How many times did you spend hours online looking for your next cross-stitching project’s pattern and never finding one that was good enough? How many times did you wish you could stitch the exact image you have in mind? As someone who could barely draw and zero color coordination skills, I really envied designers on their abilities to create patterns with the right colors. How can one be a pattern designer?
With the increasing availability of online tools, it is easy for us to upload an image and get the corresponding pattern. The problem is these tools are not always 100% efficient for all types of photos and images. We can’t ignore the human element in design.
This is why I decided to interview Katherine, a pattern designer and find out more about her design process. Katherine owns Better Cross Stitch Patterns and offers a wide selection of free patterns as well as tutorials and tips.
Hello Katherine! Thank you for agreeing to do this interview! Can you first tell us a bit about yourself? How long have you been cross-stitching for? How did you learn?
I was really fortunate to have grown up in a home where making things with your hands was not only encouraged but expected. Running out of supplies jut meant a trip to the next room instead of the store! If you were old enough to hold a crochet hook or knitting needle in your hand, then you were old enough to learn how to use it.
I was most drawn to sewing, crocheting and embroidery, and blessed to have inherited my paternal grandmother’s artistic gift. There’s just no substitute for learning a craft from an experienced person. They teach you all the tips and tricks gleaned from years of crafting and that were passed on from their own aunt, or mom or grandmother. That meant decades of experience!
With families spread across the country, I fear that the tradition of passing down these skills is slowly disappearing. Fortunately, the internet gives us the opportunity to fill that gap. I applaud every person who takes time out of their busy lives to explain a skill or answer a question or solve a problem.
Between your personal life, your website and your pattern designs, how often do you get to cross-stitch?
If my life is the normal amount of crazy, I’m able to cross stitch weekly. I’m currently focusing on making my website more mobile-friendly, so I have a mouse in my hand more frequently than a needle. I work on it several days a week, answering emails, creating tutorials, creating new cross stitch designs.
The challenge is that technology has made it possible to generate patterns with little human intervention. So for those of us who stitch every pattern before publishing, it takes us longer to be able to offer a large selection of cross stitch patterns to the public.
So you always stitch your own patterns before uploading them? Why is that?
I do everything I can to select the right colors during the design stage: I use my Color Card, I have floss bobbins scattered in groups on my desk… Despite all that, I often end up having to make color changes while stitching. I might find that perhaps there is not enough contrast between two colors, or that certain colors are too subtle or bold. I might not like how two colors look when stitched side by side.
Colors look different on fabric than they do on a computer screen. Even the screen on my laptop displays colors differently than the one on my desktop. Sometimes, you may find that a square needs a full cross stitch when a partial stitch on screen looked good. You may also sometimes realize that two elements needed further spacing when stitched with floss on fabric. I wouldn’t know any of these things if I hadn’t stitched the design myself first.
When we buy patterns in the store, or stitch designs from a publication, we can tell from the photo that the design has been stitched. So we have come to expect that all patterns are stitched before publication. The problem with online patterns is that not all websites do that. You may not have known that the question needed asking. Sadly in that case, the unsuspecting stitcher may end up with an inferior piece. With time, work and emotion wasted, that person might end up frustrated and decide never to stitch again.
How long have you been designing patterns for? Do you have a background in design?
I have been designing counted cross stitch patterns for nine years. I am a graphite pencil artist specializing in photorealism, and in my corporate days, I worked with a team to create collateral materials and marketing.
However, I don’t think you really need to have an “artistic” background to design cross stitch patterns. The first time you just can’t find that perfect cross stitch pattern you have in mind, when you find yourself repeatedly saying, “This would be perfect, except . . .” or “I’d love this design, if only . . .”, that’s when the seeds are sown for creating a cross stitch design of your own.
Do you draw your designs by hand or do you use software to help you out?
I use a program called PCStitch. I rarely design anything on paper anymore. When I have a design idea in mind, I go straight to the computer. It’s easy to flesh out the details in the program.
PCStitch opens to a blank grid, where I can choose fabric count, floss colors and stitch type. I usually design with 14-count fabric in mind. If I make a design that only works when stitched on 18 count fabric or higher, stitchers with eyesight difficulties will be unable to stitch it.
For alphabets, I work square by square. But for any other design, I first use my mouse or graphic pen like a pencil and draw in more sweeping motions, filling multiple squares at a time.
How about when you want to convert photographs to patterns?
As I mentioned above, even if I just have a concept, it’s easy enough to work that into a cross stitch design on the screen. However, that is different than converting a picture.
There are two ways of converting an image into a pattern.
1) You can bring in a picture underlying the design grid. This allows you to then add the stitches in place over the top of that image. Unfortunately, the placing of that image may not align with the squares. For example if the design contains straight lines, they may end up straddling two rows of stitches.
2) You can import a picture using software and it will convert that picture into squares and colors. There are a number of settings you have to make: percentage of palette devoted to foreground colors, whether or not to smooth colors, brightness, contrast, saturation, hue, gamma correct, maximum number of floss colors to use, etc… Changing any of these settings will affect the resulting pattern.
I’ve found that colors in nature don’t always look the same when converted to the nearest floss color. A white lily ends up with some soft lavender, which is quite pretty, but also several browns and brown-grays, can are not as flattering. I have to admit I don’t know how long it would take me to work with that picture to be satisfied with the results.
I once imported a head and shoulders shot taken of me and had to set the size to 15×17 to make out the shape of my eyes. It used 83 floss colors, with some of them only used for a single stitch. Some areas of my face had a very dark color selected! I would be horrified if anybody stitched this!
Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of PCStitch and I don’t think they mislead anyone. Keep in mind that importing a photograph, expecting a finished pattern without significant human intervention is optimistic, at best.
That’s all for the first part of this interview! Stay tuned for part 2 where we discuss the process of designing cross-stitch patterns and charts. In the meantime, don’t forget to visit and check out Katherine’s website Better Cross Stitch Patterns and her collection of free downloadable patterns!
UPDATE: Part 2 is out!