16 tips for neat cross stitching
Updated: Jun 22, 2022
I believe that cross stitch should be fun and relaxing so how neat it is should not be the primary concern but hey, we all want to make it look the best it can don't we? And there are some really easy tips and tricks to get your cross stitches looking top notch.
I've gathered together all the most helpful tips I've picked up along the way; some I've learned from others (thank you!) and some I've just figured out for myself.
Some of the tips are very specific to creating neat stitches and some are more general tips for neat work including the back of your work.
This feels like a good point to say something very loud and clear...there is NO reason your back has to be neat other than if you want it to look that way! A neat back can help to create a neat front too but it is NOT worth worrying over, and please don't ever let anyone tell you the back must be neat.
Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned cross stitcher I hope you find some helpful hints and tips to make your stitching look totally spectacular!
In no particular order let's dive in...
1. Go the same way
This one seems like it should be obvious but it really isn't when you start cross stitching, until someone tells you. Make sure the top arm of your cross stitch goes the same direction for all your stitches. It doesn't matter which way as long as it's consistent.
You can see pictures of this and general tips on how to cross stitch in my Beginners Guide to Cross Stitch on my resources page.
If you have a pattern which calls for half stitches (not the fractional ones but the ones where you do only the first arm of the cross stitch) I like to do them the same way as my top stitch of a full cross stitch. Which admittedly takes a conscious effort to remember and feels a little bit wrong when I'm doing it because of course, it's the other way to the first arm of a full cross stitch so goes against my automatic stitching habit!
As far as fractional stitches go, making the stitch look like it's going the same way as a full cross stitch doesn't apply to one quarter fractional stitches. However, for three quarter fractional stitches I like to make sure that I complete them so they look the same as a full stitch but just missing a quarter of the stitch. This means that sometimes the long arm of the three quarter stitch lies over the top of the short arm and sometimes underneath it.
2. Just the right amount of tension
This is a bit of a Goldilocks moment; if you pull your stitches too tight it will distort the stitches (and potentially the whole piece of fabric) and also can leave more fabric showing through underneath your stitching. But too loose and it can look a little messy.
Certainly a hoop or frame can come in handy to help you keep an even tension but if you prefer to stitch in hand then I promise you can do just as well and keep a nice even tension. However you do it, getting the tension right is just a case of practice, practice, and more practice!
If you are using thread or fabric that is new to you, you can always test stitch a small patch to gauge the tension you will need to get your stitches neat.
Hopefully cross stitch helps you to unwind but don't forget to do the same for your thread as you stitch! It is a fact of cross stitching that the thread will naturally twist a bit as you stitch...yes, even if you railroad (see tip no. 11 below) and yes, even if you use 1 strand.
A twisted thread will make your stitches look less neat and also won't give as good coverage of the fabric.
The easy fix is to let your needle hang down every now and then to allow the thread to untwist. Or, you can find out my alternative method for untwisting threads; it's no. 2 in my article on 5 tips to reduce knots and tangles in your threads.
4. How many strands?
To give you lovely neat and even coverage it helps to use the right number of strands for the count of your fabric. (If you want to know all about cross stitch fabric count then I've got you covered.)
If you use too many strands it can look bulky and less neat, but too few strands can look a bit patchy and you may see the fabric through the stitches.
But there is an element of personal preference here as different people will be happy with, or even prefer, more or less fabric showing through the stitches and therefore prefer different numbers of strands for different count fabrics.
On 14 count Aida or 28 count evenweave/linen I would prefer very slightly better coverage than 2 strands gives...but I often can't stand the faff of using 3 strands so I just use 2 strands and make sure that I use all the tips to get my stitches looking nice and plump, such as railroading (see tip no. 11 below).
This is why I generally prefer to use 16 count Aida or 32 count evenweave/linen as 2 strands on this gives a lovely coverage and looks neat.
One exception to this is on 14 count perforated paper where I do use 3 strands because it really does look a lot better.
