws) where we would lounge around or play with each other. Then later in a large Cutlass Ciera where I would claim a wheel well all to myself with a new book that my parents would buy each of us to read on the long hours of driving until we arrived at whatever hotel we would be sleeping at that night.
As a child, these memories were so much fun. We slept in a different hotel every night, always with a pool that we would splash around in to tire us out, and where most of my siblings learned to swim and dive off diving boards.
We would all share one small hotel room and then wake up the next morning and have a quick breakfast and be on the road again. Occasionally we would stop at historical sites along the route, American History has always been important to my dad, and then spend hours waiting outside warehouses and offices while having picnic lunches and playing while my dad made his sales calls.
My mom would always bring a hand sewing project with her on the trip and it was usually cross stitch. She would sit under a tree or at the sides of pools, watching us play and doing her handwork.
I can see her in my minds’ eye with her big plastic bag of cross stitch supplies–which included her large aida cloth roll and pattern books and her fisherman’s bait box filled with cardboard squares of all different colors of stranded cotton thread wrapped tightly for cross-stitching.
Each of the individual thread colors were labeled and placed in order. It was like a rainbow in a box and I loved to pull out and look at each of those squares of threads, neatly colored in their rows, although I was always careful not to get the colors out of order.
One summer when we were old enough, my mom presented my sister and I our own set of stranded cotton thread and some cross stitch kits to make mini Christmas ornaments. Each kit had a small piece of cloth, some snips, a small hoop to hoop the fabric, small wood frames to hold the ornaments after they were made, and a small pattern book.
She’d also made a supply of colored threads for us–although ours were made from cotton thread wound onto plastic pieces with a hole at the top. Each plastic thread square was then placed on a ring. So we each had all the colors we needed in a handy little thread bundle.
And because it was before the days of tv’s in cars or even walkmans to play music, on those road trips….my sister and I would cross stitch Christmas ornament after Christmas ornament–tiny candy canes, bells, Santa faces, and manger scenes–all from the little counted cross stitch pattern books that accompanied our kits.
Our thread would get into so many knots and we would mess up constantly, but my mother was ever so patient to take our cross-stitch problems and fix them and then hand them back to the back seat so that we could continue stitching.
At first counting the rows was hard, so she would always place the first “x” in the middle for us and then we could work our way out to complete our sets of wonky candy canes….but by the end of the summer we were counting on our own and even being able to start our own middle “x” and finish a whole ornament kit by ourselves.
I credit that summer of learning to cross-stitch as being the summer that sewing was placed in my heart and in my hands.
History of Cross-Stitch
Needlework is one of the earliest forms of sewing and has documented since nearly 600 BC. There are even examples of hand-sewing and needlework that have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs as well as church catacombs from the middle ages.
Tapestries, and other forms of needlework were often known in history as a pastime that were not only used to beautifully decorate castles, but also used as a source of insulation to cover heavy stone walls and keep warmth in and out for the seasons.
Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry the 7th is most famously credited with the first form of cross stitch. She was famous for her “blackwork” which is said to have been the precursor to modern cross stitch. Black work was just as the name describes, taking little bits of black wool that were wound into thread and then woven or “stitched” into white linen or silk to create designs.
“Blackwork” was found on most of Catherine of Aragon’s chemises and underclothing and soon became a popular technique for embellishing garments in the 1500-1600’s. Although several different stitches were used in “blackwork” one of the most common and most popular became the cross stitch.
Cross-stitching is the process of making a single cross or “x” into hooped fabric to create a stitch. The hoops were to stabilize the fabric. Then, that same small stitch is repeated over and over and those individual “x’s” create a larger pattern.
The first cross stitch patterns are recorded in the late 1500’s, but the invention of the printing press really helped paper cross stitch patterns along. By the late 1600’s cross stitch and other embroidery patterns were being printed and sold in haberdashery shops all over Europe.
Traditionally, cross-stitch was used to embellish items like undergarments, household linens, tablecloths, dishcloths, and doilies almost like labels. Women would find or create their own motifs or personalized patterns of cross-stitch that was “their” markings– almost like a pattern on a set of china or a label-maker of our times 😉 But what a pretty way to mark your household things!
Samplers were also popularized during this same ear and were made using cross-stitch motifs. In the beginning samplers were usually done on linen or cotton, but in the late 1890’s aida cloth was invented and helped to increase the craze of cross stitch samplers even more. Aida cloth was a type of cloth that was woven with tiny holes that formed squares, making it much easier to keep each “x” uniform and made more intricate samplers take shape.
