Pixel-craft: The Modern Art of Cross-stitch

Let me say right off the bat, I am not the craftiest person on this earth. I did crafts as a kid, like most girls of my generation, but mostly aged out of it and took an interest in other hobbies. However, parenthood posed a new challenge in terms of hobbies, as most of the activities I enjoyed involved coordinating with others and being out of the house in the evening, things that are frequently impossible for parents of young children. My evenings were occupied with a lot of TV and reading, which I enjoyed, but they weren’t quite enough to fulfill that creative urge. So, I turned back to a solo crafting effort I used to enjoy: cross-stitch. 

Triforce cross-stitch pattern

Triforce cross-stitch pattern

If you think about it, cross-stitch is the perfect craft for the modern geek. Every digital image in existence is composed of pixels and what better way to recreate those images than a form of embroidery that uses a series of uniformly-sized X stitches to form a pattern? I have to say a LOT has changed in the cross-stitch world since I was a kid. For one thing, it used to be that when you purchased a cross-stitch “kit,” it came with a paper pattern you used to follow along, crossing rows or squares off in pencil as you went along. Now? All PDF all day, baby. Having a PDF cross-stitch pattern open on my tablet and using the draw feature to cross off rows is So. Much. Easier. I love technology. For another thing, all the patterns you could find before were lighthouses or teddy bears or flowers. Cute, but real “grandma” type of stuff. These days, the geeks have inherited the Earth and there are cross-stitch patterns available for every fandom, from Harry Potter to superheroes to SuperWhoLock. And, while Pinterest can sometimes be nothing more than an endless supply of “Things To Look At That I Will Never Actually Do”, if you have a specific pattern or theme in mind, generally you can find exactly what you’re looking for. Feel free to follow my ridiculous cross-stitch board for ideas and patterns.

Back in the day, this is what you had to work with.

Back in the day, this is what you had to work with.

Occasionally, if you are just that picky, you have an image you’d love to stitch, but no pattern exists for it (yet). Maybe it’s something you designed yourself, maybe it’s a photo, maybe it’s the fruit of a google image search.* In this case, there are free programs you can use to convert a digital image into a cross-stitch pattern. Using myphotostitch.com you can customize the size of the pattern and the number of colors you want to use (using a standard DMC embroidery floss color palette). Pic2pat.com only asks you to set the number of stitches per inch, the image size, and the floss brand. From there, it auto-generates multiple versions of the pattern for you to choose from, so you can see what they all look like and choose the pattern that works best for you. With both of these programs, the greater the number of colors, the more detailed the image, but also the more complex the stitchery. This works best for an image that fills the frame, as the programs colors to every part of the image. If used for a design that has, for example, a design on a white background, the program will include the background as part of the image, supplying shades of DMC colors for the background. Of course, you don’t have to stitch these parts (and in fact you’re much better off choosing aida cloth in a color that matches the background of your image), but it can make looking at the pattern confusing. Another option is to use a digital image editing program to cut away the background, but if you have the capability to do that, you might prefer to go with the next option.

If you have the software and the know-how, you can always make the pattern yourself. The internet is rife with tutorials on how to do so in a number of different ways. This one provides instruction on how to use Photoshop to accomplish your pattern. This works best for converting well-known images, like the one shown, a screenshot of a video game. Here, you can learn how to make your pattern by hand, old school style. I’d suggest this method for very simple designs and might make a great project for a geeky young crafter who’s just learning.

Harry Potter's Marauder's Map  in cross-stitch

Harry Potter's Marauder's Map  in cross-stitch

Sometimes, none of these options will work for the image you want to convert. That’s where I come in. I’m here to show you the simplest way I’ve found to DIY a cross-stitch pattern with minimal skills for maximum impact. 

  • Run your image through a one of the pattern creators mentioned above to get a pixelated representation of your image that you are happy with. Print this version.
  • Create a spreadsheet and set the row height and column width to be the same for the area your design will fill. I used MS Excel and set both to 2.00 pixels.
  • Using your printout as a guide, replicate the silhouette of the design in the spreadsheet using a single character (e.g. X). Don’t worry if parts of the design overlap, just get the outline and fill it in for now, so you know where there will and won’t be stitches.
  • Identify what colors you want to use and assign a different character to each. You can either distinguish by color (e.g. R for red, B for blue, etc.) or part of the design (e.g. S for shirt, P for pants, etc.). 
    • This part is the most tedious.
    • Play with the placement of stitches, use the pixelated printout as a guide only.
    • Zoom out to see how your design will look.
    • You may want to scale back the number of colors. In the design I did, I had about 4 different colors for the character’s hair, I only wanted to use one. 
  • Using the pixelated printout, assign its suggested DMC floss colors to each character in your design. 
  • Stitch your little heart out!
Using Photoshop to create a cross-stitch pattern

Using Photoshop to create a cross-stitch pattern

This method is most recommended for spreadsheet geeks, those of us for whom the making of the pattern is just as much fun as making the cross-stitch itself. Whatever method you choose, I hope you’ll have fun creating your own patterns and making fun geeky crafts. I’d love to see your projects, so please do share!

*NOTE: If you are using someone else’s design to make your cross-stitch pattern, ALWAYS ASK PERMISSION. If you’re lucky, the image’s designer may be like-minded enough to want to create the pattern themselves and share it. If not, hopefully they’ll at least be agreeable to allowing you to play with their design. But appropriating someone else’s art, even to recreate it in a new medium, without their permission? Not cool.