Writing Stitch Directions for Needlework Classes

Your project directions are *you* when your student gets home.

How easily the stitcher completes the projects solidifies her assessment of you and your class. This opinion may well determine whether she takes another class with you and/or recommends you to her friends.

A chart alone does not constitute directions for a class at a needlework festival.

Nor are directions for a needlework class the same as directions for a project charted in a magazine. (This is because the magazine works from the premise that the stitcher will know what to do by looking at the chart, and if not, then a stitch diagram will be all the further tutelage needed.)

Of course, directions for a leaflet destined for sale in a shop are something yet again, with the added impediment of tight space.

This article is about how I write directions for a workshop or festival class. I hope that you will find some of these suggestions helpful.

The Model

First of all, do -not- teach a class for which you, personally, have not stitched the piece. Yours might not be the photography model, but it is at your greatest peril to go out there, on stage in front of students, teaching a piece you have not actually stitched. (Yes, you are on stage, just as any performer is.)

I suggest that, as you stitch the model, you have a large tablet beside you and write down -exactly- what you do and in what order. Sketch diagrams which will clarify the text. Add hints and cautions the student might find helpful, including special notes about various threads and specialty stitches.

When you are finished stitching, essentially you will have a draft of the class handout, with notes about where a stitch diagram will be needed, where a separate small chart should be excised from the master chart, etc. You'll know where the swamps with alligators are, where on the piece the student should begin stitching (it might not be the upper left-hand corner!), where to place the design on the project cloth, and other tidbits of information that come only from the experience of having stitched the design.

Specific Content Suggestions

When writing your handout, assume the student knows nothing but how to do cross stitch and backstitch.

Sometimes the student doesn't even know this, as she chose the class because she liked the project, didn't believe the description in the class catalogue, underestimated her true skill, etc.

I like to cover everything after threading the needle, including how to begin and end threads and how to make a knot for an away waste knot. You may prefer to be less detailed. A lot depends on the skill level of the class, naturally. If this information is not in the handout, be prepared to teach it to those who need it. I always teach these things and always put them in my handouts. Why? There is more than one way to do something, and maybe the way I teach will be a good alternate for some students. And, there are always those in class too embarrassed to say they have trouble getting a knot on the end of their thread, especially if it is a class at 200-level and up!! Those who don't need this tutelage ignore it.

The handout should tell exactly how to begin the piece. Should the stitcher start in the center? If so, how is the center found? Should the stitcher measure down from the top edge and in from the left edge? If so, what distances should she use? Should she count or use a ruler? Such information is especially important for starting the project if you've worked on a doodlecloth in class. A diagram of the project cloth with the starting point marked is very helpful. (If there are basting lines, include these, too. I'm a big fan of basting, by the way!)

When writing the directions for a class, don't say, "Complete all cross stitch, then drawn-thread work preparation, and end with bundling." Huh?

Break down the work into steps. Keep each step small.

Number each step. This helps the student orient herself.

For any step, put in an illustration if there is the slightest chance that it will help even one student. Those who don't need the diagram may skip it. The student who does need it will bless you for it, if only because it allowed her to not raise her hand to ask for special help, revealing she might be in over her head or not know what everyone else seems to.

The master chart shows the entire piece. It puts the small areas you've diagrammed in detail in the text portion into a relationship with the design as a whole. The master chart also lets the stitcher see how all the small areas relate to one another.

General Layout Suggestions

Type the directions. Do not give out hand-written instructions. It is less than professional to give hand-written text in these days of typewriters and computers. (A hand-drawn chart is ok, however, I believe a computer-generated one is better for a number of reasons. More on that below.)

Use a very readable font. Times New Roman is a good one. So is Arial. Skip the fancy ones your computer is capable of giving you. Just because they're there doesn't mean you should use them! Fancy fonts are hard to read. What you want here is clarity! Do *not* use Olde Englishe, Wild West, or other "art" fonts. All of these fonts are *exceedingly* difficult to read.

