Pulling from a DMC skein of embroidery thread the wrong way and the right way

5 Cross Stitch Hacks for Total Beginners - Top Tips to Get Started

As a self-taught cross stitcher, I picked everything up along the way but there are a few things that seem fundamental now that I wish I'd known from the very beginning as it would have saved me a lot of time, knots and frustration. Even if you have been stitching for a while, it is worth checking out these tricks as some of them I learnt surprisingly late in my stitching journey - although as soon as you know them they become second nature and it's hard to imagine stitching without them.

1. Pull from the bottom of a DMC skein

One of the most popular brands of embroidery thread (or floss if you're in the US) is DMC - this is available in most big craft stores so it's really easy to get the specific colour for your project. It is most commonly sold in 8-metre skeins of loosely wound thread, held together by two labels that wrap around it.

When I first started using these skeins, the thread would always bunch up and knot whenever I started pulling at an end to try to cut a length to stitch with. I would always end up having to take the labels off and untangle the thread.

DMC threads are wound so that there is usually an end poking out from the bottom of the skein by the barcode label, with the other end usually at the top, on the outside of the skein close to the top label with the DMC logo. Pulling at the bottom end unravels the skein from the centre and usually ensures a smooth unravelling. This means you can keep your thread tidily held together in its labels, which will include the thread number and avoid any mix ups.


Occasionally you will encounter knotting or bunching when pulling from the bottom end of the skein. This can usually be fixed by delving into the skein and identifying where it is catching. Often a loop of the thread that is being pulled has wound around other loops and once released it will pull smoothly.

If you are using another brand of thread, in general skeins are usually wound so that you can pull from the same end across that brand - you will just need to test out which end it is for each brand you use.

 2. Separate strands of thread one at a time

The second knotting problem before you even get started is when separating the required number of strands from the thread. Embroidery thread usually consists of six individual strands of thread stranded together, so before you start you need to separate it out to the required number of strands for your pattern.

When I first started cross stitching, I wanted two strands of thread to stitch with so I was trying to separate the two strands at once. The problem is the strands are all very slightly twisted together and the two strands that you choose are often twisted in different directions so this causes the thread to knot up as you pull. You can usually work through it by straightening out the thread as you go but there is an easier way of doing it by just separating one strand at a time.

Hold the thread between your thumb and forefinger, allowing the strands to spread so that you can easily pick out one strand. With your other hand start pulling at one of the strands, avoiding sharp tugs. Keep holding the original thread gently, allowing the strand that is being pulled to pass between your finger and thumb. The main thread will bunch up as the strand is pulled from it but it should easily allow the strand to pass out without any knots. Repeat this for as many strands as you require.


3. Loop start

Starting a thread can be quite tricky when you're first learning to cross stitch and a few of the various starting methods are a bit fiddly and can contribute to a messy back.

Loop start, however, is a really simple method that I learnt embarrassingly late in the day. You can use it whenever you require an even number of strands (there are ways of using it with odd numbers as well but that gets too fiddly for it to be a good hack).

  • Begin by cutting your thread to double the length you want to stitch with.
  • Separate half the number of strands you want to stitch with - eg if you want two-stranded stitches, separate one strand of thread.
  • Fold your thread in half and thread your needle with the ends so that the other end of your thread is the folded end or loop.
  • Begin stitching as normal, taking care not to pull the thread all the way through so an inch or so of the loop end is loose on the underside of the fabric.
  • Poke your needle back down through the fabric ready to complete the first half of your stitch.
  • Flip your fabric over and hook the loop around the needle that is poking through.
  • Pull the needle through and the loop will secure the thread.
  • You can now continue stitching as normal.


This is a really easy method of starting your thread once you get used to it and leaves a tidy back with no loose ends. Learning this was a game-changer for me, although I do use a mix of starting methods depending on the lengths of thread I have available.

Shop beginner-friendly cross stitch kits

4. Start from the centre of your fabric

When presented with a blank piece of fabric for counted cross stitch, it can be a bit daunting to know whereabouts to begin stitching. You need to make sure you have plenty of space around the edge depending on how you plan to frame it but you also need to make sure your pattern isn't going to fall off the other end, which would be an absolute worst-case scenario if discovered after hours/days/months of stitching. This one has only happened to me on occasions when I've been test stitching my own designs and I've been making alterations as I go, causing me to run out of space. The best solution in this scenario is often to start again - thankfully my designs are relatively small!

A foolproof method (provided you have already checked your fabric is the right count and the right measurements to fit your pattern) is to always start stitching from the centre of the fabric and the centre of the pattern. Sometimes the absolute centre of a particular pattern may not be an appropriate starting point, for example if that bit happens to be blank. In this case I just count to a point as near to the centre as possible, replicating the offset by counting it out on the fabric too. Keeping the starting point near the centre will reduce the chance of counting errors. 

The quickest and easiest way of finding the centre of your fabric is to fold it in half vertically and then fold it again horizontally, just very lightly creasing it so that you can see the centre point.

Aida fabric with crease lines where it has been folded to find the centre

5. Mark off your stitches on your pattern

There's nothing worse than doing a load of stitching and then realising you're one stitch off from where you should be and the mistake traces back to ages ago and you have to undo a ton of your work.

One way to help avoid this is by keeping track of where you are on your pattern by marking your progress. You can do this by crossing off your stitches as you go on your paper pattern or on a digital pattern on your tablet/device. Also there are dedicated pattern-tracking apps such as Pattern Keeper.

Pencil crossing off completed stitches on a cross stitch pattern

I've got to admit I don't always do this with simple patterns but I think it's absolutely essential for larger patterns and even some smaller patterns that have curves or repeating elements where it's easy to lose your place. If you're old-school and using a paper pattern I recommend using a pencil if you plan to use your pattern again, so that you will be able to erase your markings and re-use. It isn't always necessary to mark off your pattern after every stitch as long as it's kept reasonably up to date so that you can easily see where you are. You can always be more diligent when you get to the trickier bits of the pattern. 


So there you have it - 5 top tips to help you get started easily, avoid those knotting frustrations and counted cross stitch errors. I hope you have found something helpful in there to make your stitching life that little bit easier!

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