How to Read a Cross Stitch Pattern

Funk & Weber THE GREAT OUTDOORS pattern - Title and Image

The Great Outdoors pattern, with an as-big-as-possible image on the cover.

Counted cross stitch patterns—sometimes called cross stitch charts–come in many styles and formats. You’ll find them online, in books and magazines, packaged with materials as kits, and as individual leaflets or “chart packs,” which are generally unbound pages contained in a zip bag. If there aren’t stitching apps for digital patterns, there soon will be.

Anatomy of a Cross Stitch Chart

Despite the different looks and presentations, most cross stitch patterns contain the same basic parts and information:

  • Design image and title
  • Stitch count
  • Recommended fabric
  • Required fibers
  • Pattern (this might be called a chart or graph)
  • Instructions

Design Image and Title

With luck, the image will be large and clear. However, never rely on solely on the color you see. It is just plain impossible to consistently print accurate color, and digital colors will vary from computer to computer.

Instead, to get an accurate sense of pattern colors, gather the floss that is to be used. If you’re trying to match something, this is the only way to know for sure if the design colors are what you want.

Stitch Count

The Great Outdoors stitch count

Stitch counts are often on the back cover of a pattern. In this case, there was no room, so it's inside the front cover.

The stitch count is the number of stitches in a design, usually expressed as a-number-wide by a-number-high, or 214W x 128H. We use the stitch count to determine how much fabric we need. Yep, that links to a tutorial on doing the stitchy math.

Recommended Fabric

The Great Outdoors pattern, recommended fabric

The recommended fabric is usually what is used in the cover model. Don't be afraid to make fabric substitutions.

This is generally the fabric used for the cover model. Try not to cling too tightly to this recommendation. There are a gazillion fabrics out there—many very nice ones—and your local shop, if you are so fortunate as to have one, cannot possibly carry them all. Don’t be afraid to use an alternate fabric. Get the scoop on basic embroidery fabrics here, and learn how to make fabric substitutions with confidence. Most shop owners will be able—and happy!—to offer good suggestions.

  • You can substitute aida for linens and other evenweaves and vice versa.
  • You can alter the size of the finished piece by substituting fabric with a different stitch count.
  • You can alter the background color by substituting a different color fabric.
  • You can do all of the above in one fell swoop. Wow—talk about power.

Required Fibers

Required Fibers for the Puzzle Pisces cross stitch pattern

Fiber colors and symbols are listed on the back of the Puzzle Pisces pattern. Fibers for backstitches and French knots are below those for cross stitches.

Most of the time, a specific brand will be listed along with a color number or name, perhaps both.

Here, too, substitutions can be made. There are conversion charts for most of the big lines, and sometimes designers will list alternate choices.

Keep in mind, however, that your results can vary when you make substitutions, especially if you’re substituting solid colors for slightly variegated colors, or vice versa. This isn’t a bad thing: your result will just be different. Really, isn’t that part of the fun and adventure?

Be sure to read this section carefully. Look for backstitch colors and specialty fibers listed separately and recommendations to purchase more than one skein of a color. Colors can vary between dye lots, so if you need to purchase more than one skein of a color, get them at the same time so they’re more likely to be the same dye lot. Some fibers list the dye lot on the label, but most of the time you’ll have to eyeball it.

Tip: If you have no choice but to use fibers that are supposed to be the same color but clearly aren’t, probably because they are different dye lots, try blending strands from the different skeins together for a consistently mottled look. The result can be cool, turning this “problem” into a “plus.”

Cross Stitch Pattern, Chart, Graph

Do You See What I See? Illusions cross stitch pattern

This is the Do You See What I See? Illusions cross stitch chart. It has symbols and lines and a highlighted section that is the overlap from another page.

A cross stitch pattern has lines, symbols, dots, and sometimes color on a graph, and a key that defines these.

Cross Stitches and Backstitches

Each symbol represents a different color, and each symbol on the graph is a single cross stitch.

Lines are usually backstitches.

