Cross Stitching in the 90s (before the internet)

A Personal Reflection

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Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

When did you start cross stitching? For me it was around 1994, when I was in my early 20s and living in Narrandera in the NSW Riverina. That’s in Australia BTW.

Back then, getting a pattern was almost as involved as doing the actual stitching — especially if you lived in a place like Narrandera which was quite isolated and didn’t have a lot of shops.

Luckily most country towns had a small craft store that sold embroidery thread, a limited range of fabrics, and haberdashery (aka notions) like needles, hoops, buttons, zippers, thimbles and scissors. If you lived in a slightly bigger town, they might also stock some Aida cloth and a few cross stitch kits. All at premium prices of course.

Cross stitch projects seemed limited to cute animals, flowers, angels and bible stories, home and garden subjects, alphabet samplers, and Christmas decorations. Of course these are all wonderful to stitch but you rarely saw a fine art replica or a great big full coverage piece. I guess this was because every cross stitch pattern was sold in hard-copy and printing was (and still is) expensive.

In the 90s, unless you designed your own charts with grid paper, there were really just four ways for home stitchers to get patterns: hard-cover books, pattern booklets, magazines, and cross stitch kits. I’ll unpack the challenges of acquiring each of these items in the next few paragraphs, plus include a few pics from the era.

1. Hard-covered Books

My very first cross stitch projects were from a hard-covered book — the incredibly beautiful Allura’s Australia in Cross-Stitch by Jan Skinner. I stitched quite a few of the small heritage houses to get started, but my first large project was the Advance Australia Fair (national anthem with wildflowers) piece (photos below).

I can still remember taking the book to the cross stitch store and buying Anchor threads and Aida cloth. Like many small towns they were missing several colours and I had to wait for them to be ordered in. I got started on this project and then it sat around for ages untouched, until I broke my leg. During the 6 weeks I was bed-ridden in plaster I finished it, and my addiction was complete.

Eventually, I had the piece framed and it still hangs in the spare room at my mother’s house. I guess one day it will come back to me and find a place in my home in the Philippines. Though I’ll have to design a similar project Lupang Hinirang (Philippine National Anthem) to hang along side.

Note: even though I’m Australian I live most of the year the Philippines with my adopted son Jerry, but that’s for another post.

Cross stitch books were not that easy to come by in small towns, and I purchased the book featured above from a travelling salesman who stopped by the flour mill where I worked. You can read more about that story in my earlier blog: 5 Steps to Choosing Your First Cross Stitch.

Now before I proceed, please note, this next section is NOT a merciless criticism of cross stitch books, from the 90s or any other time. There are thousands and thousands of wonderful craft books out there, but they do have their limitations.

And that is space.

Printing is expensive, which forces many designers to condense their printed patterns into an area that’s way too small for the human cross stitcher’s eye. The photos (below) from three different 90s pattern books illustrate this point, though the books are very lovely.

Above left: the finished piece has been photographed alongside a colour key, but you’ll have to work out which colour goes where. That is, if you have the patience to stitch from a completed tapestry.

Above centre: in this pattern you’ll need graph paper to enlarge and recreate that rooster yourself, then fill in with cross stitches (following the thread key on another page.) I never got round to it.

Above right: this book at least displays the gridded pattern, but only a fragment of the repeating design. I must say over the years I have charted a few antique patterns like this, and very often there is a mistake in the repeater that needs a lot of adjustment on fabric.

Stitchers of the 90s relied heavily on cross stitch pattern books and they were (and are) a very economical way to cross stitch. I still have more than a few in my library, though (sadly) my Allura’s Australia has long since disappeared.

2. Pattern Booklets

Another type of cross stitch pattern popular in the 90s was the pattern booklet. A single pattern printed into a stapled (or folded) brochure, it looked a bit like sheet music. Quite possibly many of these were left-over booklets from kits that never sold and were broken up and sold off in pieces.

Pattern booklets were cheaper than buying a whole hard-cover book or magazine, but over time worked out to be quite expensive. One of the good things about the booklets, was they spread the pattern over a larger space than hard-cover books and were better for full coverage projects.

printed cross stitch pattern in booklet form

I’m sure I’ll actually finish the project contained in this cross stitch pattern booklet — but first I’m going to chart it into Pattern Keeper because the glossy paper makes the symbols very hard to read.