These samplers were a way of not only teaching hand-sewing, they were also a method of teaching and reinforcing reading, writing and arithmetic. Young girls could practice and learn their letters and numbers while stitching each of them individually. Cross stitched samplers in the 1800-1900’s were delicate and refined pieces of art that often included the alphabet, poems, small drawings of homes, animals or trees, patterns, and the name of the person who stitched the sampler. They ranged in sizes from small to quite large and many took young girls years to complete. And when completed were almost a right of passage into young adulthood.
History of Cross-Stitch Continued
Modern cross-stitch as we know it today was brought back into style in the 1960’s but went through a great resurgence in the 1980’s, right around the time Elizabeth and her sister were making their tiny Christmas ornaments.
There are two kinds of cross-stitch that are very popular today–the first being “stamped cross-stitch”. Stamped cross stitch is manufactured, having the pattern already stamped, in color, onto the aida cloth itself. With the pattern already stamped on, one simply follows the color patterns with cotton thread (usually 1 or two strands) on the cloth to create small x’s that eventually make a scene or a picture. This type of cross stitch is usually sold in kits with all the matching thread colors provided to create the stamped pattern. It’s almost like a paint by numbers for needlework!
The second type of modern cross stitch is called counted cross stitch. This type is based on a paper pattern and a piece of clean aida cloth or linen, where the x’s on the pattern are counted by the stitcher and then the “counted” pattern is re-created onto the cross-stitching cloth.
For example, row #1 might start 5 squares in from the edge, and then have 10 black x’s in it. So one would count 5 squares over, and then stitch 10 black x’s on the first row just like the picture pattern…and so on and so forth until the whole pattern is followed to create the scene or picture.
Today, technology has also come into the cross-stitching world in a way so that modern “flossers” can use many different types of threads and even make their own patterns up using computer software. You can even find channels on You-Tube where cross-stitch enthusiasts called “Floss Tubers” have created channels that are dedicated solely to cross stitching programming.
These channels are all cross-stitching all day and viewers can sit and watch other people cross stitch or share works in progress or finished pieces. Elizabeth has recently been watching some of them and just the other day spent 10 minutes watching someone’s cross-stitched bird take shape!
The last few years have also brought a new generation of stitchers. These stitchers are involved in true departure from the traditional designs associated with cross-stitch. This current trend is known for more postmodern or tongue-in-cheek designs that feature retro images with contemporary, feminist sayings added to them. A nod to the old, but bringing the personality and grit of a new generation to the stitching community. And much like quilters today, these modern age stitchers are founding guilds to unite people with the same passion for cross stitching.
Whether young or old, cross-stitching has one common theme….using your hands, some cloth and some thread to create something out of nothing.
Using your hands to create something out of nothing….isn’t that what we so often do as women?
My mother’s hands don’t look the way that they used to while in the peak days of her cross stitching years. And now her choice of handiwork is either crocheting or hand quilting….but I am still mesmerized as I watch those same hands go up and down to create beautiful stitches in whatever form of sewing she is doing.
Those hands have done so much in her lifetime. They have rocked crying babies, they have wiped many tears, they have taught many children how to tie shoes, or read or write. They have taught preschool and made play dough and pointed to the ABC’s over and over. They have cooked many meals, they have pulled weeds, or taken something to a sick friend. All acts of wonderful human service to those around her.
As I get older, my hands are starting to look more and more like the hands of my mother or even my grandmother. And I am perfectly okay with that. Because I know what those hands have done, and I hope someday that someone else might look back on my everyday “hand–i—work” with fondness and love as I do for the generations above me.
One of my favorite hymns of all time pens these lines…
“Have I done any good in the world today? Have I helped anyone in need? Have I cheered up the sad? Or made someone feel glad? If not I have failed indeed.”
Much of that “good done in the world” is in everyday tasks with our hands. Making a blanket for a new baby, or cross-stitching some decor for an elderly mother’s room. Or making some chocolate chip cookies to take so someone who is having a hard day. It’s all about the good our hands do.
Cross-stitch much like other tapestry or needlework really is amazing to look at. Up close it’s really just a bunch of small x’s. So small and so minute, often like those daily tasks of folding a load of laundry, wiping a tear or making a meal. But then to take a few steps back and look at the bigger picture. That the many “hand–stitches” of love all together create something that is really amazing. It’s the summation of all those daily acts of kindness and love that over a lifetime have created a masterpiece.