Unfortunately, diagonal lines can obscure—or completely cover—the 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 to determine what color is beneath the backstitch line.

Don’t fret! You can do this. Really. Look at the surrounding symbols. What color makes sense to you? What color do you like in that spot? Trust yourself.

French Knots

Do you have bold dots on your chart? These are probably French knots. These are so frequently used, they usually aren’t explained. We have a tutorial on how to stitch French knots—I know some stitchers hate them—that hasn’t yet made it to the new site. Here’s a reason to re-post it soon.

Specialty Stitches

In addition to symbols, backstitch lines, and French knots, you may have specialty stitches on your graph. These, too, are generally lines, but not long continuous lines like backstitches. Rather, they are clusters of short lines that look similar to the finished stitches. They might be slightly different lines (dashed or dotted) or perhaps a different color. Or not.

There should be instructions for how to work these in the pattern.

Pattern Overlaps

Sometimes, when a large design is split across a fold or presented on different pages, two or three rows of a design will be repeated on adjacent parts. These overlaps are usually highlighted (made gray) and noted with text.

These overlaps make it easier to line up and match the different parts of a pattern.

Tip: If it’s easier, you can cut out and tape together a large pattern so that it’s all on one large sheet.


Stitching instructions for the Bold Blackwork Baby Blocks pattern

Instructions for creating "runs" with the Holbein stitch for the Bold Blackwork Baby Blocks pattern. This is blackwork, not cross stitch, of couse, another counted thread technique.

This is where good patterns differentiate themselves. Sometimes instructions are detailed, sometimes not. It depends on many things:

  • the complexity of the pattern
  • whether there are specialty stitches involved
  • whether the design is intended to be finished in a particular way
  • if it’s intended to be a teaching piece
  • how much space is available for instructions—no kidding. This is especially true for magazine pieces and commercially-printed leaflets.

Instructions may include diagrams, images of models in-progress, and/or text. The very best instructions include all three.

Diagrams may look different depending on the software used to draw them. Some patterns, especially older ones, use hand-drawn diagrams.

Stitching instructions are a form of technical writing. Great, highly-knowledgeable embroiderers are not necessarily good technical writers. I wish weak writers seek help in crafting instructions and editing, but needlework is a DIY industry, often with tiny profit margins, so that’s not always possible or practical. (That said, if you need help, I am an editor.)

If you’re looking for more detailed instructions, consider a book or class (online or in-person). These venues and mediums generally allow more space for detailed instructions.

Tip: If you don’t understand the instructions on a pattern—or if there are none at all—seek help. Independent needlework shops are a great source of help (just one reason why we need them), as are stitching groups and guilds. And you can also ask here, on the blog or in an email (mail AT funkandweber DOT com). If I don’t have the answer myself, I almost always know someone who does.

A Final Word on Embroidery Patterns

As I said, this is a DIY industry. Many patterns are self-published by independent designers. Patterns are highly detailed things. A lot of work and proofing go into creating them. Hard as everyone tries, mistakes happen.

If you find an error in a pattern, check the designer’s website to see if a correction has been posted. If not, drop the designer a line and give him/her a heads up. Ask if you’re correct in thinking this is an error and if s/he’s aware of it. I don’t know a single designer who isn’t grateful for this kind of information.

When an error is discovered, it can be corrected. Labels are printed and added to already-printed stock; digital files are corrected; a correction is posted on the website so others with uncorrected patterns can find the required fix.

And that, stitchy friends, is the anatomy of a cross stitch pattern. What have I missed, and what questions do you have?

Related post: Keep Your Place On a Cross Stitch Chart

2 Responses to “How to Read a Cross Stitch Pattern”

  1. elaine Cripe

    am having problems keeping place on charts so what would I use to do this ? have used the Loran mag. and find I’m above and below line

    May 24, 2014 @ 3:26 am
  2. This is a great question, Elaine, worthy of its own post. Check it out here:

    May 25, 2014 @ 1:34 pm

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