5. Use the empty hole
My Mum taught me to cross stitch so I'm sure many of my tips came from her but this one does for sure. We were just chatting about it recently and I had actually forgotten about this because it's one of those things I just do automatically.
The idea is to stitch in such a way that you come up in an empty hole rather than one with thread already in it. It's much easier to accidentally split the thread that's already in a hole or even miss the hole slightly and split the fabric when coming up from the back in a hole with thread in it. So when you can, aim to stitch up from the back in an empty (or as empty as possible) hole and down from the front into holes with thread already in them. This isn't always possible but I try to keep it in mind when deciding which section to stitch next and which direction I'm going to stitch it in.
6. Don't carry your thread
No, I don't mean around the house...I mean across the back of your fabric!
Actually, that's not really true...or at least, not specific enough.
There are 2 parts to this advice;
1 - don't carry your thread across the back of your fabric where there is no stitching as this can show through and be visible from the front
2 - don't carry your thread too far across the back of a stitched area without catching it down through some stitches across the back as this can affect the tension of your stitching and distort the fabric, or it can get caught as you stitch.
Everyone has a personal preference of how far they will carry a thread along the back from one section to another and there's no right or wrong here. I don't like to carry mine more than 2 or 3 blocks without threading it through a few stitches. I am not a fan of stopping and starting my thread all the time so I will carry my thread a fairly long way but ONLY if it's secured through stitches on the back.
7. Get close
When you have finished stitching a section and secured it on the back I recommend snipping the ends off really short. Don't worry about the threads pulling out; they won't as long as you have secured the ends under some stitches, and I only secure under 3-4 stitches so it doesn't take much.
I recently came across one of my earlier cross stitch pieces and wow, the back is a hot fluffy mess! I was cutting the ends to about 4-5mm so the back looks like a small hairy animal.
This is not a major problem but it does look less tidy and those ends can sometimes catch and pull forward to the front as you stitch. If you leave longer ends right at the edge of your stitched area so they poke out from under the stitching then they may also be visible from the front.
I now cut my thread ends as short as I can without risking snipping my stitches (about 1-2mm) and it looks so much neater.
8. No knots
Knots on the front of your work are obviously not going to look very good (apart from intentional ones of course!) but what about knots on the back?
Well, it's not as big a deal as some would have you believe but it is possible that lumps and bumps on the back of your work can make it look uneven from the front when you finish the piece for display.
I personally try to avoid knots but we've all had that moment when we've spotted a tangly knot on the back that we didn't spot at the time and usually I will try to unpick it and fix it, or cut it out and run in the loose ends...but just occasionally I leave it. Yep, I know this will shock some people but I'm keeping it real here - lol!
All that said, I do recommend avoiding knots when starting and finishing a thread. Instead I like to run my thread under a few stitches to start or stop, or use the loop method.
If you have never come across the loop method, many new (and old!) cross stitchers say it is a game changer! You can find instructions on how to do this in my Beginners Guide to Cross Stitch on my resources page.
I love this method so much that I basically cut my thread to the length I estimate I'll need for a section and throw away any that's left when I've finished the section, just so that I can always loop start! It probably is a little more wasteful of thread but it saves so much time, which is totally worth it to me but it depends on your priorities.
9. Start in a corner
It’s more common to start your stitching in the centre of the fabric as it’s easy to find the middle and then you can be confident your design will fit in the middle of your piece of fabric.
But this means that, whichever way you stitch from there, there will always be part of the design that you will be stitching whilst holding the fabric or having it in a hoop such that your fingers are touching your stitching. I find that this can ‘fluff up’ the stitches and also risks transferring oils or dirt from your fingers to your stitching. Of course, you can mitigate this by washing your piece at the end.
If you use a frame or hoop then you can also protect your work with a grime guard, an elasticated piece of fabric that goes over your hoop/frame and therefore protects your fabric and your work.
