A Brief History of Cross Stitch: From Pharaohs to Pixels

Works by ABC - Eqyptian Mixtape
Works by ABC – Egyptian Mixtape from Issue 6: Mixtape 001

The Genesis: Stitching Through Time

Cross stitch’s historical roots can be traced back to around 500 AD in Egypt. Archaeologists discovered well-preserved linens with embroidery in a tomb believed to belong to a wealthy slave owner. These findings were not isolated instances; frescoes in the tomb also depicted tapestries and embroideries, suggesting a well-established craft.

The Silk Road: A Thread Connecting Worlds

Between the 6th and 8th centuries AD, both Chinese and Russian records began detailing a significant movement of embroidery. Historical ledgers indicate that tea was often traded for embroidered goods, marking the craft’s spread along ancient trade routes.

The Bayeux Tapestry: A Stitch in Time

The Bayeux Tapestry, created in the 11th century, is one of the earliest known Western embroideries. It not only depicts the events of 1066 AD in Britain but also introduced new forms of stitches, including what we now recognize as cross stitch.

The Islamic Influence: Counting the Stitches

During the period between 1100-1492 AD, Islamic states utilized cross stitches on traditionally made hemp cloth to create small, repeating patterns. This technique quickly gained traction across Europe and the Baltic States.

The Tudor Trend: Stitching with Royalty

In the early 16th century, Catherine of Aragon brought cross stitch to England, popularizing it to the extent that it adorned the shirts of Henry VIII. This marked a significant moment in England’s textile history.

The Industrial Revolution: Machines vs. Needles

The 18th century saw the invention of domestic sewing machines and the influx of cheaper threads from Germany, both of which impacted the craft’s popularity. However, cross stitch found ways to adapt and persist.

FiddlesticksAU - That 70s Cross Stitch
FiddlesticksAU – That 70s Cross Stitch from Issue 15: The 70s

The 20th Century: A Stitch Through Modern Times

The War Years: Cotton and Constraints

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 led to soaring cotton prices, relegating thread to a luxury item. During World War II, strict rationing further limited access to cotton. Interestingly, prisoners of war turned to cross stitch and embroidery as a pastime, creating pieces that sometimes carried hidden messages.

The Feminist Wave: Stitching and Suffrage

In 1918, British women gained the right to vote, which also led to increased working hours and less leisure time. Despite these societal shifts, cross stitch experienced a small resurgence, although high prices limited its accessibility to the general public.

The Swinging Sixties: A Craft Revived

The post-war 1960s brought time-saving household tools, freeing up more leisure time for women. This period saw one of the largest resurgences of cross stitch, as the craft adapted to modern tastes and sensibilities.

Ellen Schinderman - Hello Dolly
Ellen Schinderman – Hello Dolly from Issue 10: Mixtape Vol. 2

The 1980s: The Golden Era of Cross Stitch

The 1980s marked a significant era for cross stitch, with designers like Jane Greenoff and Jo Verso rising to prominence. Greenoff, founder of The Cross Stitch Guild, became a household name for her intricate designs and patterns. Jo Verso, renowned for her books like “Jo Verso’s Complete Cross Stitch Course,” brought a fresh, modern approach to traditional patterns. Their work not only elevated the craft but also made it more accessible to the masses.

The Rise of Guilds and Cross Stitch Communities

This decade also saw the formation of various cross-stitch guilds and communities, both in-person and through early computer networks.

These platforms allowed enthusiasts to share patterns, tips, and techniques, fostering a sense of global community.

The Commercial Boom: Kits, Books, and Magazines

The ’80s experienced a commercial boom in cross stitch with the widespread availability of kits, pattern books, and specialty threads. Additionally, the emergence of cross stitch magazines provided enthusiasts with a regular source of new patterns, tips, and community features. This made it easier for beginners to enter the craft and for seasoned stitchers to take on more complex projects.

The 21st Century: The New Age of Cross Stitch

Today’s cross stitch has embraced the digital age with open arms. Software and apps allow for custom pattern creation, turning any image into a stitchable design.

Websites and social media platforms have become the new guild halls, where stitchers from around the world share their creations and tips.

The Rise of the “Manbroiderer” and Mr X Stitch

The craft has also seen a significant uptick in male participation, leading to the coining of the term “manbroiderer.” This shift challenges traditional gender norms associated with needlework and opens up a broader demographic of enthusiasts.

Among these trailblazers is Mr X Stitch, a modern cross stitch icon who has been instrumental in redefining the craft for a new generation through his digital magazine, blog, and podcast.

Subversive Stitching: A Voice for Activism

Cross stitch has found a new role as a medium for social and political commentary. Subversive cross stitch, which often incorporates humor, satire, or activism, has gained a substantial following, especially among younger generations.

The Etsy Effect: Crafting as a Business

Platforms like Etsy have enabled cross stitchers to turn their hobby into a business. From selling patterns to finished pieces, the marketplace for cross stitch has never been more accessible.

The Pandemic Impact: Stitching Through Isolation

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a surge in home-based hobbies, and cross stitch was no exception. Many turned to the craft as a form of mindfulness and a way to pass the time during lockdowns.

And here we are now, when there has never been more choice in cross stitch. It is a great time to be a stitcher!

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