How many strands of thread should you use?

I get this question a lot. Whilst most patterns do have a guide, depending on the fabric you use, if you stitch 1 over 1 and the overall look you want, the amount of strands you use can vary.
 

Fabric Strands (Light Fabric) Strands (Dark Fabric)
11 Count (1 over 1) 4 Strands 6 Strands
14 Count (1 over 1) 2 or 3 Strands 3 or 4 Strands
16 Count (1 over 1) 2 Strands 3 Strands
18 Count (1 over 1) 2 Strands 3 Strands
20 Count (1 over 1) 1 or 2 Strands 2 or 3 Strands
22 Count (1 over 1) 1 Strand 2 Strands
22 Count (1 over 2) 4 Strands 6 Strands
24 Count (1 over 1) 1 Strand 2 Strands
24 Count (1 over 2) 4 Strands 6 Strands
25 Count (1 over 1) 1 Strand 2 Strands
25 Count (1 over 2) 3 Strands 4 Strands
28 Count (1 over 1) 1 Strand 2 Strands
28 Count (1 over 2) 2 or 3 Strands 4 Strands


 
Cross stitches with different amounts of strands of threads on 18 count aida, 14 count aida, 11 count aida and 9 count aida (Source: better-cross-stitch-patterns.com)
Cross stitches with different amounts of strands of threads on 18 count aida, 14 count aida, 11 count aida and 9 count aida (Source: better-cross-stitch-patterns.com)

When You Should Ignore The Table

Yep, sometimes you should ignore me! 😀 Whilst this post does show you the standard strands to use, there are actually 3 different situations when you should ignore the table up above.
 

Style

The first is simply a case of prefered style. It might be that you like the fuller stitch look, or you’re going for more of a pencil drawing style, or whatever. There are actually a whole load of reasons why you might want to change it up based on your prefered style, and better-cross stitch patterns have an excellent post on why floss coverage matters, but when it comes to anything in cross stitch, it’s all about your prefernce.
 

Creating Detail

The next reason you might want to ignore the normal strand guide is detail. The best way of thinking of this is much like a drawing with thick and thin pens. You might want the outline to be in a thick pen to draw the eye, the light lines on someone’s face might be in a thin marker. This can be replicated in cross stitch and embroidery.
 
For an example, look at my Star Trek Voyager Blueprint cross stitch or the larger Enterprise. When you stand and look at it in real life (I’ll admit the effect isn’t as good online), you see the thick white outline of the ship. As you take a step forward you see the pink floors and as you take a step further you see the tables and chairs in every room. Here I’ve combined 3 strands for the outline, 2 strands for the floors and 1 strand for the mini details. It means that when you stand back you’re not bombarded with detail that ruins the overall design, but if you get closer you see more and more detail.

Star Trek Voyager Cross Stitch by Lord Libidan Zoomed in Section of ship
Star Trek Voyager Cross Stitch by Lord Libidan Zoomed in Section of ship

Creating Distance/Importance

The final thing is actually distance. We tend to think of cross stitch as very one dimensional, but by changing up the strands, you can create a false sense of distance.
 
Taking my Enterprise again (sorry, I don’t mean to plug myself so much!), if you look at the small white ships they look like they sit on top of the purple lines. This effect was made by making the purple lines only 1 strand. Your eye naturally thinks that lines of the same thickness are on the same level, but thicker lines pull forward, and thin lines push back.
 
I know that’s very embroidery focused, but by doing the same with whole cross stitches, you put some parts in the foreground, and others in the background. This is similar to how photos look, with the background slightly out of focus, bringing your eye to the subject you want.

Star Trek Enterprise LCARS Ship Schematic Cross Stitch by Lord Libidan (Right Detail)
Star Trek Enterprise LCARS Ship Schematic Cross Stitch by Lord Libidan (Right Detail)

Check The Brand

This isn’t actually so much of a reason to change the strand count you use, but it’s worth noting that different cross stitch thread brands, and even different types of thread within a company can give different coverage.
This doesn’t play out as you’d expect either, with cheap embroidery threads sometimes covering better than the more expensive ones.
Our table above is suitable for most brands.
 
Have you tried playing with stands within a project? We’d love to have a look!
 
Happy stitching,
Lord Libidan

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