Teaching Needlework to Children

Where do new stitchers come from? Only two sources: adults and children. Teaching a child is a lot like teaching adults, but not quite.

Lesson Plan

A one-time introductory lesson is the best choice for children. An hour is a good amount of time. An hour-and-a-half is max!

If you are teaching a group - - school class, scouts, 4H, Bible School - - ask the leaders/teacher to take sign-ups and collect kit fees in advance so you'll know how many children to expect.

This is only a rough estimate, no matter how accurate the leader says the number is. Alas, there may be twice as many as the headcount estimates or half of it. If there are not enough kits on the day of the lesson, make sure the children who have signed up and paid receive first priority. (Because I don't want anyone to be disappointed if I can help it, I prepare the number of kits in the headcount plus a couple more and hope for the best!)

If there are more than six children in your class, you probably will find it helpful to take an assistant or two with you, although the leader(s) will help, too. If you, the group leaders, and the helpers you locate still are not enough, ask the leader to canvass parents for volunteers. (When lining up assistance, I plan one adult for every two children for truly good instruction. One adult for six kids is the absolute minimum. One adult for three children is about average.)

You will be doing the teaching and demonstrating (to each student - - see below), but the assistants will be doing the "hand-holding."

Make sure your assistants understand how to cross-stitch! Mention that the top legs should always go the same direction.

Plan one hour of stitching time. Some of this time will be taken up by preliminaries such as hand-washing and needle-threading.

The project should be small and on Aida. If your stitchers can be fairly well along by the end of the lesson, they're likely to complete the project.

Many children, even those aged 9 to 11, still have limited dexterity for small handwork of any kind, whether it's stitching or model-building. Children also have a lower frustration threshold. What adults take in stride may be unreasonably difficult for children.

Expect the kids to stitch more slowly and be stymied more easily. Don't bother with railroading and other intricacies of cross stitch.

Stick to the basic x. No backstitch.

Stitch a Sample

Stitch a sample of the project to show your students. Not only can the youngsters see what the finished piece looks like, but you will have information on floss usage for kitting purposes.

Track how many pieces of floss you use as you stitch the model and allow double that amount in each kit. If you are using 10" lengths in the kit, stitch the sample with 10" lengths and count the number you use, whole or partial. Double this number.

Stitching a sample riddled with errors is a good way to illustrate what not to do. Pass this sample around, too, and encourage your children to look - - especially at the back side - - and see how many things they can find that are wrong. Examples: knots, long carries, unburied tails, etc. Use your imagination! Hah!

Teaching Location

Unfortunately, you're likely to be teaching in a place with less-than-optimal lighting. Smaller-count fabric will help ameliorate this disadvantage. Turn on all lights. Move the stitching table near source of natural light, if there is one available.

Wipe off the table. It may be dusty and probably has food spills on it.

The Chart

The chart for a children's class should be very simple. This means small, one or two colors only, no partial stitches, and no backstitches.

You may be tempted to graph the club logo, but you're inviting numerous problems for first-time stitchers.

I recommend a symmetrical chart and one with straight sides and no stitches "sticking out" (flower leaves, animal legs). An excellent choice is a 9-patch quilt block on 6-count Herta or 8-count Aida. A project such as this one or a similar geometric pattern makes it easy for the young stitcher to see if a counting error has been made.

For Bible School or a Sunday School class, a cross is an excellent choice.

Even though the chart is simple, it should be printed large so it's easy to see. Fill the whole sheet of paper with it.

If you are using a quilt block chart, make the pattern more meaningful to your young students by telling them about how quilts were made "in the olden days" from worn-out clothing, flour sacks; why quilting bees were great social events; that men as well as women made quilts; etc. You might include other details about life as a pioneer or a settler. Particularly look for historical information about your own state.

In fact, if you approach the stitching session from this angle, a great many elementary teachers would welcome your program as part of the social studies lesson.

Perhaps you prefer to design your own project. If it is a piece meant to be framed, make the project a size that will fit in a purchased frame, as this will simplify finishing (no costs or waiting for custom framing) and allow more immediate gratification ("My project is already hanging up!").

Your local discount store will have a variety from which your students may choose. Specify the frame size in your instructions. 3" x 5" and 5" x 7" are sizes that are easy to find.

When charting the design, select "dark" symbols for the darker floss colors, as this helps the child visualize the color placements in the finished stitchery. Try to select symbols that are not easily confused with each other so children with learning disabilities or visual impairments will be more likely to read the chart accurately.

Various learning differences is another reason to make the chart itself large - - 8 ½" x 11" is not too big, even for a stitched image that is far smaller.

Materials and Supplies

Prepare kits. Don't ask children to bring their own supplies.