Use only one font throughout the handout. Changing fonts creates visual confusion. If you need emphasis, use italic or bold face letters. If you need section headers, use the same font in a larger point size. **Don't mix fonts!**

Use upper and lower case letters; that is, "normal" print style. Do *not* use all upper case. Do not use the big-and-little-sizes-but-still-all-upper-case-letters fonts.

Font errors aggravate your student, as well as making your directions harder to follow.

Do not skimp on your handout. Specifics:

All this "air" on the page allows student to take notes as she stitches and you teach. And, believe it or not, just this one little layout trick of leaving air makes the -text itself- more understandable.

Standard paper (8.5x11") is better than legal size (8.5x14"). Perhaps a legal-sized sheet will be necessary for the master chart, but I recommend no other "foldouts" in the handout. Foldouts tend to be ripped off accidentally, and the fold itself "wears out." A handout with pages of different sizes is an immense nuisance. You want happy campers!

Place diagrams or small sections of the master chart -next to- the text they illustrate. Therefore, don't put all the stitch diagrams together at the end. Put them where they fall in the natural order of stitching the piece.

Repeat a diagram, if necessary. Do not ask the student to flip back four pages to see "diagram 18 again." Not only is flipping back and forth in instructions between text and picture an irritation, it is confusing to everyone, even an experienced stitcher, and it wastes a lot of class time. You shouldn't ask the student, who has paid for your class, to do this!

Actually, if you find yourself ready to write something like, "Refer to diagram 18 on page 6," this is a red flag indication that diagram 18 contains too much information and should be recast as several less-detailed diagrams. Each of these small diagrams should be placed adjacent to the text which describes it.

I recommend sequentially-numbered diagrams (ex.: 1, 2, etc.), rather A-1, A-2, B-1, B-2, B-3, and so on. Sequential numbering is very easy to follow because everyone can count, whereas some system you cooked up for this design is idiomatic.

Also don't have charts and figures in your handout. Call each drawing a figure ("See Figure 4 for a diagram of the Smyrna Cross." And "Figure 6 is the chart for the face done over one."), illustration, or drawing. (Figure is my preference because it's a more general term.)

If you must have a chart, reserve that term for the master chart.

Make this master chart the last page of the handout so it can be pulled off without dismembering the rest of it. If you prefer, keep the master chart a separate sheet not stapled or otherwise attached to the rest of the handout. This increases the number of items you must track while kitting, thus increasing the chance that something will be left out, so I don't recommend a separate master chart.

The size of the stitched image, in inches/centimeters as well as stitches, should be placed on the same page as the master chart, as this is where stitchers are accustomed to seeing it in magazines and leaflets. The color key and statement about what one grid equivalent is (two threads? one thread?) should appear there, too. If this is not possible because of the size of the chart itself, place this information elsewhere but in a highly-visible and logical spot, such as just after the list of kit contents or just before the master chart. Maybe put a box around it.

If any point possibly could be unclear, clarify. In fact, work from the point of view that everything you write is unclear.

If your design calls for silks, make some special notes about stitching with this thread, as many (most?) of your students will not have used it before and will need some general pointers.

The same applies to metallics. You'll need specific information about the number of strands, how to thread them in the needle, and how they are applied to the fabric.

State the number of strands of cotton floss needed for each task in the directions for that step. The exception is if all stitches are done with two strands. If so, state this at the beginning of the first stitching step and say this applies to the rest of the piece.

Most people understand that the "default setting" for pearl cotton is one strand, but still it is good to say how many strands to use. Some people may have never used pearl cotton before.

Digression: It's pearl cotton in English, not pearl coton or perle cotton. If you prefer French, use coton perlé, but be consistent. I prefer pearl cotton because the French sounds rather pompous in an American chart (sort of like tinned chicken broth in a recipe. Oh, come on! It's -canned- chicken broth!) End of digression.

