How Cross-Stitching Developed My Creativity and Self-Discipline

Needle arts can provide a mindfulness practice with scientifically proven cognitive benefits. Here’s how to get started.

Needlepoint of Lt. Uhura from Star Trek, designed and made by the author

Everyone needs a hobby, and for me, cross-stitching has been a rewarding one. It’s easy to learn, doesn’t require too many supplies, and is a great outlet for creativity. It’s also helped me with my self-discipline and has been a great way for me to de-stress after a long day. It is an activity with some surprising cognitive benefits.

I’ve been cross-stitching for about six years now, and it’s been a fun and relaxing hobby. Creating my own patterns has been hugely rewarding for me creatively and has allowed me to decorate my living space with pieces of art I feel personally connected to. Putting the last stitch on a piece gives me the same sense of satisfaction of snapping the last piece of a large jigsaw puzzle into place — only better, because instead of tearing it apart to put back in the box, I have something I can show off on my wall, or put on a towel, or share as a gift for friends and family.

But beyond the creative aspect of cross-stitching, I’ve also changed mentally as well. The best lesson you can learn from cross-stitching is how small, steady effort can be transformational. Before I started cross-stitching, I used to easily get overwhelmed by the size of projects. I’d look at my long to-do list for the day and end up getting nothing done because it seemed so big as to be hopeless.

Working my way through cross-stitch projects taught me that a little progress each day can lead to big results. Sometimes I wouldn’t have much more than ten minutes to work on my cross-stitch, and I probably wouldn’t add much more than a dozen stitches. But even those small amounts add up over time and each day I came closer to finishing.

The Science Behind Activities Like Needlecrafts

Studies have shown that crafts, including needle crafts like knitting, as well as cross-stitch and quilting, are beneficial in alleviating depression. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences also found that crafting activities were linked with a lower chance of developing mild cognitive impairment (MCI).

Science has also confirmed what most people already knew: engaging in leisure activities improves mood and daily health and well-being. Through his studies on creativity and the concept of “flow” (the feeling you get when you’re so engaged in an activity that you lose your sense of time), psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly found it to be a “secret to happiness,” while occupational therapist Victoria Schindler compared the effects of “flow” to meditation, yielding similar benefits.

Cross-stitch is great whether you have several hours to devote to it or only a few minutes a day. After learning the basics, it’s easy to expand into whatever type of images you want to make—even ones based on your own photos or drawings. The only limit is your own creativity.


How to Get Started

Two towels with the Rebel and Imperial symbols from Star Wars cross-stitched by the author.

Before I begin, I want to point out that while I’ll keep the article focused on cross-stitch for clarity, everything I’m saying applies equally to the very similar craft called needlepoint. The main differences between cross-stitch and needlepoint are that cross-stitch is typically done on a more flexible fabric and each stitch is in an X shape, while needlepoint stitches are a half X or / shape, and on a firmer piece of canvas.

Some people find they have a strong preference for one or the other, but many others enjoy both equally. Neither takes any more skill to learn than the other and I recommended trying both at least once to find your preference.

Choosing a Kit

If you’re completely new to any kind of needlecraft, I recommend starting by buying a cross-stitch kit. A good beginner’s kit will include everything you need to complete the project: an embroidery hoop, a needle, embroidery floss (the colored thread the design is made of), instructions on how to make the stitch, the pattern of the design, and the fabric or canvas to stitch the design on. More advanced or cheaper kits may not include the embroidery hoop, but hoops can be purchased online or at any craft store.

In general, the fewer colors used in a design, the easier it is to complete. There is a whole subset of cross-stitching done only in red, called redwork, which is based on a style of embroidery that was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But don’t be intimidated into thinking you need to start with that style. Most beginners could easily work with up to a dozen colors on their first piece.

Cross-stitch in progress by Sally Wilson (via Wikimedia Commons)

Besides the number of colors, the other factor you’ll want to take into account when choosing a kit is the total number of stitches in the piece. As you’d expect, cross-stitches with more stitches take longer to complete. They are not always more difficult, however.

To judge the difficulty of the design (if the kit itself doesn’t tell you), spend some time looking at how often the design changes colors. Designs with big areas of a single color are much easier and faster to stitch than designs that switch between multiple colors in a small area.

Stick to a small project with only a few colors if it’s your first time. It’s much easier for you to see your progress and get a feel for following the pattern. You can adjust the difficulty for your second project based on your confidence after completing the first.

I’ve enjoyed doing cross-stitches made by Riolis. The company has a whole line of cross-stitch kits for beginners and children called “Happy Bee.” Their “Panda” and “Swallowtail Butterfly” designs both have a lot of detail, but only use seven different colors, which keeps the pattern easy to follow. You will need to separately purchase an embroidery hoop separately for these kits, but hoops can be reused for every cross-stitch project.

Dimensions is another popular cross-stitch kit brand that has good kits for beginners. Many of their kits also come with the embroidery hoop. Their “Cute Kitty” and “Playful Penguin” are two kits that are very simple and quick to work through. Both are a little less than $3 dollars, which makes them an ideal choice for getting your feet wet. They also offer many other small and simple designs, so take a moment to browse to find the perfect first design.

