Fractional Stitches in Cross Stitch

Fractional stitches. Do you know what I’m talking about? Quarter-stitches, half-stitches, and three-quarter stitches.

A quarter stitch.

A quarter stitch is half of one leg of a cross stitch.

What is a Fractional Stitch?

Every cross stitch is made of two diagonal legs: a / leg and a \ leg. Either one of those legs—or both—can be cut in half so that one half is one color and the other half is another color. Half of one leg is a quarter stitch. A single leg, sometimes called a “half cross stitch,” is rarely used as fractional stitches are used, though the word “half stitch” is often used to describe both quarter and three-quarter stitches. Got that? Yeah, it’s confusing. I know. A quarter leg plus a full leg is—you got it—a three-quarter stitch.

Three-quarter stitch.

A three-quarter stitch is one whole leg of a cross stitch plus one half.

Fractional stitches are things we see in cross stitch rather than needlepoint, since needlepoint is generally stitched over a single intersection of canvas threads. That’s like trying to stitch a fractional stitch when you’re stitching over one thread on linen. It can’t be done.

Not all cross stitch charts use them, and we never use them in needlepoint, so what’s the purpose of fractional stitches? Details, friends, details. Fractional stitches can smooth a curve; they can add subtle, delicate details and complexity to a design. They are an additional tool in the cross stitcher’s arsenal.

I love fractional stitches when stitching over two threads on linen or evenweave because there is a natural open-hole center for the quarter-stitches to go through. I like fractional stitches slightly less when stitching on aida because I have to poke my blunt-tipped tapestry needle through the center block. That’s not easy. Worst of all, it can be hard to hit the precise center, which drives this perfectionist batty. But they still create smoother curves and more detail, which in the end, for me, outweighs the nuisance of poking through tightly woven fabric and imperfect centers.

How Fractional Stitches are Depicted

Different presentations of fractional stitches in a cross stitch pattern.

The backstitched outline of the wolf's ear hides two of the quarter-stitch symbols in example one. In example two, symbols make it clear which color is the quarter stitch and which is the three-quarter stitch.

Let’s talk about what’s what on a cross stitch chart. First of all, unless you stitch the full leg of the fractional stitch with both colors—which, by all means, you can do—as I said before, we don’t really have half stitches. (Yes, yes. Sometimes half-crosses are used as a filling, but that’s not the kind of use we’re talking about here.) Most often, when a stitch is divided between two colors, one is a quarter stitch and the other, with the full leg, is a three-quarter stitch.

Check out all the fractional stitches in the pattern diagram on the left. This is the wolf ear from the Funk & Weber Designs Portraits of the Wild Life pattern. Lots of fractional stitches here.

Look closely at example 1. The pattern indicates two different colors on either side of a backstitched outline. Those two different colors are quarter stitches, but what color goes beneath the backstitched outline? What color is the full leg of that cross stitch? That’s left for the stitcher to decide.

When I chart patterns, I deliberately remove fractional symbols from beneath the backstitch line because, invariably, the hidden symbols are hard—sometimes impossible—to read and they make the outline look fuzzy. The chart is clearer, if the intention is not, when I leave those layered symbols out. (Ah, but we’ll make the intention clear here. Stick with me!)

In example 2, there is no backstitched ouline, and we have four itty-bitty symbols in a single stitch area, clearly indicating which color is a quarter stitch and which is a three-quarter stitch.

Interpreting Fractional Stitches

If it’s not clear on the pattern which color is the quarter and which is the three-quarter, how do you decide?

Cross stitched wolf from Portraits of the Wild Life.

Cross-stitched gray wolf from the Funk & Weber Designs pattern Portraits of the Wild Life.

The easiest answer is the foreground color or the color of the closer object. Take a look at that wolf ear again. The two color choices in example 1 are the wolf’s ear color (brown) and a background color (purple, as in “purple mountains majesty.” There’s a reason for everything, you know.). The wolf’s ear is in the foreground, covering up the background behind it; therefore, it is the dominant color and should be the three-quarter stitch. The full leg of the cross stitch beneath the backstitched outline is the color of the wolf’s ear.

Let’s consider something more complicated. Imagine you’re stitching a paddle being pulled through the water alongside a canoe. From your perspective (the viewer perspective), the paddle is in front of the canoe, and there’s water in front of the paddle, behind the paddle, and around the canoe. In a fractional-stitch competition between the paddle and the canoe, the paddle wins. The paddle is in front of the canoe; it is the foreground object. This is the stitch that gets the emphasis, the three-quarter stitch. In a competition between the water and the paddle, the water is the winner if you’re showing the water in front of the paddle, but the paddle wins if you’re showing the water behind the paddle, between the paddle and the canoe.

It’s a matter of looking at the two-dimensional picture and thinking of it in terms of three dimensions. The object nearer the viewer (you!) gets the dominant (three-quarter) stitch.

Sometimes, the fractional stitches are in the same plane. In this case, consistency is the thing that matters. Say you’re stitching a waterfall depicted by squiggly vertical lines of different silver/grey/blue colors. I might decide that the left-hand color always wins, getting the three-quarter stitch. This consistency defines the vertical lines which I think conveys the image of falling water. In real life, however, waterfalls aren’t that tidy. You could certainly argue that the water splashes all around and isn’t orderly, thus making the case for random selection of dominant stitches. By all means, try it!

These same rules apply when you’re stitching over one or converting a cross stitch chart to needlepoint: Fractional stitches are turned into whole stitches, and the whole stitch will be the three-quarter or dominant stitch color. You can skip the quarter stitches.

There are bound to be close calls and exceptions to the rules. The final word on the matter is, as always: Do you like it?

I hope this subtracts any confusion you might have had about fractional stitches and what they can add to a cross stitch design. May your understanding of them multiply your pleasure in executing divided stitches.

