Cross-stitch as Contemporary Art

I’ve been working on an article for a magazine cross-stitch as contemporary art, and I recently gave a talk at the Hack Circus Christmas Party about my project, and putting what I’m doing into words has been a really good experience.

One of the aims of my project is to change the perception of cross-stitch in contemporary art. It is considered twee and quite an easy form of needlecraft, and the more I research into it, the more I’m inclined to agree.

Cross-stitch never seems to have shaken off its humble origins. Once a form of embellishment for clothing and household linens for the lower classes, cross-stitch was the ideal way of adding decoration to linens on which people were able to count the coarsely woven fibres to form simple repetitive patterns. It has never been a form of high art in the way that other forms of embroidery are. Even today, all that is needed to create an image, even to recreate a masterpiece of art, is a pattern and the ability to count. In the mid 20th century, cross-stitch kits even had the pattern printed onto the fabric, so that all that stitchers only needed to fill in within the lines, rather like a giant paint by numbers.

The recent resurgence of interest in craft and cross-stitch has given rise to the subversive cross-stitch movement, with some hilarious results. Even this though, is still a parody of cross-stitch’s more traditional roots, rather than fine art.

However, the ability to cross-stitch is a skill, and to create a piece of work also takes time and a relationship with the materials and the medium. That is where my interest lies. I believe that the difference between cross-stitch as a hobby craft and cross-stitch as fine art comes from how the materials are viewed in their own right, making use of their own properties to create artworks unique to the medium. The Aida shouldn’t be seen as a blank canvas which needs a picture on it, it should be seen as a tool; and the threads shouldn’t be seen as a way of colouring in, we should be looking at breaking the rules and working with what we have to create something new and exciting.

For example, the restrictions of the grid format distorts any image you try to create, in the way that 8 bit images in computer games are distorted, but if we accept this, and work with it, amazing patterns and images can be created. Also, the idea of hiding the threads away at the back of the fabric to leave a nice picture, which may as well have been painted, seems a little redundant when thinking about the materials and their properties. Why not show your working and your skill in the work?

I think that, to rescue cross-stitch from the no-man’s-land between craft and art, we need to start pushing the boundaries and breaking the rules. Hopefully people will start to think about what could be achieved when working on the DNA pattern to create something together which is genuinely a work of art.

If you know of any artists out there who are working on contemporary art projects, I’d love to hear from you.

To get a copy of the DNA pattern, and to take part in the exhibition for FREE, please visit my website.

DNA Sewing 001


About Sharon Mossbeck

Sharon Mossbeck is a conceptual artist based in Sheffield. Mossbeck's work focuses on themes of death and religion, often presented in a vibrant, hedonistic manner. While based on themes of death, her work is more easily read as a celebration of life while questioning what may happen beyond. Mossbeck works in a variety of media, including painting, sculpture using found objects, photography and textiles. Available for commissions.
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9 Responses to Cross-stitch as Contemporary Art

  1. Janet says:

    Holy cow, have you done any research about the craft at all? The fabric of choice is linen or evenweave. Have you checked out the hand dyed fabrics ( is my favorite)? What about silk fibers or the over dyed silks and cotton? These are all modern. As to the designers how about or They both have exquisite designs. For something a little different, how about hardanger, drawn thread, and pulled thread? They can be stitched with some of the new fibers and look very modern. Have you talked to any experts in the business? I would recommend getting in touch with Marilyn Vredevelt of Stoney Creek magazine. She has designed some exquisite class pieces that are very modern and become heirlooms. That is just some suggestions to get you started and please, please move on from aida. Janet

    • Hi Janet,

      Thank you for your comments. I’ve had a look at the people you suggested, but unfortunately that is not the kind of contemporary art that I’m talking about. I don’t mean that there are not people out there who are not working on designs at the moment, but I am looking at making work, using cross-stitch as the medium, that wouldn’t look out of place in a contemporary art gallery. As a conceptual artist, I am more interested in ideas than the aesthetics of the finished piece, and it is what you could do with cross-stitch as a medium, which hasn’t been done before, that appeals to me in my current project.
      As for Aida, it’s my fabric of choice. I am not looking to turn my back on the materials, only to use them in a new and creative way. Aida works well for the work I am looking to make, and I think that the grid-like pattern holds lots of potential.
      Here’s a link to a past piece of cross-stitch wprk that I made. The large scale piece I’m working on in my current project is inspired by this piece, which is called Labyrinth.

  2. Leila says:

    That labrynth piece is so beautiful. Best of luck with the project Sharon, I’ve heard so many great comments about your presentation and your work. Thanks again for coming and talking to us on Sunday.

  3. John says:

    Thanks so much for your talk at the weekend. It’s a shame that you mentioned that you come up against such weirdly antagonistic reactions sometimes, over the direction in which you’re taking this craft. I appreciate you joked about it, but surely it must be quite wearing after a while. It’s probably indicative of the limbo that it finds itself in (art? craft? “mere” manual skill?) that people on all sides can get quite shirty about it when you push those boundaries around.

    The day after your talk, I went to the Weston Park museum and wandered around their exhibition of ’14–’18 memorabilia. It’s fair to say I looked at the cross-stitched “postcards” sent to men in the trenches—displayed in a glass case like a contemporary art gallery’s exhibits would be—with entirely new eyes. So thanks, and best of luck.

  4. lizziemarian says:

    Oh this is interesting! Quite some time ago (ahem) when I was at art school I made work using cross-stitch. Mostly playing with showing the reverse side of the worked fabric and I also did a series of pieces where I cross-stitched bruises or other blemishes/embellishments/stains onto expanses of fabric. Actually I just caught up with a friend from art school who has been busily tattooing her own body with images that look a lot like cross stitch and embroidery which made both of us laugh. Fast forward to now and with a small child and not so much time or physical space at my disposal I have been thinking of starting a small cross-stitch project. I was curious to see how/if cross-stitch is being used in contemporary practice these days. I’m really out of the loop. So your project is really interesting and I’m curious to see the results.

  5. Hi Sharon. I applaud you for your efforts to draw attention to the fact that cross stitch can be so much more than a hobby craft and yes, a fine art. I too am passionate about bringing about this “art” into the 21st century and making people aware of its rich possibilities in this category. After stitching for so many years, I realized the potential for cross stitch to be used in a myriad of different ways to express inspirations of a large variety. I like to compare counted cross stitch to oil painting, with kits and patterns of cross stitch being comparable to paint by number sets. However, if you take original work done by an oil painter, you have fine art and the same holds true for cross stitch. Actually cross stitch can combine various elements of needlework, including specialty stitches, to enrich the texture and complexity of a design. You are very much able to use different media on the Aida cloth too (Aida is my preferred ground to work with), which is what my work is about currently.

    I love your work and have mentioned your site in my blog. Thank you so much for your efforts on this “Art’s” behalf. It is a struggle and the struggle is real but truly there are a lot of us out here that are like minded and need to be seen and heard.

    All the best!

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