Fractional Stitches in Cross Stitch
Fractional stitches. Do you know what I’m talking about? Quarter-stitches, half-stitches, and three-quarter stitches.
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.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 DepictedLet’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?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!