Interview with a Pattern Designer
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.
Can you guide us through the step-by-step process you take to design patterns? How would you start?
Step 1: I always start with the outline. If I anticipate that a certain area might be challenging to shape, I do that first. If I cannot create that part of the image with squares or partial squares, in the size that I need it to be, I stop and ask myself: Do I make the design larger, giving me more squares to make smoother angles, or do abandon that design? Because my drawing background is photorealism, I sometimes struggle to make cross stitch designs look real enough for my taste.
Step 2: When I am satisfied with the general outline, I smooth it out with partial stitches.
Step 3: Next I fill in the body of the design. This means adding shadows with darker shades and highlights with lighter ones, like the folds of the gown in my Angel Birth Record.
Sometimes, a particular floss color doesn’t have enough light and dark shades for that part of the design. In that case, I may change the overall color.
Step 4: What I do next is add other elements around the central image, such as borders, decorative lines, maybe words. If the image is part of a series, such as my Christmas ornaments, I add elements that carry the theme from piece to piece.
If the main element is a cool color, I choose cool or neutral colors for the rest of the piece. I try not to mix warm and cool. One of my favorite parts of cross stitching and of creating cross stitch designs is adding the backstitching. This is when elements in the image really pop.
Step 5: One of the most important steps comes next which can be quite time-consuming: adding the symbols to represent each floss color. When doing the steps above, I set the view in the program to show “virtual stitches”. I now switch to show the design as “symbols.” This is what the stitcher sees when cross stitching. Here are a few things I keep in mind when choosing symbols:
- I make certain that each symbol is clearly different from every other symbol, especially those that are adjacent to one another.
- If there are partial stitches used in a floss color, that means the symbol will be half the size it is normally. In those cases, I cannot choose a symbol that is too delicate to see. I have to choose a symbol that fits in the corner of that square but that it is still clear to see.
- Whenever I can, I try to use symbols that make sense. For example, if I’m using three shades of purple, I might assign L, M, D for Light, Medium and Dark. When I use Cranberry 601, 602, 603, I may use 1, 2 and 3 for their symbols.
- I use different colors to help identify the floss, and don’t repeat that color on adjacent symbols.
- If the chart itself spans more than one page, I make adjustments so that the overlapping sections land in the most “convenient” and easily visible areas
I know I’m going to stitch the design, so I will have practical knowledge about whether the chart is easy to read. Cross stitching should be fun and relaxing. If the chart is difficult to read, the stitcher may abandon it in frustration.
Step 6: Once I’ve stitched the design, I edit the pattern for any changes that I made during stitching and create the pattern instructions. Good instructions tell you everything you need to have and everything you need to know in order to complete that specific design.
If one wanted to design a pattern, what supplies would they need?
Counted cross stitch can be amazingly simple and beautifully complex all at the same time. Before there were cross stitch design programs, people used graph paper and colored pencils. That still works today. When I started, there weren’t many software programs available. I used to draw a grid in Paint and use the little paint bucket tool to fill those squares with color. The fact that every person has the same squares, the same colors and the same stitches to work with makes it a pretty level playing field. You can get a Cross stitch design software for under $50, and it’s quite intuitive and user friendly. That doesn’t take long to pay for itself if you’re frustrated with not being able to find the designs you want.
If you are going to design cross stitch, or even if you find yourself changing colors on an existing chart, a DMC Color Card is invaluable.
You have to read the product description carefully, though, because many of those available have the floss colors printed. The one I recommend you invest in is the DMC Color Card containing the actual floss threads.
Another good investment is an OttLite or other lamp that simulates daylight. Colors look differently under a standard lamp than they do under these lights. I’ve actually found two different colors wound on the same bobbin, because I was using a regular lamp when I did it. Besides being easier on your eyes, it actually makes that much of a difference when viewing colors.
How do you choose the right colors?
I believe people choose colors that they are drawn to. I personally try to group cools with cools and neutrals; warms with warms and neutral. A cool color has blue undertones, while warms have yellow undertones. Neutrals have no identifiable undertone and go with everything.
I personally like cool colors and tend to choose rich, deep, bold colors over pastels. But everybody has their own preferences. When you look at a design, don’t discard it just because you don’t like the colors. That’s something you can change!
What is the difference between patterns you design and ones we find online that are purely designed by software?
Besides the challenges I talked about earlier when converting pictures to patterns, I could imagine that some styles of artwork, such as watercolors with indistinct lines or impressionist paintings, and certain subjects, like animals with blurred or fuzzy lines instead of humans with distinct, fine lines, might result in a better outcome.
Some websites focus on patterns generated from another person’s artwork. Because of technology, these sites can scan and produce cross stitch charts much more quickly than a designer who designs the original graphic image, creates the pattern and then stitches the piece before publishing.
That doesn’t mean that you have to avoid patterns you suspect were created in this fashion. Take note of the list below and don’t be afraid to ask the pattern designer questions. Do this before you get emotionally (and monetarily) invested in stitching the piece.
1) Calculate the finished size on the fabric count you plan to use.
Many generated charts are larger to accommodate the additional stitches needed to replicate the details in the image successfully.
2) Find out how many pages the chart itself needs.
Multiple overlapping pages can add another layer of difficulty. Most of us have worked with 2 to 6 pages, but I was stunned to see patterns where the chart alone spans 35 pages for an 18″ x 18″ finished size.
3) If it is a multi-page pattern, make sure you can count easily from page to page.
Designers typically use two repeating, shaded rows or columns to help the stitcher keep track of areas that span over pages. Can you keep track of your stitching without this feature? Can you find a practical way to stitch a chart that spans two- to three- dozen pages?
4) See if each page of the chart also displays the floss legend.
Your stitching will be slower if your floss legend isn’t available on every page of the chart.
5) Examine the floss legend for symbol clarity.
Make sure that one symbol cannot be confused with another. We’ve all experienced it — is it the letter “O” or is the number zero “0”? To the computer, these are two different characters, but to the human eye, they can look identical. Watch for near-duplicates of these shapes O X o l I + .
6) Are there instructions to accompany the pattern beyond the floss legend?
Good instructions should tell you what you need to have and what you need to know in order to complete the chart successfully.
7) Always, always ask, if it isn’t obvious, “Have you stitched this cross stitch chart?”
If the answer is “No,” then understand that you may encounter issues that result in the finished piece looking differently than the picture provided.
Most of us don’t want to be surprised in the middle of stitching a chart. If you proceed with stitching a computer-generated chart, at least you’ve done due diligence. Don’t ever be afraid of asking as many questions as it takes to make you feel confident about the chart you hope to stitch.
Lastly, when you’re online, you should expect the same level of service, quality and integrity that you do from a brick and mortar store. Ask yourself:
1) Do I feel comfortable talking to the owner and asking questions?
2) Can I tell their level of expertise by the content of the website?
3) Do they know their products, and do they actually use them?
4) Are they helpful? Do they strive to make the information accurate and easy to understand?
5) Are you finding it difficult to trust what they’re offering? Do they promote their site by offering one thing, but delivering something else?
If you can’t answer “yes” to these questions, do what you’d do in the real world–shop with your feet, or in this case, with your keyboard. With a little bit of searching you will find a website that meets, and even exceeds, your expectations. When you do, reward it by sending others there. If enough people do that, it will improve the quality of websites across the internet.
Thank you Katherine for your time and for all the information you provided us with! This will definitely come in handy for a lot of us who can’t find the perfect design we have in mind!
Don’t forget to check out Katherine’s website Better Cross Stitch Patterns for a large collection of beautiful (and free!) pattern designs.