(This article appeared in
CROSS STITCH SAMPLER magazine,
Fall 1993 issue.)
By Eileen J. Bennett, copyrighted in 1993.
Often I have reflected on this admonishment, painstakingly inscribed upon a cross stitched sampler worked by a little girl called Sarah Troup in 1738. Having been a part of the world of embroidery for many years and introduced to various forms of this art, my most enjoyable hours have been spent working little crosses upon an even weave fabric. Yet, through the years I have often been in earshot of remarks such as “Anyone can do cross stitch.” Well . . . maybe that is true, but not everyone does cross stitch well. And do you know the rich history of this so-called insignificant stitch?
We can start by acknowledging Adam and Eve as the first seamsters . . . “And the eyes of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.” The cross stitch was most likely a natural progression of this very basic sewing. A simple diagonal stitch, used to join two pieces of a fiber together, may have been crossed by a second for added strength. The cross stitch, at first purely utilitarian, emerged and eventually became decorative as well.
Many references to embroidery can be found in the Old Testament. Early writers tell of the cross stitch being used in the curtains of the Tabernacle which were decorated with cherubim as instructed by God in the book of Exodus. Envision that early Tabernacle . . . “the tent of meeting.” The Tabernacle, derived from the Hebrew word mishkan which literally means dwelling, was a temporary shelter, perhaps a tent, said to have been constructed by Moses in the wilderness as a place of worship for the Hebrew tribes. Later, it became a portable sanctuary carried by the Jews in their wanderings from Egypt to Palestine, within which God would manifest his presence and communicate his will. Finally, the glorious Jewish Temple was built, a permanent structure decorated (as earlier prescribed) with the cherubim motif on tapestry curtains. Imagine the insignificant cross stitch fulfilling that command!
In the early Hebrew, Egyptian and Phrygian (pronounced Fri-je-in) cultures, many references were made to their richly decorated embroideries in which the cross stitch was much used. At this time, only the borders of garments were worked. Phrygia, an ancient country in central Asia Minor, is said to have originated the art of embroidery. Because of this, embroidery was first called Phrygium or Phrygian work, and an embroiderer was labeled a Phrygio. As the term Phrygium gradually died out, Latin words Brustus, Bradatus and Aurobrus were substituted to indicate embroidery. From these, the English word embroidery is derived.
The shape of the cross itself is historically significant. The embroidered cross stitch is in the shape of a Greek cross or crux quadrata, which has four equal arms at right angles. In this position the Greeks were said to have martyred St. Andrew at Patras in the year 60 AD. Andrew, one of the twelve apostles and brother of Simon Peter, is regarded as the patron saint of Scotland, which has the diagonal cross shape emblazoned on its national flag. Writer Heinz Edgar Kiewe tells us that artwork earlier than the 7th century never shows Jesus being crucified on the familiar elongated, upright cross. Since the time of St. Andrew’s execution, controversy has existed in some church circles over the shape of Christ’s cross.
With the introduction of Christianity into Europe and the founding of religious institutions, the art of embroidery became almost a science. Italy was looked upon as the center of embroidery, and Popes of Rome collected
the most beautiful specimens from all countries. A papal order was issued that costly presents of needlework should be made by the faithful to churches and religious houses.
The most famous of the embroidered church garments came to light in the 19th century. The Syon or Sion cope, a large, cape-like vestment worn by priests, is dated around 1225, from the Great Age of English embroidery. The name Syon comes from the Monastery of Syon near Isleworth in England, built in 1414 for the Bridgetine Nuns by Henry V. Between 1509 to 1547, King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and decreed that churches were no longer allowed to decorate with altar cloths, and priests’ robes were virtually abolished. The cope traveled with the nuns on their journeys through Flanders (now Belgium and northern France), France and Portugal. In 1830, the order of nuns returned to England from Lisbon, Portugal bringing the Syon Cope with them. The border of this magnificent garment has been worked with the humble cross stitch upon a canvas ground.
Through the ages of embroidery, cross stitch has had various names. The term opus pulvinarium was used to denote work upon canvas in cross stitch, chiefly used for kneeling mats and cushions in churches. Thus the term cushion style or cushion stitch came into use. Other names include point de Croix and gros point (French terms for cross stitch), kreuzstich (cross stitch upon thick materials seen in embroidery from Germany, Italy, Hungary, Spain and Morocco), point de croix sans evers (to work both sides alike), and Spanish stitch (to work a cross inside a square).
The cross stitch has played a significant role in peasant embroidery and has often been classified as a peasant industry. Notable examples from the Slavic countries, including Rumania, Bulgaria, Russia, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and parts of Greece (Macedonia) still exist. Life’s major events . . . birthdays, weddings, the holiest of church days, and finally death, would be celebrated by wearing native costumes and decorating the simple home with the finest cross stitched linens in preparation for visiting family and friends.
Heinz Edgar Kiewe reports that the cross stitch designs of Saxon Transylvania are among the most remarkable and beautiful abstract folk embroideries in existence. Unchanged through the centuries, partially because of the inaccessible 6,000-foot-high plateau these Saxons lived upon, their traditional designs still reflect the ancient Holy Land, Hebrew, Catholic, Protestant and Islamic motifs long lost in Western Europe and countries of the Eastern Mediterranean. According to some romantic sources, when cross stitching, the Saxon women held their needles aimed towards their hearts.
It is reported in some Eastern cultures that when a stitched cross is completed, a prayer is said, once again proving the importance of the cross stitch‘s shape. Have you ever crossed your fingers for good luck or witnessed an X being marked with pen and ink as the accepted signature of an unlearned person?
Cross stitch upon canvas, opus pulvinarium or cushion style, had been known to ancient embroiderers and was prevalent during the 13th and following centuries. Its principle stitch, cross stitch, was eventually replaced by the tent stitch (half of a cross stitch) and became known as canvas work (once again considered the correct term for needlepoint). Originally worked on a fine mesh canvas called Mosaic and having a thread count of 21, 29, 34 or 40 threads to the inch, this canvas work was executed with crewels, lambs wools and silk threads. The patterns were drawn directly upon the canvas by artists for wealthier women. We know that in 1526 Peter Quentel printed the first book of embroidery patterns, outlines on a finely ruled grid in black and white, with no suggestion of colors to be used. And as early as 1765 weavers had been working from hand-colored charts on paper. Donald King, in his book Samplers, tells us that in 1795 the earliest printed and hand-colored patterns seem to be those of J. F. Netto, published in Germany. It was a natural transition for cross stitchers to work from a similar type of pattern and by 1810 a Berlin printmaker, Ludwig Wittich, was producing and selling quality charts. In 1840 an estimated 14,000 moderately priced patterns flooded the market, allowing the working classes access to embroidery patterns as well.
Why and how and when did the cross stitch fall from favor? Perhaps embroidery worked during the notorious Berlin Wool Work craze dealt the deadliest blow and much has since been written to discredit the historically rich cross stitch. A bit of understanding concerning this wool work era may give some insight.
The 1820s saw a new range of embroidery wools produced. Marketed as Zephyr or Berlin wools, these thicker wool strands required a larger sized canvas and the now familiar Penelope canvas with 10 meshes to the inch came into common usage. The cross stitch, once a tiny speck of color upon a finely woven canvas, was to become coarse and inartistic when embroidering figured designs.
During this Berlin Wool Work craze, parrots, animals and roses were the popular motifs and bright colors were often carelessly chosen, debasing the reputation of fancy work and becoming an object of scorn for Victorian writers.
Historically, a unit of three horizontal and three vertical threads of a ground fabric were used as a guide for working a cross stitch. This old accepted way is common to 18th century English samplers. Today, two threads of the ground fabric serve as our guide. Thanks to Ginnie Thompson, the Danish method of working cross stitch (working a row of half crosses and completing them on the return), which is technically correct, has been given universal acceptance here in the United States. But do understand that this method has only been acceptable in embroidery circles in recent years. Mary Thomas, the much-respected embroidery author, writes in her 1936 Embroidery Book, “Each cross is completed before the next is commenced. This method produces the most even effect and is considered by expert workers to be the better.” Perhaps Mary was echoing similar words written in Samplers And Stitches, by Mrs. Archibald Christie in 1920. “For filling in a solid ground, sometimes the first half of the stitch is worked entirely along a line and the crossing over done upon a return journey. This, though a quicker way is not quite so good in effect as when each stitch is completed before another is started.”
A close look at unframed sampler collections housed in museums will confirm that completing each cross stitch individually was the accepted method. Maybe one out of a group of 100 antique samplers (a generous estimate) will be stitched the Danish way. A further study of the old pieces under magnification will show the ravages of time . . . severed surface stitches, ground fabric rotted into irreparable holes. But the old sampler is still intact, held together from the back side by the extra thread produced by crossing each stitch as the industrious worker embroidered.
The insignificant cross stitch was to remain the favored stitch in sampler designs through a 400-year history. Long documented by the many examples existing in museums and private collections, lately numerous articles and informative books have been written on this fascinating subject. Perhaps a personal fondness for this stitch . . . a deafness to its critics . . . and the rich history of the cross stitch lived within the heart of little Sarah Troup when she chose to embroider “Let none despise the criss cross row.”