Inevitably, there will be children who forget, whose parents failed to go the store, or children who show up who didn't register in advance. You want to make this a wonderful experience for all. Coming with kits is a great way to ensure this.

Especially for children, all kits should be exactly alike. Don't assume that the your students will consider white fabric and cream fabric to be equivalent.


I recommend 6-count Herta or 8-count Aida for youngsters' first projects. Stay away from synthetic fabrics (such as 7-count Country Aida and 7-count Klostern), because these have less body than good old cotton Aida and are harder for beginners to use because they "slide around."

Before kitting, press the project cloths well and finish all edges with machine stitching so they won't unravel. Children are particularly hard on raw edges.

Remember to add 6" to each dimension of the finished image when you cut fabric for the project cloths.

Provide a 8" x 8" project cloth for a 2" x 2" image, for example. Expect that some of the children will not start the piece in the center of the fabric! (Another reason to use the system where you make the first stitch.


Blue is a good floss color choice for the project. Boys won't think it's "girlish," and some girls don't care for pink or lavender, anyway. Red is another good choice. I'd go with blue, though. A "crayon blue," such as DMC 792 or 798 are good choices.

Pre-cut the floss into 10" lengths. For each kit, take a piece of cardboard and punch the required number of holes (one for each thread color) around the edge.

An outdated business card works well for this purpose. Or cut from a piece of poster board or cardboard from a cereal box.

Fasten the floss with lark's head knots, placing a single color in a hole.

Show the children how to take a new thread by pulling at the knot, not the end. I'll bet you can guess what will happen if the cut lengths are loose in the bag with the other kit materials!


A #24 tapestry needle is fine for most teen and adult beginners, but children will be happier with a #22. A #22 is easier to grasp and to thread and is appropriate for 6-, 8-, and 11-count fabric. If you students are 10 or 11 years old, #24s probably will be fine, but bring #22s, anyway.

Bring extra needles. Expect each child to lose one needle. Half of them will lose two!

Put the needle in the corner of the fabric. Yes, I know this is wrong, but for this use it will not be a problem. Your alternative is to place each needle in a pivce of felt or scrap of Aida.

I recommend that every kit have a needlethreader. More on this in a moment.


I recommend a numbered list, breaking general statements into smaller, individually-numbered, and more-detailed tasks. Your stitchers can check off each numbered instruction as they complete it. Show the children how to take a new thread by pulling at the knot, not the end.


1. Thread your needle with 2 strands of floss. Make a big knot on one end.
2. Put the chart on the table with the triangle at the top. Hold your fabric so the triangle is at the top.
3. Measure down 1" from the top of the fabric and put a pin there.
4. Measure in 1" from the left side of the fabric and put a pin there.
5. The two pins should be about in the same place. Pick a place between them if they aren't. This is near enough for this step.
6. Send the needle from the front of the fabric to the back where the pins are. This puts the big knot on the front. This knot will be cut off later, but now you need to see it.
7. Measure down 4" from the top of the fabric. (That is the side that has the triangle on it.) Put a pin here.
8. Measure 4" in from the left margin and put a pin there.
9. Find the place where the pins line up. It's important that you line up the pins in the same "ditch" in this step. Mark the line-up point with another pin. This is where the needle will come up to stitch the design. Remember that the needle and thread are on the back of the fabric because of the knot you put in already (step 6).
And so on.
You are welcome to use or revise the above instructions, if you'd like.

Don't forget a picture of how to do a basic cross stitch in case the child forgets after leaving class.


(1) Directions for a couple of other easy ways of finishing the piece, such as framing, a flat glued finish, or a pillow.Show the children how to take a new thread by pulling at the knot, not the end.

(2) Your name and phone number so perplexed students (or their parents!) can call with questions.


Place each kit in an individual zipper-lock plastic bag.

Don't plan to pass out materials individually because most of the children will lose at least one item by the time you finish giving everyone all the parts.

I like a bag that's long enough to hold everything without folding the fabric.

A child's first project is likely to be small and the project cloth less than the size of a sheet of paper. Therefore a gallon-size zipper-lock bag from the grocery store probably will work just fine. Also, it is tall enough to hold a couple sheets of paper.


You probably will ask each child to bring a pair of scissors, but take a pair of your own as backup. Label them with a piece of ribbon or a scissors fob for easy identification. Rather than take your good pair, I advise purchasing a pair of inexpensive scissors at the drug store. If they're lost or damaged, it's no big deal.

Ask each of your assistants to bring a pair, too. Ask them to label them and mention using a cheap pair from the drug store. If it's the beginning of the school year, "school scissors" are available for as low as 50 cents in most places. You may be able to afford putting a pair in ech kit.


I put a couple straight pins in the kit for marking purposes. Those with colored heads are easy to see and easy to grasp. Look for ones with a long shaft. These can be found in the quilting section of a fabric store and usually are called "quilting pins."

