This post was originally in XStitch Magazine Issue 18: Mixtape 4, and has been adapted.
On the surface, cross stitch really doesn’t have much to do with ink. Threads are dyed, fabric is dyed, and whilst there are some modern pens that some use to grid, these are chemicals rather than inks. Sure, some print patterns, but that’s a tenuous link at best.
However, cross stitch and ink have a strong relationship. Just not the way you might imagine.
“Tattoos crossed seas and borders creating new styles wherever it stopped, and cross stitch has done the same.”
In recent years cross stitch tattoos have become more and more popular, with competition TV shows featuring them as a weekly challenge, hundreds of Instagram posts and a wealth of new cross stitch patterns are now devoted to tattoo styles. I’ve seen this trend slowly develop over a decade, and whilst Mr X Stitch editor does have a load of Xs on his forearm (and was well ahead of the trend), cross stitch has now become a tattoo style in its own right.
I was able to speak to Eva Krbdk, one of the leaders in the style, a few years ago for a blog post. Initially, she answered my questions, but somehow the way I asked them, the way I thought about cross stitch, peaked her interest. Instead of answering my next question, she stopped, and took me on two journeys. One of ‘ink’ and one of cross stitch and how they slowly came together.
What struck me most about these wasn’t that I learned something new, in fact I knew both histories well, but I was struck by the way she looked at the history of both of them. We tend to think of cross stitch history as insular and linear, one event, then the next. Each action simply moving onto the next, with cross stitch slowly developing to what it is now. But this isn’t how it is.
Many cross stitchers know the story of Catherine of Aragon and how she probably single-handedly invigorated interest in all types of embroidery in the 16th century in England. This interest spread across Europe, and eventually to the four corners of the earth, as ships left and travelled to far flung locations, later to become the United States of America, Australia, New Zealand and beyond. For many, this is the main bulk of cross stitch history, and where for most, it ends. But this is where it just starts getting interesting. To take you on this journey the right way, I need to change the way you think of cross stitch. I need you think of it like tattoos.
The very first recorded tattoos are on Ötzi the Iceman, examples that date back 5300 years. Whilst we know that this is the first known example, we know tattoos of some kind have been developed separately around the world in many times and places. However, we also know that the purpose of tattoos has changed over time too.
Ötzi very likely had tattoos as some form of therapeutic or medical treatment, very likely linked to acupuncture. They had purpose. Other old examples show tattoos as a show of allegiance to a tribe, reverence to a deity or passing into adulthood.
Since then tattoos have become something else. The reason for this is travellers, just like
Catherine of Aragon, travellers took cultures with them and these inspired a whole new set of peoples.
Sailors and traders crossed the world to sell their wares, and to commemorate their trips would get a tattoo, one that was from the location they sailed to. With tribal tattoos coming from Polynesia, red and black designs coming from China, full sleeves from Japan, and so on. As time went on these tattoos became a style in their own right; the “sailor style”.
Whilst we no longer need to be a sailor on a far-flung trip to get a tattoo, these tattoos and styles remain. They’ve not only stayed around, but modern trends mix these up and create something new. And cross stitch is exactly the same.
Embroidery and cross stitch actually started in many locations across the globe, in native clothing and objects. However it was European travellers, first from Europe to England, and then from England out to the rest of the world, that took these traditions with them. And just like tattoos the styles differed from location to location.
England is known for having cross stitch samplers, rows of alphabets stitched by young women to show off their skills to would be husbands, but also help teach reading and writing; the English style.
But America is also known for having cross stitch samplers, but these are a different kind, focusing more on motifs and small designs, symmetry and godly quotes; the American style.
The same things, but in two very different styles.
This isn’t a one off either. Chinese cross stitch is full of color, mostly using silks rather than cotton, and full coverage. Mainly landscapes and very large; the Chinese style.
Nordic cross stitch is red on white, rows of patterns or repeating objects; the Nordic Style. Ukrainian cross stitch is similar but adds black to create dynamic and varied patterns; the Ukrainian style.
Japanese cross stitch uses a lot of white to emphasise the design packed with vivid reds and greens colors found in their environment; the Japanese style. Mexican cross stitch is the same, but uses deep reds, blues and browns, colors native to their environment; the Mexican style.
Cross stitch is a style of embroidery. However that doesn’t mean there aren’t styles within cross stitch either.
Tattoos crossed seas and borders creating new styles wherever it stopped, and cross stitch has done the same. Just like tattoos these styles have mixed, creating something new. I prefer the clean-cut lines, blocks of color and stylized objects, but others prefer confetti stitching and realism.
We all love cross stitch, but have you ever stopped to wonder what style of cross stitch appeals to you and where that came from?