Cross Stitch Perfection With Imperfect Stitches

This post was originally in XStitch Magazine Issue 10: Mixtape 2, and has been adapted.
For me, cross stitch projects have always gone the same way. You pick a pattern (or make your own), you get all your threads arranged, buy the fabric, cut it to size, put it in a frame, and start. Quite quickly the image starts to reveal itself in front of you as stitch by stitch the framework of your pattern starts to develop. That rush of excitement as you see shapes appear, as you can clearly see what part is what, and the whole thing feels like an easy walk into something magical.
Until the drudge sets in. The framework is done, you can see the pattern, but you need to fill in all the colors. Skein after skein gets pumped into the project, and frankly, it feels like you’ve shoved in about 4 miles of black 310. That period of filling in is what I don’t love about cross stitch. Sure, I don’t hate it; it’s not frogging after all, but it’s boring, it feels like I’m having a small impact on something much much bigger. This feeling is exacerbated if you’re working on projects that don’t require you to switch threads often or have massive blocks of one color.

Fine Cell Work - A prisoner cross stitching in his cell (source:
Fine Cell Work – A prisoner cross stitching in his cell (source:

But that boredom does end. You get to a point where the finishing touches are all that’s left, and you have this urge to keep on going until finally, it’s complete. Until finally, you can repeat the whole process.
I know that was my process with cross stitch, and for a long, long time, I had assumed it was for everyone. The reason sampler style projects are so popular is that you can switch from one color to another, again and again, you only see the first and last stages, where the mass drudge of solid colors doesn’t come along. You see people choose small projects constantly, where they don’t get that boring middle part.
But not everyone does that. I’d known about other stitchers who chose projects that have large blocks of color in or full coverage projects that to me seemed insane. The term HAED gets batted around constantly online, and their patterns just seem so drudge filled to me. I never understood why someone would choose to do one at all, let alone stick with it.
I had assumed these people were just the masochistic type, those who relished in the pain of block colors. Spoiler alert: I was wrong. In fact, not only was I wrong about those people, but there were others I didn’t even know that existed. There are cross stitchers, that choose to never finish a project. Yes, you heard me right.
To some, that might seem obvious, but to me, a detail-oriented slightly OCD, needs to do every achievement on every video game he owns kinda guy, that seems insane. Like, certified insane.
KWarning on Twitch cross stitching Eevees (source: twitch)
KWarning on Twitch cross stitching Eevees (source: twitch)

My first real realization of these people was on flosstube. I rounded up the best flosstubers out there, and funny enough, I had to do research. I had to watch a lot, and I mean a lot, of videos. I did notice that a lot of them would comment on their starts this year, some of those numbers seemed high to me, but I assumed they just stitched fast. It was the start of the year and maybe they spend the back half finishing all their projects. I just tried to rationalize it anyway without thinking too hard.
Then I heard a phrase that I can still hear to this day. “This marks the 180th project I’ve started, without finishing one.” I was astounded. How was that even possible!?! I instantly reached out to the flosstuber, who will remain nameless. They told me they loved that part where you had to get things ready, you had to sort your floss, you got to see the project unfolding. And then they ended it there. They just…stopped. They packaged everything up in a nice bag, they filed it away, and they said to themselves “I’ll finish that one day.” They knew this wasn’t realistic. In fact, they were honest and said they thought it would just die in a box, unfinished.
But this whole communication struck a chord with me. To me, I love to finish cross stitches. Others like to start. Others still love to get stuck into a big old solid color pattern that takes years to finish. In fact, others choose to stitch to calm nerves, de-stress, or even to help arthritis. And what’s what truly struck me about cross stitch, or pretty much any hobby for that matter; not only is it different for everyone, the enjoyment comes from different parts of the process.
3D donut cross stitch by NickelAndGraceStudio (source: Etsy)
3D donut cross stitch by NickelAndGraceStudio (source: Etsy)

The Xstitch magazine is filled to the brim with patterns and every issue I’m shocked at just how different the patterns are, however that’s artistic differences. That’s the choice of someone placing a pixel here or a donut there that makes each image look different. But when you stitch up one of these patterns, are they the same? Well, no. You make choices with your cross stitch all the time. Sometimes you might make obvious choices like changing the aida count, or using a different color. Other times you might change the placement of the top stitch, pull the thread tighter in one section than another, or make a mistake you don’t want to frog. It’s these changes, the ones that you don’t realize that makes the piece unique. That makes it truly yours. Yes, the image will look mostly the same in the end, with its placement, general design, and look. However, the feel of the cross stitch is a different thing altogether.
I’ve recently spent some time at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, which houses a fantastic collection of embroideries, samplers, and cross stitches. They all had artist merit, however, the plaque for everyone didn’t even mention it. No, instead, they looked at the feeling of the piece. The way the artist felt when stitching, the way the materials showed how much money they had, the theme showed what inspiration they knew at the time. They garner this information by massive amounts of research either, they did it by simply looking at the piece. They saw how the threads were pulled tight, or the thread was used economically, or the quality of the wool. They looked at every part to get a perfect picture of what the author’s journey was like.
Linen sampler embroidered with silk, by Elizabeth Parker, Ashburnham Forge, Sussex, England, about 1830. (Source: Victoria & Albert Museum)
Linen sampler embroidered with silk, by Elizabeth Parker, Ashburnham Forge, Sussex, England, about 1830. (Source: Victoria & Albert Museum)

And that’s the thing, the journey. It’s different for everyone, and it shows. It might not be screaming from the rooftops, but it’s clear enough if you look for it. So what can you do with this information? Simple; don’t be perfect.
To this day, I have NEVER completed a cross stitch pattern, either of my own design or someone else’s, that has been perfect. There has always been a mistake. But it’s those mistakes that show it to be mine. Maybe I use floss that’s too long, or I cut too close to the ends of the threads, or maybe I just skip a stitch. That’s OK. Because that’s my journey. That’s what makes those pieces mine. And every time you stitch, you do the same. You poor your feelings into your work, consciously or otherwise, and you make a record of your journey. Breadcrumbs for future generations to explore.
In that V&A exhibit; not one perfect back. Not one perfectly railroaded piece. Not one cross stitch with perfect stitch placement. I think that’s what makes cross stitch special; the fact that there is a certain perfection that comes from the imperfect.
Happy stitching,
Lord Libidan

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  1. Michelle Haynes (@Ahnrie)

    I love this! I’m working on a birth announcement sampler and I’m going to give the first draft to my mom like I’m 9 years old because whoo boy does it have some weird places. I most the love the discussion about how we’re all different. I recently realized that its okay that I’m not interested in epic, full coverage pieces. I like certain styles an types of patterns, and that is okay! I enjoy big blocks of color for when I’m watching an intense media or when I’m in meetings and just need to keep my hands busy. My love of simplicity in art and stamped cross stitch patterns makes me no less than all the others.