What’s the difference between hand embroidery and cross-stitch?

What is the difference between hand embroidery and cross-stitch?

We get this question a lot! While both embroidery and cross-stitch use a needle, thread, and fabric, there are a number of differences between the two. Let's discover some of those differences here.

What is cross-stitch?

Cross-stitch is a form of needlework stitching. It uses a grid pattern and an X-stitch to form an image - think about creating an image just filling in the boxes on graph paper with different colors. Patterns are created in this way to create the bigger picture just from the placement of each color X. Cross-stitch is created on a special type of fabric called Aida fabric that is gridded for this purpose (more on this below).

Cross-stitch has more structure than embroidery which is considered free-form stitching.

Cross-stitch supplies also vary, especially the fabric and needle. Although the X is the most common stitch in cross-stitch, more advanced patterns use half-stitches, quarter-stitches, and even backstitch more to create fluidity in a pattern.

Cross-stitch needle vs. embroidery needle

The biggest difference between a cross-stitch needle and an embroidery needle is the point. A cross-stitch needle is considered “blunt,” similar to a tapestry needle. This is because cross-stitch fabric has pre-determined holes that the needle can go through. In contrast, embroidery needles are sharp on the end as they need to pierce through the fabric.

embroidery and cross stitch needle comparison

The eye of cross-stitch needles can differ from embroidery needles as well and are typically thinner since cross-stitch uses only one or two strands from a skein of 6-strand embroidery floss.

As with embroidery, there are a number of different sizes of cross-stitch needles. The thickness of the needle as well as it's length will determine the size. Size 24 or 26 are the most common and best for beginners.

Cross-stitch thread vs. embroidery thread

In most cases, cross-stitch uses the same floss, or thread, as embroidery. Most floss is stranded and is intended to be separated, this is what you want for cross-stitch. Embroidery threads like perle cotton cannot be separated and would not work for cross-stitch.

drawing of hands separating one strand from 6-strand floss

Cross-stitch fabric vs. embroidery fabric

Cross stitch fabric is called Aida cloth, or Aida fabric. It is an open, even-weave fabric that helps to create the boxes needed for the X’s in cross-stitch. Open, meaning there are pre-determined holes for each point of the X, and even-weave meaning the warp and weft are woven with even amounts of threads, creating the even grid. In contrast, embroidery fabric is denser in its weave with no distinct holes to stitch through.

side-by-side embroidery fabric vs cross-stitch fabric

Aida fabric is also stiffer than embroidery fabric, making it easier to stitch without an embroidery hoop. Although you may use a hoop in cross-stitch, larger pieces can be much easier to navigate in a scroll frame or without a hoop.

Aida fabric size: Sizing for Aida fabric can be tricky at first, but once you find the size(s) you like, it becomes much easier. The most common sizes for Aida fabric are 14-, 16-, and 18-count. In cross-stitch, the smaller the count, the larger the stitches will be. 14-count Aida is the most common size for beginners. I’ll use this size as an example.

aida fabric with ruler measuring 1-inch

How to determine the size of fabric and finished piece: To determine the size of Aida fabric, count the number of “boxes” per-inch. 14-count Aida has 14 boxes, or stitches, per inch.

Since cross-stitch patterns are sized based on stitch numbers (36 x 45 stitches, for example), this is also how we will determine the finished size. For example, if the pattern says it is 36 x 45 stitches and we stitch it on 14-count, then we would divide the number of stitches, 36, by the number of stitches per inch, 14, giving us an approximately 2.5 inch wide for the finished piece.

Doing the same for the other side (45 stitches divided by 14 stitches per inch) we get just over 3 inches. The finished design would be 2.5 x 3 inches. However, if we were to stitch this same pattern onto 18-count Aida fabric it would be smaller since we can fit more stitches per inch. (36 stitches divided by 18 = 2 inches by 45 stitches divided by 18 = 2.5 inches)

If your head is spinning from all the math, you're not alone.

As with any good math class, once we've learned how to do it the long way, I will now give you the calculator. Enter your stitch dimensions and Aida size here to find out the size of your finished design: Cross-stitch size calculator

Cross-stitch patterns

There are a few different types of cross-stitch patterns, the most common being counted cross-stitch. Let’s go over two of the most common pattern types.

A counted cross-stitch pattern comes with a gridded version of the pattern with boxes filled in with symbols to indicate which color X belongs in that box - think color by number. Most patterns will come in both a black and white format, with symbols indicating the different colors, as well as a color version. With counted cross stitch designs, the stitcher is counting the spaces on the fabric to determine which box is stitched by the indicated colors. 

Stamped cross-stitch, sometimes called “no-count” is a type of cross-stitch pattern where the pattern or symbols for the pattern are printed right onto the Aida fabric. This removes the hurdle of looking back and forth to the pattern and counting the stitches. This type of cross-sittch is a great option for beginners as well as kids who are learning this fun craft! These patterns are not as common or easy to find as counted cross-stitch, however.

cross stitch project of a reindeer

Cross-stitch tips from the community

Even though we are an embroidery kit company, we love all types of crafts! Cross-stitch is popular with our community and will often come up during our Livestreams. Here are a few tips we’ve heard from cross-stitchers in the Penguin & Fish community over the years.

Stitching on darker fabric - When stitching on a darker Aida cloth, try putting a lighter color fabric, paper, or even a backlight underneath the piece to illuminate the holes to stitch through.

Railroading technique - This is used to help stitches lay flat. It assures the two-strands of thread will sit next to one another and not be twisted. Although not necessary, many people choose this method when they want a smooth piece, especially if it will be framed or showcased in some way.

To do the railroading technique, when your needle is up on the front side of your fabric, use your needle to separate the threads, then go through the next hole, between the two threads. This will break apart the threads if they are twisted in any way, allowing them to lay flat.

Gridding Aida fabric. Another technique that is helpful, especially in larger counted cross-stitch patterns, is to grid the Aida cloth. Simply draw a line all the way across your fabric every 5 or 10 stitches (whichever you prefer) and then again top to bottom every 5 or 10 stitches. Since most counted cross-stitch patterns are gridded this way already, it makes counting and pattern referencing easier. Plus, it helps prevent mistakes or over-counting.

embroidery vs. cross stitch- what's the difference - save on pinterest

We hope you learned something new in this blog post about cross-stitch and how it differs from hand embroidery! Many crafters enjoy both of these needle projects. I personally like to switch between the two crafts as they each have their own feel.

Embroidery is a great, quick-win project. It usually doesn’t take too long, and there’s a lot of creativity with different stitch types and lengths to make the piece unique. Cross-stitch, on the other hand, takes a bit longer and is more structured for when I don’t want to think about keeping my stitches even.

Let us know any questions or tips you may have about cross-stitch in the comments below, or join the ongoing crafty fun in our Facebook group - Penguin & Fish Crafters, where we share all sorts of craft projects!

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1 comment

Joyce Stratton

Great article. I do both, though I enjoy embroidery more than I do cross stitching. I like the tip about gridding the Aida cloth. I’ve over counted and had to go back and remove stitches. This will make it way more easy. Thank you!

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