Doing a Cross-Stitch

In progress cross-stitch (left) compared to the pattern grid (right). Each square on the grid corresponds to a single X of the cross-stitch.

Once you’ve picked out your cross-stitch kit and bought an embroidery hoop (if it wasn’t included in the kit already), it’s time to start stitching. Most kits come with an instruction page that tells you the basics of making a stitch, but you can also check online tutorials or YouTube videos for a more detailed look.

The first step in working a design is finding the center of your canvas. Most cross-stitches are done from the center moving out. Some kits mark the center of the canvas with an X, but others do not. If the center of your canvas is not marked, you can fold it in half lengthwise and then widthwise to find the center, and then mark that point by temporarily threading a stray piece of thread through it.

After that, put the canvas in your embroidery hoop. Different hoops have different fastening mechanisms, but I personally prefer the ones that have a plastic outer band and an inner metal one. The metal band can be squeezed open to slide the canvas over it and then tightens into place once released.

On your pattern, find the center of the design and look up what color is in that position. That is the color you’ll begin with and the first section of the design that you’ll work. Working from the center first ensures that your design won’t be off-center when it’s complete.

Cross-stitch stitches are normally done from left to right, and from bottom to top. On your grid, count how many stitches across the row your section is, then make that number of half cross-stitches (think of it as making a / rather than an X). Once you’ve made the right number of stitches, go back in the opposite direction to complete the X (See the image above for a detailed look at an in-progress row of stitches).

The other thing to remember is to not “split” your canvas when you’re stitching—that is, to pass your thread through the holes in the canvas between the weave. From the same image above, you can see that there are clear holes in a cross-stitch canvas to fit your needle through. Do not try to force it through the thicker bits of cloth or your stitches will be unevenly sized and have weird gaps.

Lastly, try not to make any knots in the back of your work as you’re stitching. Instead, hold the end of your thread down and work the stitches over it so that it gets tucked inside. When you make a cross-stitch, the front of the pattern makes a row of Xs (XXXXX), but the back will appear to be vertical stitches (|||||). Your thread end should be underneath the |s. When you finish a section, or if your thread becomes to short to continue, thread it under the |s on the back and cut off the excess.


Common Pitfalls and Hurdles

The most likely problem you’ll encounter with cross-stitching happens with choosing a pattern that is too complicated for you. If that happens, you’ll find yourself feeling taxed instead of relaxed when completing the design. You’ll spend a lot of time staring at your pattern to try and figure out where the stitches are supposed to go, you’ll probably end up making a lot of mistakes. This is what happened to me when I was trying to do a kit with more than forty colors when I was a beginner. Because it was so far beyond my skill level, I had to set it aside until I built up my skills on easier kits.

But if you start with a beginner’s kit, you won’t have to set your project aside in frustration. Still, there are a few hurdles you might face.

The two most common hurdles are putting stitches in the wrong place on your pattern or using the wrong colored floss by mistake.

Obviously, the best way to avoid putting a stitch in the wrong place is to pay careful attention to your pattern, but there are a couple of tricks that can help you make sure your stitches are going in the right spot.

The first is to always carefully count how many stitches are in a row next to each other. Most patterns are drawn on grids that have darker lines every five or ten stitches, which makes it easier to see how many stitches long a section is. Even if the section I’m filling in is completely surrounded by other stitches already, I still count my stitches so that I know everything matches up.

Second, whenever you start a new section, compare the location of your first stitch to two close but unrelated points on the pattern. I usually try to find one group of stitches to the left or right of the stitches I’m about to make and one group above or below the stitches, then make sure that the new stitches correctly line up with both before I start. This method ensures that a mistake that you missed earlier won’t continue to affect your stitches, because you’ll be much more likely to catch it.

If you do make a mistake and put a stitch in the wrong place, there are two things you can do. The best is to take the stitch out and put it into the correct spot. This usually isn’t too difficult, though it does feel a bit frustrating.

But sometimes you won’t see a mistake until much later and the amount of work you would have to undo to take it out might be overwhelming. In cases like this, you’re better off to leave it and work the rest of the area around it according to the gridded pattern.

There’s no concrete rule about when you should take something out and when you should leave it. Much of it depends on personal preference. In general, though, the larger the design, the less you’ll notice a stitch or two out of place. The closer the color of the wrong stitch is to the right stitch, the less noticeable it is. You’re much more likely to overlook a light green stitch where a dark green one is supposed to be than a bright orange one in the same place.

To avoid using the wrong color, always double check the symbols on your pattern — even when you think you’re sure you know what they stand for (the instructions are often printed in black-and-white, with codes for the colors). If your kit has a lot of colors that are similar shades, you can keep yourself more organized by keeping the colors in plastic bags that you mark with the symbol that represents the colors. This level of organization is mainly used when your kit has a lot of different colors. If your colors are all easily distinguishable, you probably don’t need to bag them, but remember to pay attention to their symbols.


