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.)
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.