I am an avid cross-stitcher. When I can find time, that is. I love creating art with needle and thread. My best friend in high school is the one who got me hooked. She and I both worked in a little California tourist town called Solvang one summer, and we found part-time jobs in needlework stores. I might have been forced to wear a peasant blouse and a red Danish corset covered in flowers, but I found a hobby there that has given me years of enjoyment.
Needlework is an artform that has been around since ancient times. There are many different types of stitches, but cross-stitch is my personal favorite. It is simple in that the needleworker makes tiny Xs with her thread, usually on linen or some other fabric with an even weave. The tiny holes in the woven fabric serve as a grid for the stitcher to place her design, much like tiles in a mosaic. Others would work on silk, using only their artistic eye to keep the design straight and stitches even. My artistic eye is not nearly keen enough for that. I definitely need a grid.
The earliest cross-stitch pattern books appeared in Germany and France in the 1500’s. But it would be many years before pattern books became readily available. Women would stitch samples of their favorite stitches or patterns on long strips of narrow cloth creating a “sampler” to refer to when they wished to create a design, usually as an embelishment for clothing, table linens, or pillow cases. These samplers were not intended for display. They were usually rolled up and stored in a drawer, and often handed down from mother to daughter.
In the 1700’s, educating women became more accepted, and mothers often taught their daughters two skills at once by having them reproduce numbers and letters in cross-stitch upon their samplers. When settlers came to America, they brought this teaching method with them. Once the girls mastered the techniques, they would display their art.
The samplers below were stitched by two young Massachusetts girls. Sally Noble completed hers at age twelve in 1798, and ten-year-old Dolly Parker finished hers in 1824. Exquisite work for such young hands!
Gradually, patterns became more detailed. A shift could be seen from the two-dimensional designs of the samplers, to three-dimensional landscapes with shading and depth just like in paintings. Not only were these works hung on walls, but they were used to upholster chairs and footstools, create cushions and coin purses, and decorate fire screens. The advancing art of dying allowed more variation in thread color, and by the 19th century, cross-stitch had become a passion. Women’s magazines included hand-colored charts, and soon women from all social classes were learning the art.
With the advent of embroidery machines, however, needlework fell into a decline. Since women could buy embroidered clothing and linens at much cheaper prices, cross-stitch once again became simply a leisure activity. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that counted cross-stitch regained it popularity. This time the emphasis was on decorative stitches with metallic or beaded embellishments. Thousands upon thousands of charts are in existence today with incredibly detailed patterns. However, you will still continue to see designers breathe life into old stitching traditions, with samplers and two dimensional artwork.
I usually try to complete at least one large cross-stitch project a year. In 2010, I completed one that is not a sampler, but it harkens back to that time with it’s two-dimensional design and simple lines. The Noah’s Ark that you see below on the left. This past year, I finished a pattern called Celtic Christmas. While it’s design features a woman from hundreds of years ago, the pattern itself utilizes the modern embellishments of metallic thread and extensive beading. I hope this art form continues to grow and flourish for centuries to come while always remembering its past.