The front page of the handout should contain a color picture of the project (either a photo pasted on or a scanned image "dropped into" your front page layout), class title, copyright statement, your name, your business's name, and the business address/phone/e-mail information. If you have a Web site, add the URL, too.

If the kit has a photo of the project, don't just plop it into the bag; take the time to glue it on the title page. Draw a little box on the first page so you'll have a guideline to paste it on straight. Most word-processing software is equipped with the ability to draw boxes, so don't be worried that you suddenly need graphics software! (An ordinary glue stick is fine for the adhesive.)

The second page of the handout should repeat the title and your name at the top. Below this, list the kit contents in detail. (Remember to double-check this list with the materials list in your proposal.) It's ok begin directions on this page if there is room, but don't crowd things.

Right after the kit contents list may be the place to put the finished project size and the color key.

For classes in which there are multiple items based on the same design elements (such as a thimble bag, a pincushion, and a needlecase), I like to begin the handout with a description of all techniques required. The student does all of them in class on a doodlecloth. The student is thus prepared to do any of the items at home. After we have worked the techniques, the student begins one of the items on a project cloth. In these kinds of classes, I place the specifics of each item (color key, dimensions, tips and cautions for that particular item, etc.). These directions for each piece follow the general technique section in my directions.

All pages in the handout (and the master chart) should have a copyright notice on them. This consists of the word copyright, your name, and the year. Instead of copyright, you can use the abbreviation copyr.. You also can use the little c in the circle, but it -does not- replace the word copyright, a common myth. So the word and the little c are redundant. I advise using the word. There's no confusion, then.

Ask yourself how you can write the directions for maximum clarity. Your handout is you when the student is home.


Select symbols which are difficult to confuse. The numeral one and a lower case L are symbols which should be avoided in the same chart. Another bad combination is a straight vertical line, one, and/or lower-case L.

Use "dark" symbols for dark colors, "medium" symbols for medium colors, and so on, so the chart generally indicates where the light and dark areas are on the finished piece.

If you are uncertain which are the "dark symbols," do a 6x6 block of each symbol and look at this drawing from a distance. Then group symbols as "dark," "medium," and "light."

I am a fan of computer-generated charts. I think they're easier to read than hand-drawn charts.

You can take a hunk out of the main chart to use as a detail chart rather than having to redraw the pull-out portion.

Another good point about charting software: if you select a program which allows copy and paste into your word-processing program, it's always easy to reprint your handout (as in a case where the photocopy machine mangles your original). Otherwise, you'll have to go back and do the "handwork" again.

Note: always photocopy from a copy master, not the original.

Charting software harnesses the computer's ability to count accurately, too! Always a big help!

Stitch Diagrams

Stitch diagrams are critical to the success of any class handout. See my file on this topic.

Other Diagrams

You can do drawings with charting software, too! "Turn off" the grid. You now have a line drawing. Certainly, graphics software will produce more professional results and the nice curves and nuances necessary for preparing leaflets for retail sale, but diagrams made with charting software work very nicely for teaching handouts for festivals and workshops, in my opinion.

Also, you can "size" the drawings within your word-processing program, center them exactly, and add other nice touches.

If you don't use software for drawings, draw the diagrams you want and use scissors and glue to put them in the correct spot in the handout. I recommend that you make several photocopies of each drawing for paste-up use. Keep the original safe and flat in a file folder. Otherwise, you risk fouling up your original and will have to start at square one and redraw. Ugh. I've been there.

I have had to hand-draw steps for knots, and the best way I found to do this is to draw the diagram very large. See the previously-noted link to file about drawing stitch diagrams.

Check your word-processing software for additional drawing tools. In Word 95, for example, you can draw arrows, lines, arrowheads, and various shapes right in the program! This makes it easy to point out particular things in diagrams or pull-out sections of the chart with nice straight lines and consistently-sized and -shaped arrowheads. I discovered this capability just recently (duh!), but I've already used it a lot.

