There are many different ways to work with needle and thread, but embroidery and cross-stitch are two of the most popular. The difference between embroidery vs cross-stitch lies in technique, but there’s so much more that goes into answering this question.
Cross-stitch is a form of embroidery, so they are different but related forms of needlework. While embroidery is a general term that refers to all needle and thread design projects, cross-stitch specifically uses X-shaped stitches and follows a grid pattern using special, woven canvas.
This simple answer contains a lot of possibilities, so we’re going to go into more detail below on the differences between embroidery and cross-stitch, the histories of these techniques, and answer some common questions people have about them.
What is embroidery?
You may be familiar with embroidery without even knowing it. Have you ever received a monogrammed item as a gift?
Embroidery is a term for any design created with needle and thread on fabric. It uses a large array of different stitching techniques and can also include non-thread elements, like beads. Embroidery is popular in fashion and can be seen in creative stitching on jean pockets or the necklines of linen peasant blouses.
There are so many different embroidery stitches, and because of this, many embroidery projects will look textured and life-like, almost seeming to pop right off the fabric.
What is cross-stitch?
Cross-stitch, while no less beautiful, is a very specific technique that will have a very specific look to it.
Cross-stitch is a type of embroidery that follows a grid pattern and uses “x” stitching to make a design. Cross-stitch is done on woven fabric or a special cross-stitch canvas, which will guide the stitching due to its built-in grid structure. Many cross-stitching projects will appear more geometric or “pixelated” because of their mathematical technique.
Many cross-stitch patterns that you’ll find online will look like charts made on a computer. Oddly enough, this ancient art form, which was used well before the Middle Ages, lends itself very well to our digital world.
What is needlepoint?
Often, people will use the term needlepoint when they mean either embroidery or cross-stitch.
Needlepoint is essentially cross-stitch with more variety. Needlepoint uses the same woven fabric, but there are more stitches to work with than the basic “x”. Also, instead of using a sewing needle, needlepoint uses tapestry needles to create stitches. Tapestry needles have blunt ends, unlike sharp sewing needles.
There are so many different kinds of needle crafts, so don’t worry if you get confused. Everyone does from time to time, but the more you get to know these different techniques, the more you will appreciate their differences and their usefulness.
History of embroidery and cross-stitch
The history of needlework is the history of women. If you are female, you should take unique pride in doing needlework and needlecrafts because you are participating in your ancestry.
People have been doing embroidery and cross-stitch almost as long as they’ve been wearing clothing. There is apparently evidence of stitches on fabric that dates back to nearly 5000 BC.
Embroidery was a good way to pass the time while keeping busy with a useful task. Every culture has some example of embroidery in its past. Techniques traveled through trade and exploration.
In the 17 and 1800s, Pennsylvania Dutch societies created unique designs using cross-stitch, which are iconic to their heritage. Images of birds, clovers, and farm life were popular. The famous “hex sign” is iconic to their heritage and was thought to ward off evil spirits.
Embroidery was not just for working class people. Monarchs and noble women also participated in needle work as an art form. Although they didn’t need to keep their skills sharp for when their husbands needed clothing mended, embroidery was an enjoyable and beautiful hobby for many wealthy women.
Embroidery and feminism
Embroidery and needlework was, for many women, a way to express themselves in a world that wouldn’t let them be painters, writers, or hold political office. It was a tool that helped them as much as it maintained the status quo.
Women were taught to embroider as a sign of how “feminine” they were. If you were good at embroidering towels, essentially, you’d make an excellent wife. Sometimes ironically, learning to embroider was empowering for women, even providing the primary means of learning to read and write.
We can’t ignore the world of high-fashion, which in Europe was dominated by men for many years. But these men were looked down upon and not recognized for the beautiful art they created, simply because needlework was a “woman’s art” and not respected for its beauty and its difficulty the way it is today.
Through time, pioneering, often subversively clever women have created art that tells truer stories than we often realized at the time. And today, we celebrate celebrities from Taylor Swift to football player Rosey Grier for their interest and skill with needle and thread.
Should I use embroidery or cross-stitch for a project?
That depends! Really, it’s totally up to you what technique you decide to go with.
Beginners will appreciate cross-stitch because you can follow a guide or a pattern, which will give you a beautiful and precise design every time. There is also only one stitch to learn, with only a few small variations, so you’ll enjoy mastering cross-stitch more quickly than you would the wide, wide world of embroidery.
Experienced crafters enjoy the freedom of embroidery, with its endless stitching techniques and wide array of project possibilities. Embroidery can also be done on any type of fabric, so instead of needing special, woven canvas fabric, you can simply open up your closet and decide what boring blouses need a little more flair.
Here are some commonly asked questions about embroidery and cross-stitch.
What is cross-stitch used for?
Originally, cross-stitch was used to decorate cloth around the house, like tea towels and pillowcases. But today, it’s used for everything from decorative pieces to artwork that hands in a museum.
Why do you need an embroidery hoop?
An embroidery hoop is important to stretch the fabric evenly, allowing you to secure and center your project.
Can I embroider without a hoop?
You can, but it’s a lot harder. If you want a nice, even design, use a hoop or find something else to secure your project.
Can I embroider with my sewing machine?
Absolutely! There are many great guides on how to do this online. Try Youtube for a beginner-friendly intro to machine embroidery.
Embroidery vs cross-stitch – final thoughts
Embroidery and cross-stitch have always been here, and they’ll likely continue to be around for a long, long time. So long as people need clothing and textiles in their houses, skilled crafters will be there to make them beautiful.
Learning to do needlework yourself is a handy skill to have. You’ll be able to put a unique flair on your things if you learn to embroider. You’ll also be participating in a rich, wonderful history.
Right now, cross-stitch is enjoying its time in the sun as a cheeky way to poke fun at traditional ideas of what needlecrafts are. Have a look online at what others are doing with their cross-stitch projects, and let us know if you’ve been inspired to try your hand!