Create a pattern from a historical sampler

In this tutorial I will walk you through how to create a cross-stitch pattern from a historical sampler, using WinStitch/MacStitch.

During the pandemic, I did a lot of cross-stitching and I dabbed with other embroidery techniques as well. In 2021 I decided that I wanted to learn more about the history of embroidery and cross-stitch in my country (Sweden). I started doing some basic research, reading reports from universities and museums and collecting old pattern books. But once I found a historical cross-stitch that I wanted to reproduce, I could not find any guides on how to create a pattern from a sampler.

– So I am going to present my method, and then I would love to hear your feedback and tips about how to work faster and smarter.

  • I use WinStitch/MacStitch to create all my cross-stitch patterns. This tutorial assumes that you are somewhat familiar with WinStitch, which is a paid, commercial program. It may be possible to achieve the same result in other cross-stitch programs, but I have not tried it.
  • It also assumes that you have already chosen the sampler that you want to work with, whether it is an original or a digital image.

Decide which fabric and stitches to use

Decisions, decisions. The original sampler may have holes in the fabric. It may have uneven or missing stitches, motifs that are not symmetrical or not completed, backward letters, and so on. Decide if you want this to be part of your pattern or not, and how to translate it into your chart.

Remember that it is not “all or nothing”. You can make decisions as you go: Some missing stitches are charming while adding others can improve the final project.

Identify the type of fabric and stitches used in the original cross-stitch. Common stitches are cross-stitch, half-stitch, and petit points. Does it have knots? Metallic thread? Beads?

Depending on the time period, it may be difficult to determine the type of fabric or find one that is similar. You can choose a modern linen fabric, but don’t be afraid to switch to aida if you prefer.

Prepare the digital image of the original cross-stitch

First, you need a digital copy of the sampler that you are reproducing. The image doesn’t have to be huge. You don’t need to see every stitch in detail, but you need to be able to count them.
If you have the original cross-stitch, you can use an image with an even lower resolution and use the original as a reference.

  • Cropping the image and removing any excess background will make the image easier to work with.
  • If the stitches are faded, you can use a program like Adobe Photoshop to adjust the contrast and saturation, making the stitches easier to see.
The original image is to the left and the edited image is to the right.

Import the image to WinStitch

Now it is time to import the image into WinStitch/MacStitch. The goal is not to match one stitch on the image to one square on the grid. It isn’t possible to match every stitch; not even if the fabric of your original sampler is perfectly straight. You only need the motifs and letters to be large enough for you to copy them.

Option one: Insert a picture behind grid

  • Start WinStitch and create a new blank chart of any size.
  • Select the option “Insert a picture behind grid” to add the image as a new layer.
The Insert menu in WinStitch.

Select and drag the bottom right corner of the image and resize it until you can see individual stitches:

When the image is placed under the grid in WinStitch, there is an arrow icon in the bottom right corner. Select and drag this corner to resize the image.

I am using “Insert a picture behind grid” instead of “import picture into stitches” because I don’t want to import one pixel as one stitch. I also don’t want WinStitch to import the fabric as stitches that I would need to delete.

Option two: The Onion Skin feature

The 2023 version of WinStitch has a new image import feature called “Onion Skin using Grid Tool”. The tool imports the image, resizes it, and places it under the grid. With this feature, you are supposed to be able to get a one-stitch-per-square match.

To use the feature, go to Launcher > Convert Image, and select “Onion Skin using Grid Tool”:

The Onion Skin option is the last button on the Convert Image screen in WinStitch.

On the next screen, you need to zoom in or out and select an area on your image that is exactly 10×10 stitches:

The Onion Skin panel has two image previews, one for selecting 10x10 stitches in the top left corner, and one for the bottom right corner.

Even with a small cut out of the original cross-stitch, the feature has not worked well for me: I have not been able to zoom in far enough to see exactly how many stitches I have selected.
The result is often that one stitch is one and a half squares up to four squares on the grid, and misaligned. The option works much better with a scan of a paper pattern that is already gridded.
Or maybe I just need more practice?

The original cross-stitch can be seen through the grid, but the size of the stitch does not match a square in the grid.

The result is not that different from resizing the background image manually, and I have found that the first option is faster for me.
I like being able to move and resize the background image by dragging it.

Learn more about the Onion Skin tool in the official documentation for WinStitch.

Copy stitches to the pattern grid

This is the most time-consuming part of the work. I still love it because it is just as relaxing to me as doing the actual cross-stitch.

I start by looking for motifs or borders that are repeated. For example, birds of paradise are often more than one, and they can be copied and then mirrored. Next, I do the lettering. This usually means starting at the top left corner of the project and working my way down section by section.

You may have guessed it but I literally draw each stitch on the grid as I see it in the original cross-stitch:

Once I have added a few letters, I find it faster to copy the basic letter and alter it by removing or adding additional stitches. The C will be turned into a G and O and so on.

Check your original carefully, the height and width of letters in the same alphabet can vary a lot.

Sometimes you need to use other references

Sometimes, no matter how hard you look at the image of the original sampler, it is impossible to count the stitches or see all details. In these cases, I look at other samplers from the same period, because the motifs were widely spread. I also look through my collection of antique pattern books to see if I can find the original pattern.

Create a library of motifs to work faster

The way I work is that for each new historical cross stitch that I reproduce, I save borders, alphabets, and motifs to my own pattern library. That way I can keep reusing them. For example, samplers from the same time period often have the same lettering.

Chose floss colors

The last thing I do before I prepare the PDF file is to choose the final floss colors. But trust me, I probably change floss colors 20 times before I am satisfied. Thread colors fade over time. A color that was originally black may look grey or brown or even green.
White color may look more beige or yellowed, and a bright red may look like brown or orange. Using light pastel colors can be very pretty, but the original colors were probably a lot more colorful.
If you are lucky enough to have the original sampler, you can look at the back of the sampler to see what is closer to the original colors. The back side has not been exposed to light and may not be as faded.

I have invested in a DMC color card to help me select the colors, but sometimes I also look at what threads I already have available in my stash.