Cross-Stitch has been a staple of embroidery for nearly 2000 years, and in that time has gone through multiple dips and resurgences through the last two millennia.
However, the story starts back in Egypt.
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The first known embroidery
In around 1860 a dig in a remote corner of Egypt found 3 tombs. Inside one, of what is believed to be a wealthy slave owner, was a series of well-preserved linens with embroidery of coins and wall paintings. In addition, there were frescos detailing tapestries and other embroideries; proof that this was not a one-off.
You can read the official journal paper here.
618 – 900AD
The first record of the movement of embroidery
Oddly, the first known evidence of embroidery is unknown, however during the 6th to 8th century’s records from both the Chinese and the Russians began to detail a vast movement of embroidery in both directions. Ledgers of the time detail that tea was often traded for produce, including embroidery.
The Bayeux tapestry
Unlike most tapestries of the past, the first western embroidery known is the Bayeux Tapestry, depicting the events of 1066AD in Britain. Whilst in Britain this tapestry is highly regarded, it featured many new forms of stitch, including the over-under, or cross stitch.
The invention of counted cross stitch
Whilst up to this point crossed stitches had been used, there was no specific reason to use them. However, in the Islamic states, traditionally made hemp cloth cross stitches were used to create a small repeating pattern in a grid.
This quickly moved across Europe and the Baltic States. You can follow a timeline of pieces in the Victoria & Albert museum on their website.
Cross Stitch brought to Britain
Whilst counted cross stitch had grown in popularity in Europe over the last few hundred years, England had stayed out of it, focusing on other embroideries.
However, Catherine of Aragon brought black work, and cross stitch to England where she stitched on Henry VIII’s shirts. As the height of style at the time, this launched England’s love affair with cross stitch.
Counted Cross Stitch Books started to be published
The first known counted cross stitch was published in England. Whilst there is no surviving copy of this book, we do have many references to its existence.
Mary, Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick stitched the Oxburgh Hangings, one of the best known early examples of needlework embroidery.
Printing presses working overtime
Cross stitch books started to become one of the first mainstream publications within England, with many books such as this one from the Smithsonian Library being released and distributed.
DMC and Anchor were also founded.
German wool imports
Whilst embroidery was incredibly popular up until this time, the German wool trade was suffering from lack of internal demand, and so started exporting. The English market was flooded with cheaper threads, which in turn lowered the desirability.
The invention of domestic sewing machines
Struggling to overcome mass imports, cross stitch suffered another blow as domestic sewing machines lowered the desirability for cross stitch even further.
During this time, the arts and crafts movement developed within England, however, cross stitch was never taken up within this movement.
First World War
The breakout of the First World War caused cotton prices to soar worldwide, and thread was classed as a luxury item, not to be used by the mass public.
Women given the vote
In Britain, women were finally given freedoms, including the vote. However, with this came an increase in working hours and less time spend on leisure activities. Cross stitch at this time had a small resurgence, but prices meant access for the mass public was limited.
Second World War
WWII brought strict rationing in England, limiting cotton once again. In addition, women moved into the land army, where hobbies were not in the national interest.
Interestingly, during this time prisoners of war were often finding themselves with nothing to do. Cross stitch and embroidery became a pass time in PoW camps.
A very interesting example of a cross stitch made from threads of his bedding was made by an English PoW. It featured pro-Nazi imagery, and as a result was taken to other PoW camps as proof of obedience. Little did the Nazi’s know, but stitched within the boarder were pro-English, and anti-Hitler sentiments.
A fantastic in-depth article can be found on Make, with an interview by the PoW; Major Alexis Casdagli.
The 60’s resurgence
For 300 years cross stitch had been battered in Britain, and popularity wavered, however in the post-war 60s, time-saving tools came to average households, allowing women more free time. Cross stitch saw its largest ever resurgence.
New fabric invented – aida
Plastic canvas and waste canvas were invented as desires for new products launched within the hobby sewing market.
Rise of the counter tradition
An increase in sub-cultures prior and during the millennium allowed a new, modern cross stitch to form. Video games, pop culture, and subversive samplers were in stark contrast to tradition. The counter tradition once again brought cross stitch to a male hobby with a subculture known as the manbroiderer In addition the increase in home PCs allowed for home pattern making software to be developed. You can find out how to make a cross stitch pattern here.
The great recession
In early 2009, I developed Lord Libidan’s Video Game and Pop Culture Cross Stitch.
The great recession hit, and although this brought a strain on personal finances for some, it also brought with it a renewed interest in home craft, with retailer John Lewis reporting a 17% increase in craft sales over a year.