These ancient fiber arts are similar—but not exactly the same.
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cross stich embroidery pattern
Credit: Liubov_Chuiko / Getty Images

While researchers have found needlework patterns dating back to 1500 B.C., when ancient Egyptians used the blanket stitch, chain stitch, and stem stitch—among others—the contemporary art of needlepoint is more typically identified with the fashions of the 1600s. This is when artists began stitching on canvas, which allowed their finished works to be turned into the period's popular embroidered furniture. If all fiber arts tend to look the same to you, from your grandmother's needlepoint sampler to your roommate's cross-stitched throw pillow, look again: Needlepoint and cross stitch are created with similar tools according to the same basic premise—stitching on fabrics—but they vary in a few key ways. Here are three things that set them apart.

The Canvas

"Needlepoint is a form of needle art where thread is pulled through a stiff open weave canvas, normally a woven cotton mesh," says Jessica Chaney of needlepoint shop Lycette. Needlepointers often use mono canvas, which has more holes than it has weaving, while cross-stitchers use an open-and-even weave, called Aida, which has equal amounts of fabric and open space. Because mono canvas is more flexible, it's a good fit for projects that end up under heavy use, like pillows and chair cushions; the tighter Aida canvas allows for straighter, perfectly square cross stitches. Needlepoint is also often worked on stitch-painted canvases—which have the design printed on them as an easy-to-follow guide—while cross stitchers use a blank canvas, counting squares and stitches referenced on a separate pattern.

The Stitches

The wide range of decorative stitches used in needlepoint offers plenty of options for creativity. "Needlepoint can be stitched with a plethora of different stitches, whereas cross stitch uses just one," says Chaney. In cross stitch, artists make lines of repeating X stitches, ending up with lines of squares made by threads that cross each other; needlepoint stitch libraries include dozens of techniques for background stitches, decorative accents, traditional designs, diamonds, basketweaves, and trellis stitches.

The Thread

Most cross-stitch projects call for the use of cotton embroidery floss, an easy-to-find supply available at most hobby stores. The larger holes in needlepoint canvas, though offer the opportunity for crafters to get creative. "Each fiber provides a different texture and is suitable for a different project and mesh size," says Chaney. "For instance, cotton and wool fibers are fabulous durable fibers for needlepoint projects like belts, keychains, or shoes that experience a lot of wear and tear, whereas for a needlepoint pillow, a stitcher may incorporate more delicate fibers like silk or a glitter fiber that will provide contrasting texture and sheen."

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