How to See a Cross-Stitch Tapestry

©Kelley Doan, Ryerson University

Much like language, cross-stitch uses an organized system of parts to provide a foundation upon which can be built flowing, organic beauty. If not exactly chaos from order, the painterly image that can be created with this type of embroidery belies the structure and exacting skill needed to produce the tapestry. Cross-stitches are like pixels before pixels existed, or Impressionism hundreds of years before Claude Monet was even born (Verso).

Figure 1. Photo of a cross-stitch tapestry. Citation: Doan, Kelley. Cross-stitch Birth Announcement. 2020.
Figure 1. Doan, Kelley. Cross-stitch Birth Announcement. 2020.

The cross-stitch tapestry pictured above (figure 1) is a birth announcement. Popular in the 1990’s, they usually combine a cute, intricate picture with the name of the child and date of birth in a frame. Such a piece speaks to us about the person who created it in ways that are apparent, but also ways that are not obvious. For example, we can see that this piece is unfinished: the text in the frame is not complete; there is a piece of thread left attached to the side when the work was abandoned; and the elements have no outlining to bring out detail. We can see by the state of the tape around the edges that this piece is old, so it is safe to assume that the stitcher does not plan to return to the work. This information leads us to ask ourselves why the piece was abandoned. A birth announcement tapestry is an intimate creation that is usually made for someone close. What happened?

If the stitcher is unavailable, the spectator is left to contemplate the various circumstances that might have resulted in this unfinished piece. In this case, since I stitched it, I can reveal that a long friendship ended before the work was complete. This further bit of context might inspire the spectator to wonder why I kept the piece all this time. In fact, it was done nineteen years ago, the child is an adult with two children of her own, and the friend has passed away.

Figure 2. Close-up photo of the stitches in a cross-stitch tapestry. Citation: Doan, Kelley. Cross-stitch Birth Announcement - close-up of stitches. 2020.
Figure 2. Doan, Kelley. Cross-stitch Birth Announcement – close-up of stitches. 2020.

If we zoom in very closely (figure 2) the information is completely different. We can see that, much like a photograph or an impressionist painting, this image is made up of many tiny squares of colour. The method of construction is revealed in the weave of the fabric, where we see that the pattern leaves holes that designate the corners of each square to be stitched. Much more important, however, is the way the stitches are formed. Each x-shaped stitch lies in the same direction (in this case, left over right). This uniformity controls the way the light blends the colours. Mixing the stitch directions will cause the fabric to look dull and the colours to separate. Some areas are stitched with only the first half of the x-shape, letting some fabric show through. This technique gives the appearance of shading. The information available at close range, then, reveals that the stitcher has at least enough experience to employ these techniques. In fact, at the time this was stitched, I had been practicing the craft for approximately twenty years.

Tapestries have historically been closely tied to the intentional dissemination of information (Verso), such as the birth announcement. However, looking closely at the work – from an unintended point of view – allows the spectator to gain knowledge that the creator of the tapestry may not have expected to impart.


Works Cited

Verso, Jo. “Threads of History.” The Cross Stitch Guild, https://www.thecrossstitchguild.com/cross-stitch-basics/stitchers-study/threads-of-history-by-jo-verso.aspx. Accessed 31 Jan. 2020.