You've chosen your design, gotten your supplies…now what? If you haven't already, may I suggest at least a quick read through other tips sections, as each area of stitching is covered in more detail than what you may find here, and may answer any questions you have after reading this section.
First and foremost, before working with your new supplies, wash your hands. The natural oils in your skin can stain the fabric and floss, not to mention those nasty molecules of dust clinging to your skin. If your hands start to become dry from so much washing, use a stitch-friendly hand cream like Udderly Soft, available in most stitch or craft stores. It is non-greasy and will not add stains or chemicals to your project.
If you've purchased a kit, your fabric is already cut to size.
If you've purchased your materials separately, you may need to trim your fabric. Leave at least 3 inches around the edge of your design. The chart you have should tell you what size the finished design is, so just add 3 inches to each edge. If for some reason the chart does not tell you what the size of the finished design is, count the squares across the top and down the side of the chart to find out how many stitches it is. This will tell you how many stitches across and down you will need on your fabric, then add the 3 inches for the outer edge. Check your fabric carefully to be sure it has been cut square. Use a clean carpenter's square if you have any doubts.
Next finish the edges to prevent fraying. I prefer to zigzag the edges on my sewing machine. Some people use masking tape, but I don't like the chance of any chemical residue being left behind when the tape is removed. You will have to finish the edges with a zigzag prior to framing anyway, and doing it at the start could save you a step. The thread in your machine doesn't have to match your fabric, as it won't show after framing. You could also run it through the serger-knives up, or whipstitch by hand.
If you are stitching on a dark fabric, pre-rinse it to release any dye that may run. Allow the fabric to dry flat, then press it.
While your fabric is drying, pre-rinse your floss to make it colourfast. If you are using any specialty threads, check the manufacturer's care instructions before getting it wet. Decide how you are going to organize (tips-getting organized) your floss to make stitching your project easier.
Here is a basic list of what you should have to complete your project:
Find the centre of your fabric, this is where you will start stitching. Fold the fabric into quarters-make sure it is folded straight. The centre point of your fabric is the corner with no fabric edges. You can mark that square by either placing a pin through it or running a needle with a coloured thread through and knotting the thread in a big loop. This loop will be removed once you make your first stitch with floss.
Place your fabric in an embroidery hoop, with the centre stitch in the centre of the hoop. Gently pull on the fabric to make it taut. Your stitching will go much faster and be more even if you keep the fabric taut. If you are just starting to cross-stitch, I would suggest using a hoop, as they are very inexpensive. If you decide to expand your stitching horizons, you may choose to switch to a scroll frame. If your project takes you more than one day, remove the hoop at the end of your stitching session. This will help prevent your fabric from getting "hoop fibres" (similar syndrome to hat hair). Store your project and materials in a tote bag, plastic container or plastic bag. This will prevent it from becoming the cat's new bed and help keep it clean.
I know that by now you are just itching to get started on that pretty design, but patience is a virtue. First read through any instructions the designer has included with the chart. There are sometimes pattern corrections included in this area. Note that all backstitching and outlining is left until last.
The cross-stitches and partial cross-stitches are usually shown as black and white symbols on your chart. Backstitches are shown as solid lines, sometimes in colour, but usually black. French knots are shown as heavy black dots. The instructions for your chart will tell you how to determine what colours the backstitching and French knots will be.
Find the centre of your chart. Along the outer edges of the design, you will find arrows at the centre. Follow these (use a ruler to make sure you don't switch lines) to their intersecting point in the chart. This is your start point. You may want to mark this square with a highlighter so you don't lose the centre. Look at the symbol in the centre square; locate that symbol in your colour key on the chart. It will tell you which colour to start stitching with.
