Cross stitch is dated back to the 6th or 7th century as a form of embroidery with counted threads. It was originally used to decorate household items like napkins, tablecloths and even cushions, often with floral or geometric patterns. Most early pieces were worked in black and red cotton floss on a simple linen fabric, giving a quite distinctive look much prized by collectors and enthusiasts seeking a traditional look today. Designs have even been found in Coptic tombs in Egypt, preserved almost perfectly thanks to the dry climate in the desert regions.
The first wife of Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, famously brought a sewing technique called blackwork from her native Spain over to England. Blackwork is now thought to have heavily influenced the development of embroidery into modern cross stitch. In fact Catherine used to stitch embroidery into the King’s shirts herself, causing quite a sensation in her own time.
Most historical pieces are preserved in the form of samplers, often in the form of a prayer, psalm or other popular motto or saying. In 1797 many children from an orphanage near Calcutta in Bengal were given the unusual task of rendering the longest chapter in the Bible, the 19th Psalm, in cross stitch form.
Many sewing pattern books were highly popular in Europe and America during the 17th century and often featured a range of samplers as examples and inspirations. Patterns were usually printed as black squares or dots on the page, leaving the choice of colours to the person doing the embroidery – very sensible at a time when brightly coloured yarns were extremely expensive and so many poorer needlecrafters had to dye their own thread with whatever materials they had to hand!
The earliest surviving sampler with a date on it was stitched by an English girl named Jane Bostocke in 1598. The nature of her style and motifs has prompted many historians to believe that she had access to an early version of a pattern book. Jane’s sampler contains both floral and animal patterns as well as a complete English alphabet.
Modern cross stitch is often considered separate from embroidery. Generally it is now considered to be done almost exclusively with cross stitch kits, which contain all the fabric, needles and threads needed along with the a detailed pattern and how-to guide. While a few people do still work patterns into cushions or tablecloths, most needlecraft kits are now orientated around producing pictures or elaborate sampler-style projects which can be hung up decoratively. Embroidery is normally used to refer almost exclusively to the kind of sewing done onto another object like a cushion or pair of curtains, which is often done to a less stringent pattern. This allows greater freedom in the design but is also considered far more difficult so is often the sole territory of very skilled needlecraft hobbyists or professional sewing artists.