The first person to realize that the tiny holes in a fabric’s weave were the perfect guide for stitching precise little Xs might have trouble recognizing what is now known as counted cross-stitch.
The ancient art with roots in sixth-century China has taken over the internet with devotees making weekly and even daily YouTube videos, dubbed FlossTube, filling Instagram with hashtags and setting off a frenzy not usually seen in the domestic arts.
It’s a phenomenon even its most ardent supporters have trouble explaining.
Cross-stitch’s last resurgence was in the 1990s. But when its popularity faded once more, brick-and-mortar stores closed, box stores stopped carrying the necessities, and die-hard fans were left to stitch alone.
Enter the pandemic.
“Last year has been big,” says San Leandro cross-stitcher Olivia Basegio. “Really big.”
People were at home without anything to do, Basegio says, so they started watching FlossTube — and then they started stitching and shopping. “The more people saw on FlossTube, the more they wanted to do.”
Basegio, an executive assistant for a solar panel company, has a FlossTube channel called Olivia B. She says social media has united cross-stitchers in ways no one imagined could happen.
Hobby loyalists had been working for years to keep the craft alive, reaching out with videos where they diligently showed their progress and breathlessly displayed the works of new designers, new fabrics and new floss. At first, there were several dozen FlossTubes with a few hundred followers each.
The pandemic changed that. By the time the lockdown was hitting its stride, the number of FlossTube channels had increased into the hundreds, attracting thousands of subscribers.
Basegio started her FlossTube channel about five years ago. She had stitched her first project — a “Silence of the Lambs” sampler for her sister’s boyfriend — and was immediately hooked. When she stumbled across FlossTube, she became fascinated by the videos, which share not only projects and new patterns but personal stories as well.
“My friends like what I do, but they don’t really get it. They don’t stitch, and they don’t have that connection,” Basegio says. “They don’t know the lingo. On FlossTube, I’ve found other people I can talk to for hours about cross-stitch.”
Abby Johns, a Berkeley FlossTuber who has her own online store selling accessories and patterns, including some of her own design, uses the moniker TopKnot Stitcher. She’s a returning stitcher having learned the art as a youngster, taught by her mother and grandmother.
In those days, she says, cross-stitching seemed to be all about teddy bears and fairies. But cruising the shops on Etsy, she found patterns for Harry Potter designs and sarcastic quotes to stitch.
“I thought, ‘Yay! Cross-stitch for young people,’” Johns says.
Not having stitched in years and having no one to ask, she did what many of us do these days when looking for direction. She searched YouTube for a “how-to.” Putting “cross stitch” into YouTube’s search engine began turning up dozens of FlossTube videos, rich in helpful tips and mysterious lingo — from WIP parades to dough bowls, smalls and floss tosses. Don’t get us started on the frogging.
“I was like, ‘What is this? Why are they speaking a different language, and why are they all an hour long?’” Johns recalls.
She quickly learned why and, tired of having to explain her cross-stitch passion to non-stitchers, started her own FlossTube channel.
FlossTube and social media have expanded the breadth of cross-stitch, introducing new designers to the cross-stitch world. Where once stitchers were mostly limited to 14-count Aida cloth, something Basegio refers to as the “James Patterson of cross stitch,” the palette is now wide open with hand-dyed fabrics and flosses.
The trend also has encouraged some unique behaviors among the stitchers. Most aren’t content to work on one project from start to finish before beginning another. Instead, they start new ones at will, and boy do they have a lot of will.
Johns estimates she has 50 projects in progress, and half stemmed from the scores of challenges on social media — in this case, a “mania” event that asked stitchers to start a new project every day for the entire month.
“If someone can think of a challenge,” Johns says, “and one other person says that’s a good idea, it takes off.”
There was an Olympics challenge, played on a Bingo-like board, and a Tour de France challenge, which had fans adding stitches inspired by the distance cyclists traveled each leg — 198 stitches for the first, hilly stage, for example. There’s Sampler September, Arbitrary August, May-nia and so many others.
“I think that’s how people were dealing with the pandemic,” Basegio says, “starting new projects.”
Basegio was juggling an overwhelming 40 at the height of the lockdown but has since narrowed her focus to just four projects. Some people have projects they’ve been working on off-and-on for 15 or 20 years. There’s variety in being able to start something new or pick up an old favorite, Johns says.
But the heart of it all — beyond the challenges, the patterns and the thread — is the human connection, they say. They’re passionate about the stitch and overjoyed to connect with people who share that.