The needle keeps plunging through the surface, a repetitive motion controlled by a person. In and out; in and out; repeat and repeat and repeat. It’s probably the quiet repetition that creates a process that doesn’t require my brain to strain itself.

There are plenty of people who talk about how certain activities can send them into a nearly Zen-like state of relaxation. I’ve found a similar feeling through needles. Or more specifically, a tapestry needle.

For the past several weeks I’ve spent my free nights pulling colorful floss through aida cloth, making Xs that create recognizable patterns. Yes, I’m a cross-stitcher.

I find the process relaxing. I can turn on a record or a movie and stitch away for hours. Once I get a pattern started, my wrist works to pull the strands of colorful floss through the small holes in the fabric. Other than having to count how many stitches are in each row, I turn off my brain for an extended period of time. Honestly, after a long day, my mind just needs to relax and not think. But at the same time my brain feels the need to keep churning through the stress that seems to have built up and is taking up residence in my mind.

While essentially turning off my mind and allowing my brain to only function at a minimal level, the stress can slowly start to subside. My thoughts begin to relax and my body follows that process. I worry less about what content I have for the most recent edition of the paper or the upcoming bills that need to be paid, the stitching motion is the only thing I focus on and even that doesn’t need much focus.

It’s not always a completely stress-free process; for instance, having the floss knot up is the biggest pain in the butt and while some knots are easy to undo by simply tugging at the strings other times I have to literally cut my losses. But in a lot of situations, the knots become part of the piece. I’m not a perfectionist so a few knots aren’t going to make me go berserk.

And speaking of knots, the dreaded French knot is still my least favorite part of cross-stitch. Sure, it adds a decorative accent but I struggle to accomplish making one on the first try and question whether it’s really necessary.

Plus, there’s always the miscount in the number of Xs or starting a row in the wrong spot in relation to the rest of the piece. In those cases I get to do the old “pull out each stitch and start over.” It’s not the worst thing; not like if you were cooking and realized you added baking soda instead of baking powder and have to start from the beginning. You’d have to throw everything out. That’s not the case with cross-stitch.

Maybe that’s why I find it to be a great stress reliever; needlework allows for mistakes. You can mess up and few people will be able to notice. Sure, you can go back and make necessary adjustments or you can say, “oh well,” and move on.

When I really take the time to think about the history of cross-stitch, I picture girls in dresses practicing making alphabets and flowers and women participating in stitching circles as part of their social life. It makes me think of all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and a time before electricity existed.

I imagine how stitching was seen as feminine and exemplified domesticity. Then I look at some of my projects, like a skull wearing glasses or the rows of hearts that feature the word ’nope.’ Not exactly flora and fauna or elegant script. But decidedly more “me.”

When I was younger, most of the cross-stitch patterns and kits were whimsical animals and flowers and cute puns. Now, with the help of Etsy, I can find patterns that appeal more to me. Want to stitch the characters from The Goonies? There’s a pattern for that online. How about some book-inspired patterns? I bought an entire book with those.

It’s been great to find a productive way to get rid of some stress. Now if only I could find a better way to keep all of the cross-stitch supplies and completed pieces from cluttering up my apartment.

Recommended for you