It’s a Thing

Unweaving the Whitewashed Legacy of the Cross-Stitch

 Meet the women replacing outdated Colonial imagery
Upper case alphabet and numbers in cross stitch.
Uppercase alphabet and numbers in cross-stitch.Photo: Getty Images

When you close your eyes and think about needle-based crafts—cross-stitch, needlepoint, embroidery, quilts—what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Perhaps it’s one of those patterned, yellow-stained, itchy pillows that your grandmother had scattered throughout her house. Or maybe the image runs deeper, informed by ancestral practices like the quilt making at Gee’s Bend, the small Alabama town famous for a sewing heritage that stems from surviving slavery.

As the grandmillenial aesthetic has taken hold in many of our homes (think decorative ashtrays, mixed floral wallpaper, and antique tea sets erected as living room art), so too has its cloth counterpart. Cross-stitching, a type of sewing, gridded embroidery, or decorative needlework that uses X-shaped stitches to fulfill a patterned stencil, is officially entering a new and improved iteration—one that both subverts traditional patterns and accounts for those who have historically been excluded from the trade. “The misconception is that [cross-stitching] is an all-white artform,” explains Lisa Woolfork, creator of the sewing group Black Women Stitch. Lisa didn’t want her love for what she described as a “a beautifully structured craft practice” to be hindered by the “filters often required of Black people in majority-white spaces”—a sentiment she shares with so many other Black cross-stitchers.

“I was exploring pages [of patterns] when I first started and thought, ‘Gosh, this stuff is just so white,’” says Miasia Osbey of her introduction to cross-stitch. “I remember seeing this elaborate piece of patriotic motifs and knowing I could never stitch that flag, because it’s stained with my ancestors’ blood.”

Miasia adamantly rejects the thought of spending 40-plus hours on a pattern that cropped up in the 1770s on a plantation porch. So, like Lisa, Miasia did what many Black creatives are forced to do in response to whitewashed creative spaces: She made her own version. After purchasing cross-stitch designing software, she started designing patterns for her Black colleagues. With grids that spell out “Black Voters Matter” and X’s that coalesce into a symbol of the Black National Anthem, Miasia is hoping to leave a mark for the family that comes after her. She even parallels her messaging through needlework to that of Underground Railroad quilt codes that communicated direction to her ancestors when escaping slavery. (She quilts those too.)

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For Sara Trail, founder of the Social Justice Sewing Academy (SJSA), infusing cross-stitching with its historical value—which is often excluded from conversations that take place at the local Marshall’s—is equally integral to her practice. As someone who has been sewing since she was four, the utility and pleasure of needlework is not lost on her. But when Trayvon Martin was murdered, Sara began to more explicitly pursue activism by way of her craft. However, when her new work—which literally wove in stories of injustice—was rejected by the same communities that had previously welcomed and promoted her, she doubled down on building her own sewing community.

Members have since come together as part of a campaign called the Remembrance Project to bring awareness to the lives that have been lost due to police brutality or other racialized and sexualized violence. This intergenerational body of cross-stitchers and quilters is actively interrogating our misconceptions of what it means to create with needle and thread (Hint: It’s no longer exclusively about creating butterflies and plants).

“Today is the perfect time to dig into this technique,” Netherlands-based textile artist Kiki Van Eijk says about cross-stitching. “It’s approachable, inexpensive, expressive, emotional—it has so many layers.”

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Cross-stitching and needlepoint are accessible to different income and skill levels—because it’s all about plugging in a pattern based on graphs, straightforward instructions, and low-priced kits. The luxury and privilege aspect of the craft ends up coming from time invested in actually finishing your pattern. But for Mary Smull, that’s part of the fun. The Philadelphia-based art educator was first inspired by unfinished needlepoints she found in her grandmother’s attic. She understood that, as a white woman in the 40s, her grandmother was relegated to this gendered activity as her main form of labor.

With a new affinity for the stories behind abandoned canvas, Mary started buying unfinished needlepoint projects online on eBay and finishing the work with white yarn only. In this way, Mary feels that she’s “freezing the record of that first needlepointer’s work, while simultaneously relieving them—or their loved ones—of the guilt over its unfinished state.” Once again, needle and thread are a means of in-depth emotion and legacy building. “Cloth is totally intimate, personal, and tactile,” Mary goes on to emphasize. “Both its actual material presence in our lives, the way it’s made, and who makes it impact us daily.”

It’s that impact and delicate intention—be it from pattern storytelling or the physical, laborious practice itself—that truly differentiates cross-stitching and needlework from other decor. To catch up to the trend, it’s clear that we have to investigate and absorb its Colonial history and how intersectional identities of gender and race inform its current iteration. From there, it’s plug and play as you please. As Etsy cross-stitcher Rebecca Greco states, “you just need to follow the pattern.”