Needlepoint vs Cross Stitch: What is the Difference?

When considering artistic styles of thread and fiber creation, people often combine needlepoint and cross stitch into the same category. However, needlepoint and cross stitch are not, technically speaking, the same, as masters of the art will tell you. Needlepoint refers to any design sewn onto canvas with a needle using repetitive stitches, while cross stitch is a singular type of needlepoint stitch. Needlepoint stitches encompass more than just the recognizable X stitch of cross stitch, but modern companies have appropriated the term to be synonymous with just cross stitch.

The History of Needlepoint and Cross Stitch

Needlepoint has existed as long as there was something to sew something else to. Howard Carter, who is famous for his discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb, discovered a piece of fabric with needlepoint dating to 1500 BC. More modern needlepoint was preceeded by simple tent stitches, sewn onto fabric to reinforce it, and was a popular home craft in the 1500s. In the 1600s, Bargello became popular, furthering the use of needlepoint onto household goods and upholstery. Bargello is a row of neat, flat stitches arranged in a motif often reminiscent of a flame point, but can represent stylized flowers or birds. It’s a repetitive and colorful pattern, utilizing sharp curves and edges to create points and diamond shapes in the fabric.Bargello-Needlepoint-Pattern
The difference between other types of embroidery and needlepoint/cross stitch is that while other embroideries serve as an embellishment to the fabric, needlepoint and cross stitch help reinforce and create a secondary fabric within the ground material. They are worked on fabric which has an even grid, with holes forming squares. The fabric is then stitched through the holes, creating a new fabric on top of the grid. For this reason, needlepoint stitches are sturdier and repetitive, to ensure that the fabric is strong.

Needlepoint can also be known as “tapestry”, although tapestry more frequently is known for being a woven fabric with design incorporated into the weave. When needle point is worked into a fine canvas and tent stitch is used, it is called “petit point”.

The first type of fabric specifically designed for cross stitch was created by a German company named Zweitgart in 1890. It’s an evenweave fabric called Aida. Evenweave fabric holds the same number of threads vertically and horizontally in a square inch, making symmetrical stitching easier. Aida was constructed specifically for stitching with small holes at regular intervals within the fabric.

Cross stitching and needlepoint were utilized to reinforce home goods, and as a teaching tool for young women. Women, while learning skills such as stitching and mending, also learned letters and numbers. More modern needlepoint and cross stitch themes are complex thread painting, feminism themed patterns, and simple minimalist embroidery for home decor.

Types of Stitches

In modern needlepoint kits, the tent stitch is most commonly encouraged, although historically, many variants were used.


Bargello is one type of patterned stitch, but many others, such as brick stitch, Gobelin stitch, mosaic stitch, and Smyrna stitch diversified the simple tent stitch into brilliant patterns and textures.
Cross stitch is a type of needlepoint stitch. It lost popularity in the 16th century, but regained favor in the mid 19th century. Unlike the tent stitch, which has diagonal stitches laid side by side, cross stitch creates an X over the fabric of color. These Xs are used in a tiled or pixelated pattern to create a picture, words, or design.

The stitches are often counted in order to be symmetrical, and to keep the picture aligned, known as counted cross stitch.  Variants of the cross stitch are the basic, half, quarter, double, long-arm, Italian, herringbone, tacked herringbone, and others. The common link between the stitches is that within the completion of the stitch, the threads cross to form an X, or in the case of half and quarter – part of an X.

Types of Fabric

Fabrics used in Needlepoint and cross stitch fall into the category of even weave, which allows for very symmetrical and repetitive stitching. In contrast, embroidery is used on all types of fabric, even stretchy jersey. Early needlepoint was worked on canvas style fabric, and current artists use linen, Aida, or jobelan. Jobelan was created for modern cross stitchers, and is a blend of cotton and modal. It is only manufactured in the US by Wichelt.


Fabric is categorized by how many threads are present per inch. This is referred to as “count”, and usually range from 11 to 40. Smaller counts mean larger holes and easier to see stitches. Larger counts are for more complex and fine stitching. Counted cross stitch uses any count fabric, but the size of the piece is determined by the count of the stitch. Some stitches will use a “2 over 2” method, where the embroidery threads are stitched over two fabric threads, or a “1 over 1” method, which stitches over one fabric thread. A finished piece will be half the size if the stitches counts on and uses a 28 count fabric rather than a 14 count fabric.

Patterns can be painted onto the fabric, by hand or commercially, or a paper pattern counted by using the stitches and squares on the fabric can be used. Artists either stitch blocks of color at a time, or stitch across a line of the counted stitches, parking the different color threads at their stopping points on the line, to be picked up as it is worked back across the fabric. Other artists free-form, and simply stitch as they go, without pattern or form.italian-cross-stitch

Finished Product Differences

While cross stitching and needlepoint are often interchangeably used as descriptions for embellished and reinforced fabrics, the finished products can be very different. Cross stitch will always have a tiled or pixelated look to the completed project, while needlepoint can vary from intricate pictures and scenes to large blocks of color in geometric patterns. Despite their differences, artists in needlepoint and cross stitch create beautiful and unique works of art that are also strong and functional. Modern artists are attempting to bring the fiber arts out of the arena of the “crafty” homemaker, and into the fine art community, and cross stitch painting has grown in popularity over the last decade.

Two Methods of Painting with Thread

These are just two of the many methods around the world of embellishing with thread. Have you attempted needlepoint or cross stitch? What is your experience with how these are described? Did you learn anything new? Let me know in the comments below, and I’d love to talk more about it with you!basketweave-needlepoint

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