Don’t let this youthful visage and the age listed on my passport (31) fool you—I am a grandmother at heart, especially in times of stress. When things get crazy, I retreat and lose myself to soothing activities like hand-making cavatelli pasta while watching Golden Girls reruns or piecing together a jigsaw puzzle while watching Agatha Christie adaptations on the BBC.
My latest old-lady obsession is cross-stitching, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
I picked up a needle and hoop about six months ago, inspired by the snark and sass of the Instagram account @subversivecrossstitch. I had wanted to create a little saying surrounded by a floral border that would remind me not to default to a bitchy reaction when I got frustrated at work. Turns out, making the thing was better than just having it. The methodical practice of stitching words into fabric is wonderfully meditative; I found that the message of my piece became like a mantra as I focused on adding to it, bit by bit. Plus, stabbing something thousands of times is a great way to channel any anger or anxiety.
As shelter-in-place orders rippled across the world, cross-stitching has also become an outlet for my travel dreams, in addition to being an important escape from scary headlines. A few weeks ago, I started an ambitious pattern of a tiny tent in a redwood grove based on a vintage poster of Sequoia National Park. It might be some time before I can camp with friends in some of my favorite outdoor places, but I find myself getting lost in this cross-stitch, thinking about what the light looks like through redwood boughs, the warm, woody smells, and the way noise deadens in a sequoia forest.
Where will I go when I finish this one? I’m not sure—I might make something inspired by my neighborhood, which I’ve seen a lot more of since I started flaneuring around it on my lockdown walks. And then there are the hundreds of travel-themed cross-stitch patterns and kits on Etsy, like an adorable pattern of the canal houses of Amsterdam, a pretty little Tokyo cross-stitch scene, or this graphic ode to the great outdoors.
How to get into it
The barriers to entry for the sewing and fiber arts are low. There are some great resources online that will teach you the basics of cross-stitching. After that, all you really need is an embroidery hoop, a needle, some thread, fabric, and a pattern.
The easiest way to start is to buy a simple kit, which will include everything you need down to the specific colors of embroidery floss. Kits run around $30. We love this mountain-going llama, which has us dreaming about our next Machu Picchu adventure, and this flamingo and palm trees scene, which transports us to tropical locales.
If you need something even easier, consider channeling some desert vibes with a simple potted cactus.
Buy now: Prickly Pear Cactus Counted Cross Stitch Kit, $20, etsy.com
Once you’ve mastered the idea (or if you can’t find a kit you like), you’ll want to invest in your own supplies. Hoops go for about $3 to $5 each at craft stores and on Etsy, and you can usually reduce your price-per-hoop by buying multipacks. You don’t need a new hoop for every project, but many people like the look of a finished piece “framed” in its hoop. I like small pieces, so I prefer four-inch or five-inch hoops, but six inches is a good, versatile size.
Buy now: 5-inch and 6-inch round edge wooden embroidery hoop, from $4, etsy.com
Chances are you already have a needle that works. Try raiding that travel sewing kit you bought once when you lost a button—you want something thin enough that it won’t stretch the holes of your cross-stitch fabric. But you can also buy needle packs for as little as $2 or $3.
Buy now: hand embroidery needles, $2, etsy.com
Unlike embroidery, which you can do on many kinds of fabric, cross-stitching requires specific, open-weave material called Aida cloth, which allows you to create those uniform little “x” stitches. The different sizes of Aida cloth are identified by numbers indicating how many stitches per inch that fabric accommodates. The higher the number, the smaller your stitches, and the more complex the pattern can be. You’ll find that many beginner kits use Aida 14. I like Aida 18, which gives me the flexibility for detail even in a small, five-inch hoop.
There are many different brands of embroidery thread, or floss, each of which is slightly different in thread thickness and color. DMC is the most popular brand, and most patterns you find will give you color codes that correspond to DMC floss. You can buy multipacks of color, but you can also find individual skeins for just $0.33 at fabric stores and online.
Buy now: DMC floss, $0.33, etsy.com
Once you’ve acquired all the tools you need, the options are really endless. Etsy is a treasure trove of downloadable patterns that often cost less than $5. There are also online tools that allow you to create a cross-stitch pattern out of a picture, which is how I designed my redwood grove piece. With so many possibilities, I’m hoping that cross-stitching will keep me distracted so I won’t be tempted to do a quarantine-makeover and go full “grandmillennial” with that gray hair trend from a few years ago.
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