3. Magazines

Living in a small town in the 90s, I owned a lot of cross stitch magazines — though in rural Australia they were quite expensive. Many of the available magazines were imported from Europe or the Americas and it was often hard to find an Australian rag.

These beautiful flower baskets were my first project on linen and the patterns came from a British cross stitch magazine. I had them framed and they are still hanging in my mother’s house. One day when I’m home in Australia again I’ll get a better photo of them (that includes the lovely frame).

Australian magazines were extremely useful in the 90s, because they were a way to get cross stitch kits and catalogues. The back section normally had 6-8 pages that were dedicated to advertisements, including cut-out coupons for cross stitch catalogues and kit purchases. More about this, up next.

4. Cross Stitch Kits

If you don’t already know, a cross stitch kit contains the printed pattern plus everything you need to complete to project. Needle, thread, and fabric — all in the plastic bag.

Back in the 90s, getting a kit was a challenge in itself when you lived in a rural area. Stocks were extremely limited in the town’s little craft shop, so mostly you used mail-order catalogues.

I remember buying cross stitch magazines (during the couple of times a year I took the train to Sydney) then clipping out catalogue coupons from the back-pages to send away. Basically you cut out the coupon, filled in your name and address, placed the whole thing in an envelope, went to the post office, bought a stamp and mailed it. A few weeks later a catalogue would arrive in the mail filled with photos of the latest cross stitch kits.

Many of those cross stitch catalogues were not free and you would have to include a cheque for $3-5 with your coupon. Sometimes you could deduct the price of the catalogue from your first order, but not always.

As you can imagine, it was very exciting when your catalogue finally arrived in the mailbox. Honestly I would spend hours pouring over the glossy pages (especially the infamous Lanarte catalogue) and they quickly became dog-earred and coffee stained and covered in ticks and ‘wishlist’ asterisks.

Ordering a pattern was also a task.

Choose the kit you like, fill out the order form at the back of the catalogue, calculate the order total, make out a cheque, and head off to the post office. If you didn’t own a cheque book (which was not uncommon for girls in their early 20s) you purchased a money order.

Once the whole thing was mailed off (with a clear home address written on the back of the envelope), you that prayed someone would not pilfer the envelope and steal the cheque. Those things all happened.

Now the wait: often weeks for the kit to arrive in the mail. There was none of this same day, same hour, instant download stuff — you waited for weeks. But oh the joy when the kit finally arrived.

Cross Stitch Goes Digital

Even back in the 90s I never really liked cross stitch kits. You always seemed to run out of thread or the fabric didn’t have enough margin space and frayed quickly. I suppose this is why I fell in love with digital cross stitch patterns in the seconds it takes to download them.

Digital patterns, the availability and low cost of pattern design software, and the speed of the internet has allowed home stitchers to share their designs with the world — and people like me to live their 1996 dream.

By the time I turned 27 I was already imagining a life where all I did was cross stitch (I have my broken leg to thank for that), so I purchased cross stitch pattern design software from a mail order catalogue to get the dream rolling.

I had saved up for ages to post away my cheque for more than $900 (yes over $900) and waited for the parcel to arrive. A few weeks later a large package was delivered to my house containing a white vinyl folder with 9 x 3¼” floppy disks, an instruction manual, and the full DMC colour chart.

Yes folks, even software was purchased in hardcopy back in the 90s. If you wanted to upgrade to the latest version — you had to order the whole thing by mail order again. It was marvellous when the internet changed all that.

At that time I really had no clue about pattern design, and was totally overwhelmed by the software. There were no YouTube tutorials or online classes in 1996 and I really couldn’t work out how to use it. That $900+ investment seemed a big waste of money.

What I didn’t realise though, I had ignited a small fire in my heart that never went out. Suddenly 30 years later during the COVID19 pandemic, with time on my hands to reflect on my career, I began thinking about my skills as a professional writer and eCommerce marketer and how they might combine with my love of cross stitching and fine art.

A few hours later I purchased some awesome Pattern Design software and got to work building Cross Stitch Patterns Online — a global marketplace for cross stitchers — and finally fulfilled my young girl dream.

Now I get to make my own patterns, collaborate with designers from all over the world, and (best of all) cross stitch every single day.

Everything comes at exactly the right time, and it was totally worth the wait.

stitching in the 90s banner for social media

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