Kids need to be taught to be responsible for the thread snippets and other bits of trash they generate while stitching. Put a couple of empty margarine tubs or plastic bowls on the table(s) and encourage your students to "contribute."

Your Costs for Kitting

It is best to charge only for your out-of-pocket costs when teaching children as a volunteer in a group setting. Omit costs for designing, charting, labor for kitting, a teaching fee, etc., but don't forget to include the cost of photocopying the chart and publicity flyers, plastic bags, and needlethreaders.

Some needlework companies donate materials (needles, fabric, floss) for programs which are taught for community outreach reasons, and this will greatly reduce your cost for kit items. Contact several companies about their policies and how long in advance you should send them your request. Any donations should be acknowledged in writing on the class instructions, and it's nice to take a photo of the children at work and send a copy to the company along with your thank-you note after the event.

If you're lucky, each kit will cost $2-$3. A low fee will encourage all children to participate.

Ask the teacher if there are any children for whom the kit fee will be too much. I encourage you to take gratis kits for these children so they are not singled out as different. Ask the teacher/leader to collect the kit fees, if at all possible, so the "scholarship" students remain anonymous. You don't want the kids turning in their money and getting a kit in exchange while everyone watches everyone else. (If you can - - and you probably can because of the size of your own stash - - prepare the kits at no fee.)

In-Class Activities

The first thing to teach is clean hands! Send everyone to wash up with soap as you pass out the kits. Check hands before continuing and send slackers back to the restroom for a second try, as some children's definition of "clean" may not match yours!

Next in importance when teaching children is how to use a needlethreader! The children should be able to thread their own needles, or you're going to spend 95% of the class time re-threading for them.

I use the Lo-Ran® needlethreader. It's virtually indestructible and easy to use. Naturally, it is also easy to mislay, so I tie a piece of bright 1/8"-wide ribbon through the hole so it's simple for each child to locate his threader. Don't use a piece of knitting yarn, as it tends to fuzz, which results in stray fibers in the project. Ribbon is tidier.

If you use the LoRan® product, try to have these donated or sold to you at discount. As these threaders retail for about $1.75 each, they will drive the kit cost up. Unfortunately, the inexpensive ones with a wire are unsuited for children's use and will be ruined within the first two minutes, and without needlethreaders, precious little stitching will be accomplished. You might contact LoRan® about a donation. Tell them how many you need. Even if they don't normally do this, they might be willing to send you what you need (it's not a large number, after all).

Another avenue is to inquire at your local shop to see if you can buy some at cost.

Show your students how to pull out one strand from the 6-strand cut length. Depending on the count of the fabric you're using, students may need to use all six strands in the needle. (Herta requires all six strands for decent coverage, for example.) You may have to help many of them extract strands from the cut length or undo snarls. Expect some children to completely trash a cut length trying to pull out one strand. This is one reason why you double the thread yardage in the kits! (As you'd do for any teaching situation, take extra supplies. One skein of thread ought to be plenty.

Expect that some children may have difficulty getting all strands into the needle at once, even with a needlethreader.

Tell children to hold the needle at the eye. Explain that this will help decrease re-threadings. Once the kids have re-threaded several times in a row, your advice will sink in. (Keep repeating it!)

Holding the needle at the eye has the added advantage of keeping wear and tear on the thread in one place on the working length.

Teach only the basic cross stitch.

All students need to know is that the top legs of the cross stitches must go in the same direction. For practical reasons, you might instruct them to do it a certain way ( \ is most common, even among left-handed stitchers).

The English method - - completing each stitch before moving on - - works best for children, even if you use the Danish method yourself or teach teens and adults both methods so they can choose.

Even though stitch formation seems so very easy, some children will not catch on readily. I like to preface this portion of the session by saying, "If you don't understand, it's not your fault. It's my fault because I didn't teach you the way you like to learn. Stitching is fun, so if you don't understand, please speak up and give me another chance to do it right." This tends to set the youngsters at ease and to encourage those who are even the slightest bit vague in understanding to put up theirs hands for help. Besides, you've "taken the blame." Kids get a kick out of this fact alone! You want your students to succeed! Make it easy for them.

Note: Teaching in the way students like to learn is absolutely crucial when teaching anything. If you'd like to read more about this, see this file elsewhere on my site. Also, see this file for a discussion of learning types.

To get started with actual stitching, your students will need to deal with the free end of the floss right away (unless you've made the first stoitc for them).

I've found that it's best to use an away waste knot. Most children can tie a knot in the end of the floss one way or another. Clip off any thread hanging below the knot.