Cut a 10-18 inch piece of floss. Shorter pieces don't tangle or fray as easily. Strip the floss into separate strands, then put together however many strands the instructions call for, usually two. Run them through a slightly dampened sponge and thread your needle. Pull your needle up through the first hole in your centre stitch, leaving a waste tail. Hold the waste tail against your fabric so that it will be secured by subsequent stitches. To complete your stitch, put the needle down through the hole located diagonally from where you came up, then come up again in the hole next to it, bring your floss across the top of the first leg, and down through the fourth hole. Keep an even tension on your floss, without making your stitches too tight. Your floss should 'plump up' to cover the fabric. Once the tail is secured under 3 or 4 stitches, trim off any excess floss. Do not knot your floss.
Keep all of your top and bottom stitches going in the same direction. I am left-handed; my bottom stitches all go \\\\ and my top stitches ////. This is very important, as it keeps your design uniform and adds to the sheen of your floss. The only exceptions are when half cross-stitches need to flow in a specific direction, as in the wings on my Forest Warrior design; the other exception is for partial or fractional stitches. For ¾ stitches, I make the ¼ stitch on the bottom, and the ½ stitch on the top, regardless of direction. Sometimes the ½ stitch in a ¾ stitch is part of the outline. If this is the case, you can leave the completing ½ stitch for when you do the outlining with a backstitch. Some designs (mine included) call for a ¼ stitch of one colour and a ¾ stitch of another in the same square. A good rule of thumb for deciding which is the ¼ stitch and which is the ¾ stitch is to look at the picture of your design included with the chart. If these stitches are for the edge of a coat over a shirt, the ¼ stitch is for the shirt and the ¾ stitch is for the coat. Basically, whichever item is 'closer' to the viewer is the one that becomes the ¾ stitch.
You've made your first stitch…now to choose direction. Look at your chart and determine which direction seems most logical. Some stitchers move line by line, which can mean lots of colour changes (this is where several pre-threaded needles come in handy). I stitch by area, meaning that I will complete one colour area, despite it's size, before moving onto another colour. Do not carry your stitches over more than 2 or 3 stitches, unless the area you carry over will be covered by a similar or darker colour (another rule I break constantly when testing patterns). If you are using dark floss on a light background, it's best to not carry your stitches, as the floss may show through the unstitched areas. Mark your pattern as you go, so you don't end up stitching the wrong line. Do not use ink pen; use a light pencil or a highlighter.
There are two methods of cross-stitching, the Danish Method, in which all the bottom stitches in a row are done first, then the stitcher goes back across the top completing the X's; or the English Method, where each stitch is completed as you go. Ideally, your project is stitched the same method throughout. However, as always, there can be exceptions. I usually use the English Method, but will switch to the Danish if I will end up at a dead-end with more area to stitch and can't get to that area without carrying over many squares. This often happens when stitching plants, water, or clouds.
When you get to the end of your floss…and don't feel you need to stitch right down to where you are in danger of unthreading your needle. That one stitch you may get isn't worth the frustration of having to re-thread your needle with a very short tail to get the floss to the back of your design for securing. Run your needle under a few completed stitches to secure your floss, then trim off any excess. Re-thread your needle with the same colour, or if you are moving on, with the next colour. To secure your floss, run it under a few completed stitches to secure it, and begin stitching again. One note, as you are pulling your new piece of floss through to the front, keep an eye on the back, or you may pull the thread all the way through and have to re-secure it. Continue stitching until the main stitches are done.
Should you make an error, and if you catch it early enough, simply unthread your needle and use it to gently remove the stitches (one leg at a time) to get you back to where the mistake was made. If you don't realize the error until it's too late, try to work around it. If worse comes to worse, and it can't be worked around, you make have to carefully the floss, remove the offending stitches, and leave enough of a tail on the correct part for securing.
Most designs include some outlining stitches. These are generally done in backstitch, with one less strand of floss than you used for your cross-stitches. Outlining is my least favourite part of stitching, so I try to keep the backstitching to a minimum in my own designs. You of course, are free to backstitch and outline to your heart's content-or not, whichever you prefer. Start and end the floss for outlining as you would with regular stitches.
Once you have stitched a design or two, you may find the designer in you taking over. You can add embellishments to your projects, change colours, leave items out, whatever you desire. I do it all the time, even to my own designs.