Next Steps

After you have a beginner’s kit under your belt, there are many ways you can expand your creativity for your next project. You can explore buying larger and more complicated kits. Some kits include dozens of different colors and even require you to “tweed” two different colors together, meaning that you mix the threads from two different skeins together to create a new in-between color.

I do want to warn about taking this jump too early, though. When I first started, I had a few smaller projects finished and I decided to get ambitious and purchased a needlepoint kit that was a reproduction of Claude Monet’s Japanese Bridge painting. The kit had over forty colors, including numerous tweeds. It was beyond my skill level at the time and after doing only a small portion of it, I abandoned the project entirely for almost five years.

I returned to it a few months ago, and am now almost two-thirds of the way through it. So if you’ve found that you purchased something above your skill level, don’t be afraid to set it aside for a while and build up your practice on smaller, less complicated patterns. Remember, while it’s good to push yourself a bit, hobbies are meant to be fun, not chores.

Crafting Your Own Designs

Needlepoint of Lt. Uhura from Star Trek designed and made by the author

When you do a cross-stitch, essentially what you’re doing is coloring in a picture one pixel at a time. The amazing thing about that is that it means that anything you can photograph can be turned into a cross-stitch design. So if you’re tired of cute cartoon cats and landscapes and want to immortalize your family, a pet, or anything else you can think of as a cross-stitch, the only thing holding you back is finding a photograph of it.

When I first started making my own patterns, I did it in Photoshop, which was a long and somewhat tedious process. After that, I had to go to the store and pick out colors that I thought best matched the pattern I made. Luckily, there’s now an incredible free resource on the internet, pixel-stitch.net, which automatically converts any picture you upload into a cross-stitch pattern for free.

After you upload the picture, it takes you to a new menu that lets you customize the pattern. The two factors you want to pay the most attention to are the width and the number of colors.

Just like a computer image, the higher the number of stitches you allow in the width, the clearer the image will look. However, because most cross-stitch canvases are standardized at 14 stitches per inch, you’ll also be creating a bigger design. Keep that in mind before you accidentally create a three-foot behemoth of a project.

Selecting the number of colors you want on the pattern is also an important decision. As mentioned above, more colors mean a higher level of difficulty. But at the same time, the more colors you use, the more closely you can match the original colors and shading of the image you uploaded.

Creating photo-realism in cross-stitch will require an advanced pattern and a lot of colors. You might prefer to try a more stylized image to limit the colors. Being a nerd, two of the earliest cross-stitch patterns I made were of the imperial and rebel symbols from Star Wars. Each design used only a single color of embroidery floss.

Later, I made a more detailed image of Lt. Uhura from Star Trek, but I limited the design to 8 colors, which made it very easy to complete while still having the level of detail I wanted. The overall image was large, which ensured that the shape of her face matched well without looking too pixelated. Having just a few colors for shading was enough for the most important details to stand out without overwhelming me with a lot of color changes.

On pixel-stitch, you can experiment with both the width and the number of colors to generate numerous patterns until you find the right balance between the size and difficulty that you like.

The best feature of pixel-stitch is that after it generates your pattern, it also creates a list of the specific skeins of embroidery floss you need to buy and the number of each you’ll need. The estimates it creates are based on cross-stitches, so if you decide to use the pattern for a needlepoint instead, the numbers it suggests may be less accurate. Don’t worry if you have to make another trip to the store at some point to pick up more.

Beyond Cross-Stitch

Traditional Japanese Embroidery. Photo by Ryan McBride via Wikimedia Commons

Cross-stitch is an excellent gateway to other types of needlecraft. Embroidery is similar to cross-stitch and uses the same floss, needle, and hoop, but has many more types of stitches. Embroidery lets you move beyond the “pixelated” look of cross-stitch into images with smoother curves and more filled-in designs.

The many techniques of embroidery can and do fill entire books, as do the various cultural traditions associated with it around the world. As a beginning introduction, I would once again suggest turning to kits that give you all the supplies and directions you need for completing a relatively simple design. Because there are more varied stitches in embroidery, it can be more difficult to get the hang of initially, but mastering the techniques gives you even more freedom creatively.

Conversely, you could also be drawn to latch hooking: it’s a craft that uses short strands of yarn on a wide canvas but follows patterns very similar to cross-stitching. Latch hooking is a very easy craft to learn and one I’ve done since a child (there are no sharp needles, so you don’t have to worry about getting hurt). Latch hooks make excellent rugs and pillows and can be completed quickly, but lack the finer level of detail you can get from cross-stitching and embroidery.


Personal Transformation

Seeing my small stitching efforts lead to tangible results inspired me to apply that self-discipline to other aspects of my life. Knowing that I can’t finish a project in a single day no longer keeps me from getting started and I have a much more positive outlook toward the progress I make little by little.

Of course, the best thing about taking up cross-stitch as a hobby is that even if you don’t see other tangible benefits in your life, you’re still left with a fun hobby and new artwork to display in your home.