This post was originally in XStitch Magazine Issue 13: Fortune, and has been adapted.
I use a gold petite needle when I stitch. It slips through the aida like a hot knife through butter, and whilst the small size does a lot of the work, the nice gold covering just gives it a bit more ease. This type of needle, is in reality just a frivolous expense. It’s only 9-carat gold, and it’s a tiny covering on a Nickle needle, and the extra price is a few pence or cents. However, it’s not needed. I could just use a normal needle. But I choose to go out and buy these nice needles. I don’t do it so I can gloat; let’s be clear here; gold plated needles aren’t for everyone. Instead, I get it due to its help in stitching.
This choice, is a choice every cross stitcher makes. Is the extra money worth the extra slide? Is the extra care needed (the plating can come off easily with oily hands) worth the effort? This choice is a choice you’ve made even if you don’t realize it. But most importantly, this choice of what cross stitch needle to use is one you would only get if you happened to cross stitch in our time.
Gold isn’t new. It’s been a key element for almost every ancient civilization throughout the history of man, and its benefits have been long known. The reason western cultures traditionally exchange gold rings at a wedding isn’t due to the cost; it’s that gold is the perfect long-term material for a ring. Its smooth, it bends easily, you can make it super thin, or even plate it on something else, and it can take a beating without breaking. This is exactly the same reason gold was chosen for tapestry needles. It glides through the aida as it’s smooth, it deforms easier if gets pushed through a tight hole, and it can be plated on those Nickle needles.
“No one in the history of cross stitch has ever needed to stitch in 24-carat gold”
But it still holds this idea of cost. This history of a fortune. There are good reasons for this; it’s been a status symbol for almost all of those ancient civilizations, and it still is. I went to China just before their new year and there was gold everywhere. It’s a common tradition to buy gold at the new year, and this year, year of the pig, had even more importance, as it is said anyone born within this year has good fortune in life. But getting away from this thought is hard; even if gold is actually rather cheap now. In fact, some coffee beans are 33 times the cost of 24-carat gold.
So, when I was researching a new post for my blog, and saw a comment, I sniggered. The background here is that in 2016 the DMC thread company released a limited edition 24 carat gold 8m skein. I was able to get my hands on a few centimeters of this thread and I even used it on my golden Zelda cartridge cross stitch, however, the £75 price tag turned a lot away. In fact, despite having a fantastic book about the history of DMC in it, it garnered a lot of negativity against the cost. In particular one person who said “No one in the history of cross stitch has ever needed to stitch in 24-carat gold”. This comment, made me snigger.
You see, for most of the history of embroidery and cross stitch specifically, the skill wasn’t a hobby. It was something for art’s sake, and people were employed to make it. Embroidery has always been seen as costly due to the sheer man-hours and skill it takes to create. In modern times robots have helped embroidery as a whole reduce in price, but even now, no robot can cross stitch as well as a person.
We mentioned a few issues back about the important part to play Bagdad had in the history of cross stitch, and how for a very long time, silk was the only thread to embroider with. It’s no wonder that the price was high. Even as silk production increased in lower-cost areas, it was still a high price item. Even after someone worked out that embroidery threads could be created with wool, the price of thread was still high. Even after the German’s worked out how to mass-produce it and flooded the European markets with cheaper wool, it was still high priced. The tools for embroidery are a whole different story, however, they also cost a large sum, and sum that most could not reach.
Cross stitch is often remembered as a hobby that ladies in waiting did to prove their house skills during Victorian times, and whilst this was where cross stitch really carved itself out of embroidery as a whole, this was still something only the well-off could do. And once it was complete? It was done, never to be taken back up. In fact, finding historical samplers not created by young ladies from this period is incredibly hard.
Fast-forwarding time slightly, we get to the end of the first world war, when cross stitch was mostly done by men to fix clothes. The war took its toll on the whole world, and metals were in high demand. This wasn’t just the iron and lead needed to make weapons, but high price metals too. In fact, this is why cross stitching started to be accessible to lower-wealth individuals.
The thing that I haven’t said, and the thing that not that many people know about, is that up to the end of the first world war, using metallic threads in cross stitch was commonplace. And unlike modern manufacturing that allows us to get a variety of metallic effects from shiny paper, back then they used the real thing. They used gold.
In fact, the whole reason we know that Bagdad was so important to the history of cross stitch is thanks to the surviving gold thread, cross stitched together. Long gone are most of the silks and cotton. And so when I saw that comment about the 270-anniversary golden thread, I sniggered. In fact, the history of cross stitch, is all about using gold. It’s only very recently that we stopped using gold. That 24-carat thread is a great PR tool, but in reality, it’s going back in time, and showing how it used to be. And how expensive cross stitch once was.
We’re used to the lack of fancy metals in cross stitch, with the likes of DMC E3821 no one ever needs a 24-carat gold thread, it looks the same, yet costs a fraction of the price. This is the power of modern manufacturing, and the ability it has to bring cross stitch to everyone.
And I do mean everyone. I started this article talking about using a gold-plated needle, and that is a frivolous choice I’ve made, but it’s no longer the required thing to cross stitch; the barrier for lower wealth access. Most people use Nickle needles, and they work fine. You can pick up a pack of branded ones, or go cheaper and buy unbranded ones. You can buy cheaper Chinese manufactured polyester threads, which are just as nice to use. You can access cross stitch at an incredibly low price point now.
For the first time in the history of cross stitch, has it actually been open to all. That thread showed tradition, it showed the history and it showed that someone in the DMC marketing department did their research. But most of it, it shows us where we’ve come from. Now, every stitcher gets to pick what they stitch with, at whatever price point. Maybe you choose to use cotton threads, maybe silk, maybe polyester. It’s now about what you want to use, what works best for you, and not what you earn.
You may not go for gold, but stitching with metallic cross stitch threads is easy if you know how.