I stitch in hand so this is not an option for me, so for some pieces (especially larger ones) I now stitch from the bottom right hand corner such that I am always stitching up and left away from completed stitching. I’m not gonna lie…it does add a little stress factor when making sure that I get exactly the right point to start stitching so my design will be centred, but I'm getting more confident with it over time.
If you stitch with your needle in your left hand then you may need to reverse this and start on the left hand side!
This next tip also helps with this...
10. Roll it up
Protect any completed stitching and reduce creases in your fabric by rolling up any excess and clipping it.
If you do fold your fabric in between stitching sessions then vary where you fold it so that the creases don't 'set' into one place so much. If you always fold the fabric in the same place or leave a piece folded for a long time this can also make the stitches look a little odd or uneven along the fold line.
If you use a hoop or frame you can take it out of this when not stitching to reduce the risk of the frame or hoop marking the fabric or creating creases that are more stubborn to remove.
If you want to leave a piece for a while and not work on it then roll it up to avoid creasing your fabric and stitches.
11. Try railroading
Say what? This is one of those curious cross stitch terms you may not have come across or have heard but have no idea what it means!
This technique is used to help multiple thread strands lie flat next to each other, rather than twisting together and this gives a neater finish to the stitch.
You can do this on both the top and bottom arms of your stitch or just the top arm.
I almost always railroad all the top arms of my stitches as I feel it does look neater. If I am stitching on dark fabric with a light thread or with a thread that is feeling a bit 'thin' then I will railroad both arms because this helps to improve the coverage and stop the fabric showing through.
I have lots more in-depth information on railroading in How to Railroad Cross Stitch, which includes step by step tutorials on how to do it.
12. Leave no gaps
This one is a very personal preference and I think I'm in a minority here but it might be something you find helpful. I like to stitch so there are no gaps to go back and fill with stitches. When I go back and fill in gaps I can never get the stitches to sit as neatly. Some people can and if you can then ignore this tip!
13. Plan ahead
This pulls together several of the other tips such as not leaving gaps (#12), not carrying your threads (#6) and using the empty hole (#5). If you plan out what sections you will stitch in which order you can take full advantage of these tips and keep it all looking as neat as possible.
14. Perfect parking
When you 'park' your needle in your fabric at the end of your stitching session (or during if that's where you put it...in which case I can seriously recommend a needle minder!) put it away from the area of fabric that will be on show when you display the finished piece as it will leave bigger holes and warp the fabric a little.
On a similar note, if you like to park threads temporarily when switching between multiple colours in a small area, don't park the threads anywhere that won't be covered by stitching as again they can stretch the holes and can even stain the hole slightly with certain colours (yes, even with good old DMC thread!).
Oh, and if you leave a needle in the same spot in the fabric for long enough it may even rust and stain your fabric - eek!
15. Keep it short
Unlike this blog post -lol!
If you use really long threads to stitch with then they may start to look tatty towards the end as they have been pulled through the fabric and rubbed against the other stitches again and again. If you notice this is happening then you could use a shorter length of thread or just stop when you see the thread is looking fluffy or skinny and throw away the end. This will happen more if you like to play thread chicken; it's so very tempting isn't it to squeeze out those last few stitches to finish a section?! If you don't know what I'm talking about check out #4 on 10 times when cross stitch makes me cross!
16. Slow down
Taking it just a little bit slower allows you to pay attention to how neat your stitches are and use all of those lovely tips I've just talked about. Cross stitch is not a race!
I know there just isn't enough time to stitch all the patterns we want to, but it's good to take the time to enjoy it and there's a satisfaction in making it look lovely and neat.
I still have to remind myself of this from time to time when I catch myself trying to rush my stitching but on the other hand I have been known to unpick a stitch and re-do it if it just isn't laying nicely.
And we are done!
I planned for this to be 10 tips but hey, the list just kept growing!
I can guarantee that some of these tips will work for you and others just won't. That's the joy of finding your own personal cross stitch style!
Until next time...happy (and neat!) stitching,