Charts and Diagrams by Hand

If you don't want to do your charts and diagrams by computer and feel more comfortable doing them by hand, this is fine!

Be sure to use a good black ink.

And draw on grid paper in which the grid itself is reproducible. Many of the graph papers out there (the ones with blue grid lines) are designed to hide the grid when reproduced so only the inked drawing shows. You surely don't want -that-! If in doubt, do a test photocopy on the paper you have chosen.

Concerns in Writing Handouts for Left-Handed Stitchers

Perhaps -you- are a lefty! Your left-handed students will love you because you can relate directly to the domination of right-handedness!

If you're not a lefty, stop to think how much extra effort left-handers have expended to join the right-handed world of needlework. Most lefties have learned to compensate for right-hand-oriented directions and diagrams without special assistance; a few have even trained themselves to stitch right-handed!

Your left-handed students deserve some special attention when it comes to writing your directions. Too many times lefties are treated like second-class citizens. This should change immediately!

One easy thing you can do is to photocopy the handout as a single-sided document. Lefties can turn the pages over and automatically read a left-handed diagram from the backside of the paper. (Yes, they'll probably have to hold it up to the light.)

Another thing to do to help lefties is to make a sheet of left-handed stitch diagrams for stitches which might cause confusion when translated into the left-handed world. Lefties can cut out these drawings, however, and paste them in the appropriate places in the handout when they get home. Make sure the size is the same so the left-handed picture fits in the space you've allotted for the right-handed figure!

If you use charting software to make these diagrams, use the horizontal flip feature to make a left-handed drawing in the blink of an eye. And guaranteed the same size.

The best solution is to make two diagrams, both right- and left-handed ones, and place these side by side in the file. Now they can be read into the handout together. Generally, stitch diagrams are small, so it's no strain on the layout to place two diagrams next to each other; if the drawing does not permit this, place one below the other.

Some stitches are done the same way by everyone, and these will not need double diagrams. Generally these are woven-type stitches appearing as a band and in which subsequent legs are placed over earlier ones, such as long-leg cross and herringbone. Such stitches are worked from left to right and will be incorrect if worked right to left.

Stitches with a mandatory working order, such as waffle or Rhodes, also present no problem.

Still other stitches, such as a band of rapid, Smyrna, leviathan, or rice may be stitched L-to-R or R-to-L. Lefties have no trouble with any of these because they can choose the direction which is most comfortable with them.

Lefties -do- have difficulty in learning knot stitches from a right-hand diagram. Make real left-handed diagrams, not the "please turn over your sheet of paper" ones. (And don't forget to practice those knot stitches with your left hand; you'll be embarrassed if you can't do them or fumble around trying to figure it out! Refresh your memory 5 minutes before class or while students are stitching a previous part of the project.)

If you are using nun's stitch edge or hemstitching, I highly recommend you make special left-handed drawings.

You can put both flavors in the handouts or photocopy the left-handed drawings and hand them out to students who need them. I make each drawing a separate sheet of paper and pass out the stitches needed for that class. If nun's stitch is not needed in Class A but is needed in Class B, there is no reason to add to the student's paper burden in Class A by including it.

If the lefty is using the stab method, the problem of a left-handed diagram is moot. This is one of the main ways lefties cope with right-handed diagrams.

Proofing the Design

If at all possible, have someone test-stitch your piece *using your written directions.* The purpose is feedback. If possible, ask another teacher to do it. Otherwise try to find a stitcher whose skill level is approximately the same as the students to whom you are aiming the class. (You provide the fabric and thread, of course.)

Does the text make sense? Is the writing clear? Is anything missing? Is anything out of order?

Are the diagrams edifying? Are there enough of them? Too many? Too small? Should some of them be moved? Resized? Have arrows and text marginalia added?

What could be done to improve the layout? Is the font size big enough and easy to read?

What could be done to improve the directions, overall?

