12 Essential Cross-Stitch Terms That Beginners Should Know

Here's what you need to know in a nutshell.

Before you pick up your embroidery hoop and floss, brush up on some of the most common cross-stitch terms. This helpful cross-stitch guide explains terms such as basting, color key, ply, and overcast stitching. If you've ever been unsure of what a particular term means, this glossary will help shed some light. Ideal for cross-stitch beginners, start here before you begin stitching. If you're familiar with cross-stitching, this guide will help you brush up on your terminology before you start your next craft. Once you're up-to-speed, try tackling a fun cross-stitch project.


Aida Cloth

Aida is the most popular cross-stitch fabric. The threads are woven in groups and are separated by tiny holes. This creates a pattern of squares across the fabric surface that a beginning cross-stitcher can easily follow.


Basting stitches are long, loose stitches that can be easily removed. For example, you can find the center of a cross-stitch chart by basting intersecting lines across the fabric. Or you may need to baste layers of fabric together to secure them before sewing them by machine.

Chart (Graph)

In counted cross-stitch (as opposed to stamped cross-stitch), the pattern is printed on a symboled chart. Each symbol represents a color and each square represents the number of threads on the fabric that you should stitch over. To follow a chart, you must carefully count the stitches you make in each color.

Color Key

The color key is the list of symbols and corresponding colors that are found on the chart. Most color keys will show the symbol, then the color number found on the skein of floss, then the name of that color.

Embroidery Hoops

An embroidery hoop, such as this WoodenEmbroidery Hoop (from $2, Michaels), is really two plastic or wooden rings that fit tightly inside each other. To use a hoop, place your fabric over the smaller ring, then push the larger one down on top of it. The fabric can be tightened further by turning a screw or pushing a clamp on the outside of the hoop.

Even-Weave Fabric

Intermediate stitchers may want to try an even-weave fabric once they've mastered stitching on Aida. The even-weave fabric has the same distance between the warp and weft (over and under) threads. The threads are also uniform in size, so your stitches will all be the same size.


Floss is the six-ply cotton thread most often used for cross-stitch. It can be separated into individual strands when needed, is generally sold in 8-yard skeins, is inexpensive, and is available in hundreds of colors.

Needlework Frame

A needlework frame consists of roller bars to which you attach your fabric. Once attached, the fabric can be rolled in opposite directions to tighten. Some, like this Frank Edmunds Sit-on Needlework Frame ($41, Etsy), allow you to work more comfortably while sitting in a chair.

Overcast Stitching

This is a simple whipstitch that prevents the fabric from raveling while you work. It also prevents catching the embroidery floss on the cut edges of the fabric. Simply cover the fabric edges with overcast stitching or whipstitches. Or, the edges can be secured by acid-free masking tape, binding strips, or machine zigzag stitches.


There are six plies of thread in one strand of embroidery floss. Cross-stitch instructions indicate how many plies of floss should be used to complete a project. You should cut a 15- to 18-inch length of floss and separate the six single plies before stitching.

Seam Allowance

The distance between the outside (cut) edge and the stitching line.

Tapestry Needle

This is the recommended needle for cross-stitch and needlepoint. Because the end is blunt and the eye is large, the needle will hold multiple plies of floss or thick yarn and will not catch the threads of the previous stitches as you work. Tapestry needles come in multiple sizes depending on the type of fabric you use and the number of plies (or type of yarn) you need.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles