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The Ultimate Guide to Choosing Your First Cross Stitch Pattern

The first step to starting any cross stitch project is a FUN one.
It’s all about picking your pattern.

And like most things, the foundational, first step is actually really important.
Picking the right pattern sets you up for fun + enjoyment, but the wrong one can lead to frustration + negativity.

Of course, as a beginner it’s super easy to feel overwhelmed. There’s literally hundreds of thousands of cross stitch patterns available. And many patterns that say they’re beginner friendly… well, aren’t.


A NOTE ON STAMPED CROSS STITCH:
Many beginners think that stamped cross stitch is going to be easier than counted cross stitch.
It’s a really common misconception that I hear all. the. time.

For MANY reasons, I recommend learning counted cross stitch.
Learn more about why I teach counted cross stitch instead of stamped cross stitch here.

The advice in this post will be about choosing your first COUNTED cross stitch pattern, but the majority of it will still apply if you choose to start with a stamped cross stitch pattern, instead.

Being new to cross stitch, you should have three goals for your first project:
1. Learn the basics
2. Finish the project
3. Decide if you enjoyed it.

If you pick a project that’s too big, it makes finishing it hard.
And if you pick an overly complicated project, it makes learning more difficult.

Generally speaking, if you make something hard or difficult, it becomes less enjoyable. 🤷‍♀️

That’s exactly why choosing the right pattern is so important: it’s how you start your new hobby with a solid foundation. Read on to learn EVERYTHING you need to know about choosing your first cross stitch pattern.

How to Choose Your Cross Stitch Pattern

There are three main things to consider when you’re picking your first cross stitch pattern.

1. Size
2. Complexity
3. Likeability

Simply follow the questions in this decision tree to cover all the important steps:
(Pin this image so you can refer back to it anytime! 😉)

It looks more complicated than it is, because I’ve broken the steps down to their smallest, most specific forms.

A lot of people would’ve just said, “Is it small? Yes or No.”
Or “Does it have 2,000 stitches or less? Yes or No.”

The problem is, as a beginner, you might not know how to answer those questions.
Partly because “small” is simply someone’s opinion. 😅
And because it’s not always easy to know if something has 2,000 stitches or less. There’s often additional steps needed to answer that question.

So, in case you’re not sure how to answer some of these questions, read on for the full explanation.
The reasoning behind the decisions is also included, which is important.
If I’m suggesting you follow these rules, you should at least know why!

If you’re ready to learn to cross stitch with information that’s been created for beginners like you, grab a free copy of the cross stitch roadmap!

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Size

The first – and most important – thing you need to pay attention to is the pattern’s size.

Beginners should start with a small project. Period. No exceptions.
Small projects take less time. That’s just logic. 🤷‍♀️

The thing is, what’s “small” is pretty hard to define – so let’s get specific.

Through years of teaching, I’ve come up with helpful guidelines – and a process – to determine if a pattern is truly beginner friendly.

sizing Step 1: Stitch Count

Beginners should stick to a pattern that’s 2,000 stitches or less.

Stitch count is the most important metric, because it’s the easiest way to estimate how long the project will take you.

Most beginners can do about 25 – 100 cross stitches in an hour.
When you’re sitting down to do your first ever cross stitches, you’ll probably find it pretty slow. But by the end of your first project, you may be creating around 75 – 100 stitches per hour.

Using 75 stitches per hour as an average, a project with 2,000 stitches would take a little over 26 hours. That might seem like a lot, but if you’re stitching an hour or two a night, the project only takes a few weeks.

If you want to finish your project faster, choose a pattern with a smaller stitch count. 👍

Again, stitch count is THE metric I recommend using for determining if the size is ideal for a beginner.

So if the designer lists the stitch count, you’re in luck!
You can actually skip steps 2 through 4, and jump to #5.
(Though there’s lots of great information if you wanna keep reading anyway! 😉)

Most of the time, though, the stitch count isn’t listed, so you’ll need to do some more investigating.

sizing Step 2. Grid Size

If the pattern you’re going all heart-eyes after doesn’t have the stitch count listed, don’t despair!
You can still figure out if it’s beginner friendly. 

The second metric to look for is grid size (it may be called chart size).
Typically grid size is listed with a number for the width and the height. Often this is abbreviated to just a W and an H.

The grid size refers to the entire rectangular area the pattern will take up.
(Yes, grids can be square. Really, squares are just fancy rectangles, anyway. 😂)

Sadly, there’s no uniform way to describe cross stitch patterns, and things can be confusing when reading descriptions. Let’s go through some real examples taken from actual pattern listings.

Occasionally designers may use other terms when referring to Grid Size. Here you’ll see “stitched image,” “stitch count,” and “stitch area” all used to refer to the grid size.

If it’s ONE number (ex: Stitches: 2,348), then it’s probably the actual Stitch Count, but if it’s two numbers (ex: Stitches: 111 x 111), then it’s the Grid Size.

If you know your grid size, you can skip to step #4.
But if you’re curious, keep reading anyway! 😁

sizing Step 3: Dimensions

What we’re looking for here is the count of fabric, and some kind of width and length – most likely in inches or centimeters.

If you can’t find the stitch count, the grid size, OR a dimension (that includes the fabric count), move on to another pattern. The designer isn’t doing a very good job with their listings. 🤦‍♀️

You need to have the fabric count with the dimension, because dimensions change depending on the fabric count. Sometimes, designers drop the ball and don’t provide it. It’s them, not you. (See Example #3 above, though at least they DID provide a grid size).

If the count provided is more than 18, it’s probably not an Aida fabric. (See Example #6 above).
That’s a good clue that the pattern isn’t beginner friendly, and you should move on.

You may see multiple dimensions based on the count, like this:
14 count: 4.3″ x 3.0″
18 count: 3.3″ x 2.3″

You want the dimensions in inches, so convert over if needed.
I repeat, make sure you’re using inches. This math won’t work otherwise!
Yes – even if you normally use the metric system for your everyday life. Join us imperial system users for a few minutes! 😂

It’s because Aida fabric is actually designed using inches.
Aida fabric, as you’ve seen, is designed with a count in mind. Those counts refer to how many squares fit into one linear inch.

If I have a piece of 14-count Aida, and I take out my trusty tape measure, I’ll be able to count exactly 14 squares appearing in 1 inch.

So, keeping with that logic: 11 count Aida has 11 squares in an inch, 16 count has 16 squares per inch, and 18 count has 18 squares.

Those squares on the fabric are where you’ll make your cross stitches.
Each square is the potential home to one cross stitch.

And knowing this information is how we’ll convert dimensions in inches to the grid size.

Take each measurement (width and height, in inches) and multiply by the count of the fabric.
(Don’t be scared, this is easy math!)

For example, if I have a pattern that says: 14 count: 4.3″ x 3.0″
Then I’ll take 4.3” and multiply by 14 to get 60.2 squares.

Thinking logically, I can’t have 0.2 of a square, so it’s probably because of rounding. I’ll write down 60W.

Next I’ll take 3.0” and multiply by 14 to get 42 squares. I’ll write down 42H.

So, that’s my grid size: 60W x 42H.

The math is the same for whichever count you’re using.
We’ll do it one more time with an 18 count example.

Dimensions on 18 count: 3.3″ x 2.3″
3.3” × 18 = 59.4, so we’ll round to 59W.
2.3” × 18 = 41.4, so we’ll round to 41H.

I’ve calculated a grid size of 59W x 41H.

If you’ve caught that those two sets dimensions were supposed to be from the same pattern, and yet we got different grid sizes, good job! 👏

It’s true – when we converted the 18 count, the rounding (either ours now, or the designer’s, or a bit of both) caused us to come up with a size that’s one square less than the actual pattern.

Here’s the good thing – it doesn’t matter!
The most you’ll ever be off by is a square or two, which won’t change the rest of the process at all! 😄

Let’s move onto coverage, so we can finally determine if our pattern is beginner friendly.

sizing Step 4. Coverage

Full coverage means the ENTIRE piece of fabric will be covered with stitches.
If it’s not full coverage, you’ll see background fabric.

Here are some examples of patterns that are (and are not) full coverage:

All patterns from Purple Leaf Designs.
From left: Geometric Pumpkin, Geometric Butterfly (pink), Spiderweb, Stars + Stripes, and Mini Mother Earth

Cross stitches add up fast. One square inch of 14 count fabric has 196 stitches.
(That’s 14 stitches across, by 14 stitches down, so you multiply 14 x 14 = 196).

Clearly, full coverage patterns have REALLY high stitch counts. 😲

Take a look at the pattern you’re interested in and do your best to determine if it’s full coverage or not.

Full Coverage

It’s okay if you’ve picked a full coverage pattern for your first project, just make it a tiny one.

If you’ve selected a full coverage pattern, I recommend it be smaller than 3” x 3” square, or designed to fit into a 3” hoop.

Sticking to the smaller size will help you keep those overall stitch counts lower.

A full coverage pattern means that the entire grid size is stitched.
Multiply the numbers in your grid size together to get the total number of squares in the grid (and in this case, stitches in the pattern).

Example Grid Size: 60W x 42H.
60 × 42 = 2,520 squares total.

The stitch count for this pattern – if full coverage – is 2,520 stitches.

Which is large for a beginner pattern.
Remember, the goal is 2,000 or less stitches.

Not Full Coverage

Most patterns aren’t full coverage, so this is probably where you’re ending up. 😄

What we’re going to do is use the information we got in the sizing above, and estimate the coverage. Then, we’ll estimate the number of stitches in the pattern.

Estimate The Coverage Percent

Take a look at the pattern you’d like to stitch, and estimate how much of the stitched area is covered by stitching, compared to what’s left blank.

We’ll do a few together to demonstrate!

(And to be clear, I don’t expect you to actually go through this process of drawing on images. It’s just to illustrate concepts for the purpose of this post. You can do this in your head and get close enough. 😄 )

All patterns from Purple Leaf Designs.
Geometric Shamrock, Geometric Butterfly (pink), Spiderweb

First, let’s look at the Shamrock pattern in Example #1.

Notice the red box – that’s the grid size.
You always want to mentally draw that box on a pattern when estimating.

Everything inside the grid is fair game, but everything outside is just noise.
Those “noisy” areas are greyed out in example #1, so you can get an idea of where to focus.

Now, that you know where you’re looking, the process is pretty simple.
Analyze the grid size – the area in the red box – and estimate how much of that space is covered by stitching.

There’s a lot of ways you can go about this in your head, and none is more correct than any other.

Sometimes it’s easier to look at the fabric, and estimate how much of that is showing.
If I think I’m seeing 25% of the fabric, then I know the pattern is covering the remaining 75%.

For the Shamrock example, I think I’m seeing a little more than 25% of the fabric, but definitely less than half of it. I’m going to say that I see ⅓, or 33% of the fabric, because it seems close enough.
That means I’m estimating that the pattern covers 66%.

Example #2
Sometimes patterns can be symmetrical, either vertically or horizontally. This can help with estimations.
Looking at Example #2, there’s a black dashed line to show how the butterfly is the same on both sides.

When there’s symmetry like this, I can look at just the left side of the dashed line and make my estimations, and I know it will be true of the whole pattern. I think this pink butterfly is about 60% coverage.

Example #3
Sometimes you need to analyze areas that you DON’T see.
This is especially true of patterns shown in hoops, like Example #3.

Even though the grid size (red box) is really big, it’s clear only a small part is actually stitched. I’d estimate the coverage of the Spiderweb pattern at 20%.

As you can see, this isn’t an exact process.
It’s just an educated guess – do your best with what you’ve been given.
Don’t overthink this step, it’s meant to be an estimation! 👍

Estimate the Stitch Count

Let’s say the pattern you’ve chosen is 60W x 42H, and you’ve estimated that it takes up about 75% of the grid size.

Multiply the numbers in your grid size together to get the total number of squares in the grid.

60 × 42 = 2,520 squares total.

Next, take that number and multiply it by the decimal form of your percentage estimate.
If you don’t know how to get the decimal form, just take your estimate as a number and divide by 100.

For this example, you’ll take 75 ÷ 100 = 0.75
Then you’ll take 2,520 × 0.75 = 1,890 stitches.

That’s it – that’s your stitch count: 1,890 stitches! 👏👏👏

sizing step 5: Putting It All Together

If you ended up with a stitch count over 2,000 stitches, you’ll want to repeat the process with a different (smaller) pattern.

If you’re at 2,000 or less, then keep going to the next criteria!

This whole “figuring out the size” process might seem super complicated, but eventually it’ll become second nature.

Plus, it really helps to understand foundational concepts like the grid size and stitch count, and what they actually mean for you as the cross stitcher.

estimate timing

The final thing you can do with this information is estimate how long it’ll take you to finish a project.
Once you know the number of stitches, you can get an idea for how many hours you’ll need to invest to stitch it.

Just take your stitch count and divide by your stitching speed (in stitches per hour).

Example: My project is 1,890 stitches, and I can do 100 stitches per hour.
1890 ÷ 100 = 18.9

So it’ll take me just under 19 hours.

If you don’t know your stitching speed, and you’re a total beginner, use 50 or 75 stitches per hour.

This math can be super helpful when you want to cross stitch a gift, but aren’t sure if you’ll have the time to complete it before the occasion arrives! 🎁

COMPLEXITY

When you’re new, you want to make sure you’re learning the basics, and not complicating things more than necessary.

Use the following two criteria to see if a pattern is too complex or just right:

Types of Stitches

I highly suggest sticking to full cross stitches only for your first project.

What are full cross stitches?
A full cross stitch is the complete X made in one square.

Some patterns call for fractional cross stitches, like quarter, half or three-quarter stitches.
There’s also decorative stitches like backstitching and French knots.

All are great, pretty stitches that can help a project get very detailed, but don’t belong on your list of “things to learn” with when you’re just starting out.

The more fractional cross stitches, backstitching and French knots a pattern has, the more complicated it is. Which means you’ll need to pay extra close attention to the pattern as you stitch.

It’s easier to learn the foundational stitch – the full cross stitch – first.
You can add the decorative + detailed stitches to your repertoire with future projects! 

Number of Colors

Choose a project with 10 or less different colors of floss.

The reason is pretty much the same as above.
The more colors you have, the more attention needed to avoid counting mistakes, or stitching the wrong color in the wrong place.

You’re also stopping and starting more often, because you have to change out the color on your needle more frequently.

Just keep it simple, and stay around 10 or less colors. 

If you don’t know the number of colors in a pattern (because the listing doesn’t say), do your best to guess based on the pattern image. If you’re off by a few colors, it’s not a huge issue.

Number of colors is the least important factor in this decision making process.

Likeability

This section is my favorite, because it’s really simple.

If your pattern fits ALL the other criteria, then I want you to ask yourself this one, simple question.

…you ready?

DO YOU ACTUALLY LIKE THE PATTERN?

If the answer isn’t a clear Y-E-S, then keep looking for another pattern, my friend!

Because if you’re “eh, it’s okay,” or “yeah, I guess,” about the pattern right now – before you’ve even started the learning process – there isn’t much to keep you motivated to finish it later.

Trust me, you’re not going to fall deeper in love with it when those natural newbie frustrations creep in. You’ll wanna tell that project to pack its bags because the relationship is over. 😂

Project likeability typically looks like this:

Of course, that’s just for fun, but the message behind it holds true:
If you really LOVE a pattern at the beginning, it’s enough to get you through the occasional hiccups that occur when stitching.

And yes, hiccups happen to EVERYONE, not just beginners. We’re all human.
FYI: the 🐸 is cross stitch slang for having to undo stitches to fix a mistake.

If you’re just “meh” on a pattern to start, you’re significantly more likely to put it down and never pick it back up. 🤷‍♀️

Cross stitch is a hobby.
It’s meant to be fun.

Do yourself the biggest favor possible, and make sure you REALLY like what you’re stitching.

why these rules matter

These “rules” (I like to call them suggestions) exist to help beginners set themselves up for success with their first cross stitch projects.

Your first cross stitch pattern should be something you LIKE, and you can actually finish in a reasonable timeframe.
Period. It’s that simple.

Are these rules carved in stone? No.
Are there times when you should maybe bend them a little? Maybe.
Do I recommend them to beginners for a reason? Yes!!! 😂

In the end, you have to do what feels right for you.

Maybe you’re loving a project that’s full cross stitch, with just a few colors, but it’s a bit over 2,000 stitches, and decide that the extra time it’ll take is worth it.

Maybe you found a detailed project with fractional cross stitches and back stitches, but it’s pretty small. You decide that the fact that it’s smaller will offset the time you’ll spend learning the extra stitches.

If you choose to bend these rules, and end up feeling down because things are tricky or taking too long, press pause on that project for a little while.

Pick up a small, easier cross stitch pattern, and finish it.
Then go back and press play on the original project. 😃

Where to find patterns

Now that you know how to pick a cross stitch pattern, you’ll want to know where to look for one!

There’s SO many places to get patterns now.
You can find plenty of freebies online – I actually have a very popular – and totally free – butterfly pattern that you can use to start! 

Free Cross Stitch Pattern from Purple Leaf Designs

But don’t forget that likeability factor.

You’re investing your time and money into this project.
It’s always better to pay for something you love, than stitch something that’s “free, but okay.”

You can buy cross stitch patterns in magazines, books, local cross stitch shops, and online directly from designers or on niche websites. I sell my patterns online – most of which are VERY beginner friendly.

One of the easiest places to find patterns is on Etsy.
Search for “beginner cross stitch pattern” or “[your desired subject] cross stitch pattern” and browse away!

Remember to use the process in this post to analyze the pattern – don’t click “Buy” based on the photos alone.

Learn Cross Stitch The Easy Way - Download Your Free Copy!

Now that you know how to pick your first cross stitch pattern, get the next steps to your cross stitch journey! Download my free Cross Stitch Roadmap. It’s mapped out for beginners just like you, with tons of great tips + advice!

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