Oh, like I could resist that temptation!

17 Responses to “Fractional Stitches in Cross Stitch”

  1. […] symbols beneath them. Sometimes the mini symbols are used on either side of the line, especially if fractional stitches are used, but sometimes backstitches cross over a single whole cross stitch. It might be up to you […]

    May 20, 2012 @ 12:15 pm
  2. nancy

    What is the best color to outline cross stitch picture when you have bright colors? it does not have outlining now I thought it would look better. Thank you nancy

    August 5, 2013 @ 4:18 pm
  3. Jen

    Hi, Nancy. I want to state up front that there is no single right answer to this question. In the end, trust your instincts and go with what you like.

    That said, I tend to go two ways with outlines: dark or what I call “self-colored.” By “dark” I mean black (DMC 310), dark gray (DMC 3799), or dark brown (3371), or some other dark color. Black can sometimes be harsh, so I tend to always give gray a look before making up my mind. I tend to like gray and black with brights, jewel tones, and cool colors and a dark brown with warm and natural colors. You mention bright colors, so I’d start with black and dark gray.

    The “self-colored” option is interesting. It might mean using the same color as a single-color object; it might mean using a contrasting color, but one that is in the multi-colored object (say, a blue tent with orange highlights might be outlined with the orange color); it might mean using a darker shade of the dominant color (a bright red outlined with a maroon-ish color, perhaps).

    I know some people will ask, “What’s the point of outlining with a ‘self-color’?” Some people hate backstitching–I cannot relate!–and might think this pointless, even irritating, but backstitching, even in a self-color, defines a shape or line. It just does. Try it and see.

    Oh, and you can combine dark and self-colored backstitching in a single piece.

    I am partial to bright colors outlined with black, but that’s a personal thing. I applaud your choice to add backstitch! I’d love to know what you choose and how you like it. Maybe even see a picture. Just in case, our address is mail AT funkandweber DOT com.

    I hope this helps.

    August 5, 2013 @ 6:09 pm
  4. Jen

    Oh! And another thought: I often don’t like outlining in light colors (say, white, for example) because the holes between the stitches are highlighted. It looks like a dotted line instead of a smooth line. These holes blend with a dark color.

    Of course, there are times when such dotted lines are called for and interesting.

    I imagine other thoughts will occur to me in time. This is a great question!

    August 5, 2013 @ 7:57 pm
  5. Car

    wow thank you sooo much for the explanation! It was very difficult to find an explanation about how to interpret fractional stitches and your explanation is so clear!!! Now I fully get it!!! Much appreciated!

    March 5, 2014 @ 10:29 pm
  6. Hooray! That’s great to hear, Car. I’m glad the article helped. Please let me know anything else you’d like to discuss.

    March 6, 2014 @ 7:16 am
  7. EveS

    Jen, you are great! I was so exited to start a beautiful Red Sea fish tonight and then.. I saw the pattern full with half coloured squares… and couldn’t find out what to do with them.
    Thank you so much for the best explanation ever for such a simple and obviously important stitch :))) Kind wishes

    November 2, 2015 @ 10:45 am
  8. Jen

    Aw, thanks, EveS! I’m so glad you found this helpful.

    November 2, 2015 @ 11:15 am
  9. Melissa

    Thank you so much. I have been frustrated over this for the past 2 days and have wanted to start my sewing but havent been able to because of this issue. Thank you so much. I cant tell you how many sites i have looked at and this is the only one that truly explained it well. Thank you so much

    March 25, 2016 @ 8:57 pm
  10. Jen

    I’m glad to have helped, Melissa! Let me know if you have other questions that I might be able to address. Happy stitching!

    March 26, 2016 @ 5:43 am
  11. Christina Arlington

    I have been working on a Santa’s workshop stocking off and on longer than I would like to admit. I WISH I had seen this clear and wonderful tutorial waaaay back then. Going forward I will take this instruction in mind. I am sure my husband won’t notice and will be glad I finally finished and not cursing anymore.

    April 5, 2016 @ 4:34 pm
  12. Jen

    Yay, Christina, for getting that stocking done! That’s a big project! I’m glad you found the tutorial helpful, and I’m even more glad you’re moving on to the next project even though the stocking was so challenging. Cheers to you!

    April 7, 2016 @ 4:40 am
  13. Sandy

    If there are 2 symbols in the same cross stitch, is one color always a quarter stitch and the other color always a three-quarter stitch? Could they both be quarter stitches? Would there be a way to tell in the pattern?

    October 17, 2016 @ 9:41 am
  14. Sandy

    I meant if they are evenly depicted. I understand your example 2 which clearly shows 3/4 and 1/4 stitches. If there were no backstitching in your example 1, would one of the colors automatically be 1/4 and the other 3/4?

    October 17, 2016 @ 9:44 am
  15. Jen

    Hi, Sandy.

    If your pattern shows two symbols depicted evenly, then it’s up to you to decide which is 3/4 and which is 1/4. Making two quarter stitches will leave a gap that will draw focus, and you probably don’t want that. It’s crazy how a teeny-tiny inconsistency will stand out. Use the tips here, and trust your gut in choosing which to make 3/4.

    October 17, 2016 @ 9:56 am
  16. Sandy

    Thank you, Jen! That’s what I thought, but I wasn’t sure. Every time I looked at the pattern, I read it differently. I’m going back to fill in for the 3/4 crosses and it’s looking better. At least I didn’t get too far the wrong way!

    October 17, 2016 @ 12:17 pm
  17. Jen

    Yay! You’re welcome, Sandy! One of the great things about embroidery is that there’s almost nothing we can’t fix. If we don’t like how something looks, we can change it. Cheers to you!

    October 17, 2016 @ 5:10 pm

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