The conformity of counted cross stitch

(This was written on a ‘bad day’ of mine, a stitch session equivalent to ‘writers’ block’ where I could not seem to place a single stitch correctly in the complicated goldwork piece I was working on. )


Cross stitch in red on 32-ct eavenweave (worked over one hole – finished stitched area 9 x 6cm).

Security through submission to counted cross stitch:

I can’t stitch today. Everything I touch is going wrong, and instead of ‘hibernating’ back in bed, I’ve resorted to something simpler. Counted cross stitch has resurfaced to grace my workspace and replace complex metal-thread cutwork with rows of conforming little crosses. I can’t even remember the last time I did canvaswork of any kind (out of choice, that is).

Having a grid to work through – existing holes predetermining where to place the needle – is the equivalent of putting a large percentage of my creativity in a cage. Although certain decisions remain mine – colour, placement of stitches, etc – compared with the rest of my embroidery practice, counted cross stitch requires far less decisiveness than its ‘freestyle’ equivalent. It’s colour-by-numbers, a relatively simplistic and stylised uniformly-sized stitch, worked to a pre-existing pattern, instead of ‘drawing with the stitch’ as I do when developing my other, more fluid, work.

But there is a strange security here. It’s something similar to being in a literal cage myself (stay with me, it’s not as strange as it might sound). With such heavy restrictions, so little freedom for deviation (and the inevitable sense of faliure if an intended outcome is not as expected), I find a certain freedom. It’s not just the relaxation of the repetition of doing counted cross stitch: it’s knowing that all I can do is follow the squares, up and down, and therefore I cannot let myself down or ‘go wrong’. With creativity now secondary to the craft process, I am no longer ‘in control’ of my artistic potential. With fear of faliure removed, the loss of control my cage represents is comforting.

It is unlikely I will produce a masterpiece ‘painting by numbers’, but then again, I am also safeguarding myself from any ‘major mistake’ that could occur. Should I run free off my lead, with infinite choice of technique, fabric and stitch, the consequences could be as unsatisfying as they could be successful. Yes, I remind myself that every ‘mistake’ can be learned from and built upon, yet in certain frames of mind, something ‘not going right’ can feel nothing short of abject faliure. At such times, constraint and conformity bring comfort. Insane though it may sound, lack of control is liberating. I don’t want the responsibility of having free rein.

(With such a desire for domination, is it any wonder I developed an eating disorder?)

This is a difficult view to express without sounding dismissive, condescending or critical of the many creative potentials of cross stitch. I do not mean to say that it is necessarily an ‘easy’ alternative or that it should not be valued for its own artistic merit. However, the point I raise highlights the differences counted cross stitch holds for me: which, from a psychological perspective, are profound. This is the first time I have addressed and used this realization in my own work. Here, the very nature of the technique itself is absolutely essential to the message I intend to convey: it would only have worked in cross stitch. Although the 32-count eavenweave I have used  (and the resulting minute scale of the cross stitches themselves) still screams of some deep-rooted desire for precision and order.

Psychiatrists, I await your response…


  1. You write beautifully on the simple yet complex issues your work seem to encompass.

    With love,

    M x

    1. Everything is interconnected…. art, obsession, precision, perfection, fear, fetish…. x

  2. I too find counted work like canvas and cross stitch, a holiday for my brain while my fingers get to continue to do their thing.

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