Proofing the Text

Run the spell checker if you are writing the text on computer. Don't rely entirely on the spell-checker, though. Many of your typos will be reel words, sew the spell-checker won't catch them.

Ask someone else to proof for spelling and grammatical errors, as well as text which is unclear.

Obviously, what you want is someone who's a needlework -and- an English teacher rolled into one!

Particularly, look for these two common errors.

(Please stand by for a rant. Or skip to the next section.)

*Threads LIE.* They do not LAY. Chickens lay; they lay eggs. Correct example: "The red stitches should *lie* on top of the blue ones."

Correct usage of lay would be: Lay the metallic thread from point A to point B and couch it with 2 strands of floss."

For those curious about details: To lie means to recline, to stay in one place in a horizontal position. This verb's principal parts are lie-lay-(have) lain-(is) lying. To lay means to put something somewhere. Principal parts of this verb are lay-laid-(have) laid-(is) laying. As you can see, these are both irregular verbs, but not only that, one word (lay) is the present form of one verb and the past form of another! No wonder people are confused!

You lay the threads on the fabric, but once the threads are in that place, they just lie there and have nothing whatsoever to do with eggs.

Several ways to distinguish usage (choose the one that clicks for you):

(Yes, it's true. Many national needlework magazines make this error. And, yes, lay out in the sun is also wrong, wrong, wrong!)

Ok. End of rant.

Dare I mention another problem? I promise not to rant this time.

It's a punctuation problem. You see this error nowadays in national-circulation and highly-respected magazines and newspapers. It used to be that a writer who won a job of such stature did not make such errors. And if it were a mistaken slip of the pen, the editor caught the error, and the publication did not show itself to be illiterate (and thus its content or veracity suspect). No more, alas, except perhaps in the The New Yorker!

You probably recall your English teacher's complaining about a comma splice. What a dumb name. What the heck is it, and who cares?

Well, your -students- will because a comma splice spells confusion!

So, what's a comma splice? A comma splice is one sentence that should have been two, united in unholy matrimony with a comma.

Example: Lay the metallic thread from point A to point B, keep it very flat.

I have just perpetrated a comma splice. The solutions are incredibly easy: (1) Replace the comma with a period and capitalize keep. (2) Replace the comma with a semicolon [;]. (3) Add the word and after the comma. Piece of cake. So the correct forms would be, in order:

Another option is to change keep to keeping, but this trick is harder to remember and may not work in all cases of comma splices.

**The easiest solution to remember is the semicolon.**

If you were never much in the way of grammar, go to your school district's used book warehouse. Here they store books which are too tattered for students to use or which are outdated. I'll bet the kind warehouse folks will -give- you a grammar book if you ask politely. If not, offer to buy it. When they see you're serious, they'll probably decide the admin details with the petty cash box are far greater trouble than satisfying your lust for knowledge with a book that's no longer used, and therefore they will give you a copy. (Your tax dollars bought them in the first place, of course!)

Look for a 12th-grade book in a series, as it's a summary. One I really like - - in fact, it's the best English grammar book I've *ever* seen - - is Warringer's English Grammar and Composition, Complete Course by John E. Warringer and Francis Griffith (1951 and 1957; Harcourt Brace; no ISBN given). If you find one of these, you have struck a gold mine! I have remembered mine fondly and wistfully in the years since 12th grade, and wished I had had a copy. Just recently I found a copy at the textbook warehouse!! I'm a very happy camper!


If there is room in the handout, a bibliography is a nice touch, especially if you are introducing a number of specialty stitches or the piece is based on a historical model (such as a 18th-century sampler).

Don't forget to put your copyright notice on the bottom of -each- page. This is easy with word-processing software; put text in the "footer" area. I suggest a point size of no less than 10 points.

Have a wonderful class! Your students are going to love it because your written directions are so easy to understand!

copyright 1998-2002, Martha Beth Lewis
Contact me about reprint permission.

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