Sink the away waste knot at least 4" away from where the first stitch will be so there's enough floss later for the child to re-thread and work in. Depending on their age, use a "body measurement" to illustrate how far away to put the knot (length of the hand?). Another option is to photocopy a "ruler" along the side of one page of the instructions. Photocopy the ruler and paste it to your photocopy master.

Knots belong on the front of the work, you say, so the stitcher will see them and remember to take care of them (in a way you'll describe in a moment). No knots on the back of the work, please, because they cause ugly lumps on the front! (Pass around your model full of errors to illustrate.)

Show your students where to start stitching and bring the needle up in the proper place for each child. Suggestion: Make the first stitch as they observe you. Then watch as each of them makes the second stitch correctly.

Another technique for accurate beginning is to make a dot in the appropriate "box" on the fabric with a light-colored waterproof marker and instruct the children to cover the dot with their first stitch.

A third is to make the first stitch in advance on the fabric in each kit. This is the method I advocate as the first thing the students do is stitch! Bring the floss to the front of the fabric where the second stitch will start and leave it hanging on the front.

After all children can make a stitch, explain how to read the chart, saying that each box on the chart is a stitch on the fabric.

Tell your young stitchers to let their needles dangle every other stitch or so, but be prepared to remove tangles and knots. Of course, some of the twist in the fiber will disappear in the natural course of the frequent re-threadings, so there is some justice in the universe!

At the end of the row, I've had the most success in having my students turn both the work and the chart upside down. They mark off stitches on their charts (with a pencil!) to keep them on track when they turn their work.

Eventually the children will reach the end of the thread. Show each one how to end the thread in the previous stitches.

Yes, I know this is wrong. The thread should end in the direction they're still going, but this concept is too advanced for children's first lesson as there are no stitches there and parking the thread end temporarily will result in confusion and knots.

Ending the thread in the previously-made stitches will make it easy on everyone.

Start the next thread with another away waste knot and later weave in the tail.

Remind the children that there should be no knots on the back and tell them that the last 2" of the thread (that's about twice the length of the needle) should not be used because it's "tired."

To keep children from turning their work 90°, which causes the top legs of the stitches to slant the opposite direction, make dots with a waterproof marker on two opposite ends of the project fabric and advise the children to "keep a dot on the top" as they work.

You might want to mark the chart top and bottom, too. Dots will be ambiguous for this.

Mistakes will occur. Assure your students mistakes are not important at all because they are easy to fix. Rip right away and re-stitch, and no one will ever know there was a mistake in that spot. ("It's like putting your finger into a glass of water and then removing it. Could anyone find the place where your finger went in?")

Show your students how to rip by unthreading the needle and pulling the floss out, leg by leg.

Behavior Problems

If the children become boisterous or if there is horseplay, stop class immediately and say, in a kind but firm tone, that such behavior will not be tolerated as it is dangerous. Even though cross stitch needles are blunt, there is still sizable potential for injury. (Just ask any adult who has somehow managed to draw her own blood with a tapestry needle. Just ask me!)

If the rowdiness continues after your warning, oust the ill-behaved student at once and ask the leader to call the parent to pick up the child early. Begin in the way you wish to continue! Usually one ouster will show the class you mean what you say.

Just as you warn about needles, also reiterate the dangers of sharp points on scissors and pins.

Of course, you want to avoid expelling a student from your class.

Sometimes, misbehavior is a method to cover up that the student doesn't understand, feels he will not be able to learn, or lacks finger dexterity. After the first uprising has been quelled, go to that child and give extra help with great kindness. I often use a pet name with such a student, such as "angelpie" or "champ". This indirectly tells the child I know he can learn this and give me good behavior while doing so. It's amazing how many so-called trouble-makers are hungering for a little kindness and attention from an adult.

Usually, however, an unruly child is one with learning disabilities. Disrupting the class is a convenient way to avoid doing the assignment because he can't or thinks he can't. Disrupting is also a way to get attention. Other students get it by doing well. This child [thinks he] can't do well, so negative attention is better than no attention. The situation again calls for kindness and privacy. Ask this child to demonstrate what you have taught. While he does so, watch his hands for hesitations and his face for frustrations. Usually this observation will help you figure out what the real problem is and thus how to address it.

Washing and Ironing

Explain that the finished stitchery must be washed before it is made into its final form. Most kids will be able to look at their work and figure out why!

Although we experienced stitchers use Orvus or Ivory, the instructions should say to use 4-6 drops of liquid dishwashing detergent. Stress rinsing. Say it should be done 25 times. This will net 10.

Remind your students that ironing should be done by an adult or with adult supervision.


Include information in the kit on how to finish the project.

Teaching children is a wonderfully satisfying experience. Plan your project and presentation with care and have enough adult help to ensure that the lesson is a great success! Some children will not be interested in stitching anymore, but some will be hooked! (How about a follow-up session one or two months later?)

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