Subversive Stitches: How This Old-School Craft Became Cool

As a life-long crafter I’ve always been a fan of embroidery and cross-stitch, whether it was seen as an old lady hobby or not.  Needless to say, I was pretty excited when crafting started to become cool. No longer relegated to the realm of grandmas, people of all ages and genders have been getting into crafts and DIY.  One craft medium in particular has grown in popularity thanks to its subversive possibilities. Today we’re going to take a look at how cross-stitch became cool.

Credit: KnitforVictory


A Bit of History

Before really diving in, let’s start with a few definitions and a brief history.  First – what’s the difference between embroidery and cross-stitch? Embroidery is the overarching craft that is made up of many different subcategories.  The basic definition of embroidery is the decorating of fabric and other materials by stitching designs onto it, which can be done with thread, yarn, or ribbon.  Cross-stitch is a type of counted thread surface embroidery that uses mostly X-shaped stitches to create a picture or pattern.  All cross-stitch is embroidery, but not all embroidery is cross-stitch.

Credit: granniepanties

Cross-stitch can be found all over the world, and is the oldest form of embroidery.  It was used to embellish clothing and household items like tablecloths and other linens.  Traditionally embroidery, cross-stitch, and sewing were part of the female domain. From a young age girls were taught how to embroider and would usually have to complete at least one sampler to demonstrate their skills.  These samplers of alphabet letters and decorative motifs are what many people have in mind when they hear the words embroidery and cross-stitch. Since they look so old fashioned the craft came to be associated with older women and grandmas (even though it was actually young girls who made the samplers).  So how did cross-stitch make the transition from stuffy to cool? With the help of some swear words.

Historic sampler from The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection


Laughter is the Best Medicine

Credit: Indigo.Stitchworks

The concept of subversive stitching came about primarily as a form of stress relief.  While likely not the first to do such a thing, Julie Jackson became the face behind the movement and helped it grow by founding Subversive Cross Stitch in 2003.  She explains that it arose as a form of anger management therapy after dealing with a bully of a boss at work.  After stitching an intricate border of pink flowers she decided to stitch the word “Fuck” right in the center. The result made her feel great, and laugh hard.  Jackson believes this type of stitching has become so popular because, “It’s unexpected humor. Old timey cross stitch is like, ‘Eh, whatever,’ but you put the f-word on it, and it’s just a surprising, delightful thing where you have to take a second look.”  In a way it’s therapeutic because it’s a good way to vent frustration or do something cathartic with a pointy object.

Credit: stephxstitch

A Political Statement

Credit: Shannon Downey

As the political climate has grown more intense, embroidery and cross-stitch (in addition to other fiber crafts like knitting) have become tools in making political statements.  Still a form of stress relief, obscenities that were originally just humorous have now been turned towards a specific target. It has become an act of self-care that doubles as an act of resistance.  No longer just swear words and innuendo, the internet is now filling with girl-power embroidered messages. Some are using cross-stitch as a way to create unique signs to bring with them to women’s marches, while others who can’t make it to marches use it as a way to stand in solidarity from home.

Credit: Stitchbucket

Pop Culture References

Credit: ChocoCocoStitch

On a bit of a lighter note. another way cross-stitch has become cool is because it’s an easy medium for depicting beloved pop culture characters and references.  Since cross-stitch follows a grid pattern it bears a resemblance to pixelated images, making video games a natural subject. Since nostalgia for retro video games is running rampant, 8-bit art has become increasingly popular and has easily made the transition to cross-stitch patterns for fans to create their own pieces.  Any pop culture reference has the potential to be cross-stitched though, and many have been by now. If a pattern of your favorite character doesn’t already exist, you can easily make one yourself using cross-stitch pattern makers online.

Credit: Shaebay


While cross-stitch and craft in general is a hobby anyone can enjoy, it seems appropriate to discuss the topic today, on International Women’s Day, since it’s a medium that gave women a bit of a voice before they were allowed to have one at all.  Easy to learn and fairly accessible, cross-stitch gives you the chance to embrace the frilly-flower side of yourself while also declaring that you’re not afraid to drop a few f-bombs. I don’t think there’s really much more you could ask for from a craft.

Here are some more examples I just had to include:

Credit: Sara Schaefer
Credit: Stitchbucket
Credit: Maria on Kollabora
Credit: Sara Schaefer
Credit: Subversive Cross Stitch

5 thoughts on “Subversive Stitches: How This Old-School Craft Became Cool

  1. I have been cross stitching and needle pointing for 25+ years; I am an old man who enjoys the accomplishment of finishing a project and it keeps my fingers nimble; these subversive projects may soon find their way onto my schedule as they make great keepsake presents for younger generations.

  2. I love the “subversive” movement! I’ve cross stitched for most of my life and have gotten quite tired of flowers and butterflies. I’ve been rejuvenated by the novelty and sarcasm in these newer patterns.

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