Have you ever wondered if there was a ‘right’ number of strands of embroidery thread to use for your cross stitch projects?
Well, I guess there is, but it might be different for each stitcher, and each project depending on several factors including personal preference for how you like your finished pieces to look.
A cross stitch kit or pattern will usually tell you how many strands of thread to use for both full cross stitches and for backstitch, but there are times when you might want to deviate from this.
I'm going to show you what difference it makes to cross stitch with different numbers of strands on different fabrics, and talk about the various factors to consider to help you decide what you want to use for each project you stitch.
I've created a quick reference guide with a summary of all the information but the article below and the video contain much more detail.
If you'd like to jump to a specific section then just click on links below:
If you'd prefer to watch this as a video then just click below >>>
What do I mean by 'strands'?
Embroidery thread (or floss if you prefer!) is also called stranded cotton and that refers to the fact that each skein of thread is made up of 6 individual strands.
To cross stitch you will separate each individual strand out and then combine however many you are going to use back together.
If you find that pulling thread from the skein or separating strands leaves you with a tangled mess then check out How to pull embroidery thread out of skeins and separate strands.
What is '1 over 1 or '2 over 1' etc?
This is a little bit of terminology that you might come across when talking about number of strands to use and you will often hear it referred to as stitching 'X over Y' where X is the number of thread strands and Y is the number of fabric threads (or grid squares) that you make each cross stitch over.
Because Aida is made up of blocks of fabric, you would generally make your cross stitches across 1 block (or grid square) of fabric so that would be stitching 'over 1.'
But you could use a different number of threads to do this, and that is what the first number refers to, so using 2 strands of thread over 1 block of Aida would be stitching '2 over 1.'
If you are stitching on evenweave or linen then they have individual fabric threads rather than blocks, so you have the choice of making each of your crosses over 1 thread of the fabric or 2 threads.
If you were using 1 strand of thread over 1 thread of fabric, that would be '1 over 1' but if you were using 1 strand of thread over 2 threads of fabric it would be '1 over 2.'
Why does number of strands matter?
The main reason is simply that the number of strands you use will dictate what your finished stitching looks like. The more strands you use, the more the fabric will be covered and the denser your cross stitches will look.
Here are samples stitched with different numbers of strands on different counts of Aida:
There’s no right or wrong way for it to look; it’s a personal preference. Some cross stitchers love really plump stitches with no fabric showing beneath them, and others like to be able to see the individual X shape of the stitches with a bit of fabric showing underneath.
The other thing to consider here is the ease of stitching because if you use more strands on a higher count fabric then it can be harder to pull the needle and thread through the fabric because of the smaller holes and the increased thread thickness, and it might make threading your needle harder too.
Are there any actual guidelines?
There are a few recommendations on the internet for how many strands to use for full cross stitches which I've summarised here as a good starting point:
I think this does explain why 16 count Aida or 32 count evenweave/linen are my favourite fabric to use because I never have to give any consideration to the number of strands I'm going to use; it’s always 2! The fabric coverage is great, the stitches look nicely dense, and it's not difficult to stitch with, so it's basically perfect!
When might you want to adjust the number of strands?
I would consider using a higher number of strands in the following situations;
- Stitching on 14 count perforated paper, because the coverage really does look better with 3 strands compared to 2 and this is probably because the holes are much bigger on perforated paper compared with fabric
- Stitching on dark fabrics, especially with light colour threads, because the fabric is more visible, and I just don't love how that looks
- For ‘thin’ threads such as unbranded threads, or potentially DMC310 black because that can often have strands that feel a little thin BUT if you have a kit with unbranded threads then be very careful using more strands than recommended because you will very likely run out of thread!
What about number of strands for backstitch?
I am more likely to stick to the recommendations for number of strands to use for backstitch as this has often been chosen to create the best finished effect for the design, but again, you can adjust it if you wish.
I do recommend carefully checking the number of strands that are suggested as some patterns use different numbers of strands for different sections to create dimension, so some patterns may use 1, 2 or 3 strands all in the same design.
A general rule of thumb that I find useful is that if you use a higher number of strands for the full cross stitches then you may want to use a higher number of strands for the backstitch, just so it doesn’t get ‘lost’ into the full cross stitches.
A good example here is when I stitch on perforated paper; because I use 3 strands for the full cross stitches I generally find that 2 strands looks better for the backstitch than 1.
To sum this all up, I would start by looking at the number of strands that your kit or pattern suggests to use, look at the stitched example (if there is one) and see if you like the look of that. If so, go ahead and use that. Or if you know you personally prefer a particular number of strands on a particular fabric then dive right in and use that.
If you are ever unsure, you can always make a few cross stitches with different numbers of strands on the edge of the fabric to see which gives you the best combination of finished look and ease of stitching.
I hope that’s given you a few general hints and tips to work with to help you decide how many strands of thread to use in your next cross stitch project!
Don't forget to grab your quick reference guide if you want to keep this information to hand!
Until next time, happy stitching!