Grid Basting Method

A technique to minimize errors when doing black work and counted cross stitch

Patterns on Graph Paper

In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, designs for black work were not done on graph paper. The cartoons were simply drawings. When producing a finished piece, then, the process was done by many hands. You could count the people who collected the flax and made the linen, the weavers, the people who took the silk from worm cocoons and spun it. The people who dyed the silk floss.

The people who embroidered the silk onto the linen were not necessarily the same people who drew the lines that would be followed onto the linen ground.

For us modern needle workers, however, we have become used to working with patterns worked out precisely onto graph paper. Whether I'm doing cross stitch or black work, I prefer having reliability, to be able to count my stitches. But, just be aware that this wasn't the way that our great ancestors used to do it! Working with designs on a grid was something that was not figured out until the 1800's. Yes, there were pattern books, but they were simply outlines or cartoons, not done on a graph.

Making Your Grid

But, if the design that you are actually working with is shown on a graph, with noticible dividing lines every five stitches (makes it much easier to count if you're working on a long row), it seemed to me that it would be helpful to actually prepare my base fabric with a grid laid out in five by five groups of stitches. It can be done with a small needle (so as not to poke larger holes where you might not necessarily need them) with thin thread of any type (since the grid threads will be clipped and removed as they become unnecessary).

It doesn't even matter if you prefer to lay out your grid horizontally or vertically. The purpose of the grid is to make it easy to correlate your ground fabric with your pattern printed on a graph:

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Representation of a basic layout of basted stitches on an even weave fabric

Each point where the thread enters and exits your fabric corresponds to a point on the 5 by 5 graph on your pattern:

Sample pattern with basted grid and anchor points

Note that this graphic shows a sample pattern on graph paper, plus vertical lines representing the basted grid (on your fabric) as if it were on Aida cloth, with holes every 5 stitches, not 10 by 10 threads like linen (above). The basting threads are shown in red.

Each intersection point on the pattern's 5 by 5 grid becomes a known point on your ground fabric once you have done your grid basting. I define these points as anchor points. So, Point A is an example of an anchor point.

I define a basting line as any line that connects two anchor points. You may or may not happen to have a line of thread on the front of your fabric connecting the two points, but the basting line is a mental reference line to keep you oriented correctly on your pattern.

Each of the red lines on the fabric make up actual basting lines; any line between the anchor points of the basting stitches (connecting the end points of red lines either vertically or horizontally) is also a basting line.

The graphic above shows two yellow lines (behind the graphic) that are examples of basting lines that connect anchor points but do not have a (red) basting thread between them. Your pattern shows these lines, but on your fabric you must visualize them.

Point A is a special point where a line of the black work pattern actually intersects with the basted grid at an anchor point. So, when working along the curve, you can confirm that you are following your pattern correctly when your work on the fabric intersects with that anchor point (you will clip the basting thread before you take your needle through the anchor point hole).

But even for points on your pattern that do not intersect an actual anchor point, you can use those lines and points to check your work. Working on the curve on the lower right, when you come to the point of the design shown as point B, you know you must be one stitch down and one stitch left of the anchor point on your basting grid.

Working stitches for the upper portion of this pattern/design

Any time your work crosses a basting line, you have the opportunity to confirm, relative to the anchor points, that you are in the right place.

The double running or Holbein stitch is, essentially, an out-and-back line of continuous stitches. However, intricate patterns may have little branches that extend away from the main line. In the pattern to the right, all those little tails are shown in grey.
All the stitches 'on the way out' are in black: the gaps will be filled in 'on the way back' (mouse over the image to see the return stitches in light blue).

Five points are shown with this example for places where you can check your work:
Point 1: Returning from the inner curlique, your needle will return to the front of the ground fabric at an actual anchor point.
Point 2: Before stitching to the right on the horizontal tail, your stitch will enter the (visual only) basting line 3 stitches from one anchor and 2 stitches from the other.
Points 3, 4 & 5 all show your stitch line entering or exiting on a basting line, examples of where you can count to confirm your orientation relative to the anchor points.

Remember that any time your design crosses a basting line, you have the opportunity to confirm your location relative to its two anchor points. If you have made a mistake, if your stitch does not cross the basting line where it should (according to your pattern), you should not have to go back very far to find where you deviated from the pattern, hopefully with not too many stitches to pull out.

Your basted grid becomes your frame of reference. It is very important to make sure that your basted grid is accurate. If your grid has any errors in it, then your anchor points will not help you to follow your pattern correctly.

The following pages show common ways in which you might get off-the-mark on your basting grid. If you begin to look for these errors while you lay in your basting threads, you should be able to correct any errors before your reference grid is complete.

Grid Basting Method
Grid Errors Pg. 1 Grid Errors Pg. 2
Free Blackwork Patterns Dragonlore Home

These pages are currently new and under construction. If you find the information clear and helpful, if you find the information confusing and useless, if you think you're going to try this out, please, please, write to me and let me know how I can improve these pages (before the book goes to press, I hope!).
Katla jarnkona

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Small Dragon Design from a 16th c. Italian Blackwork Sampler