Cross stitch is probably the oldest form of needlework, and appears in every society throughout the world. However, its history is often difficult to determine, particularly in folk traditions. One of the earliest books of cross stitch designs was published in 1728 in Augsburg by Martin Gottfried Crophius. These designs are mainly small motifs, like those found on samplers. In 19th century Britain, cross stitch was also known as sampler stitch and still to this day is most widely associated with samplers. In the 18th and 19th centuries, learning cross stitch was an indispensable part of a girl’s education, combining needlework tuition with lessons in spelling, arithmetic or geography. Typical works, of which very many survive, are stitched with alphabets, numerals and small motifs, which include peacocks, lions, coronets, dogs, flowers, birds, trees, strawberries and of course mottos and moralising versus warning of imminent death and encouraging the virtue of obedience. Castles and buildings were also used and occasionally these can be identified as schools or orphanages. Cross stitch was also found in multiplication tables and on maps, very popular between 1770 and 1820. Some of these were worked in minute black silk cross stitch on outline maps printed on white satin. Earlier samplers often include other stitches. However those of a later date are most usually worked entirely in cross stitch in red and green wools on a coarse mesh canvas. There has been a recent revival of interest in cross stitch samplers but, in contrast to earlier times, these are now made by adults, often using kits.
Cross stitch is common to many peasant cultures, where it is used to embroidered textiles from the home and often worked by girls preparing for their dower chests. Greek island embroidery combines cross stitch with other embroidery stitches including back, chain, ladder, herringbone and satin stitch is, as well as French knots. Monochrome work is almost always carried out by using thread in the Greek islands, except in Crete where dark blue and dark red threads are occasionally used. However the finest red embroidery is carried out to the north on the islands of Melos, Patmos and Naxos, where cross stitch in red often forms a solid filling for repeated flower or bird motifs that are outlined in green. The designs in Cretan embroideries often show an Italian influence. This is no surprise considering Crete was under Venetian jurisdiction from the early 13th century until 1669, when the Turks conquered it. In a Rhodes Cross stitch is worked in a thick, loosely twisted floss silk thread, giving a curly astrakhan surface on which it is quite difficult to detect individual stitches. The cross stitch is often worked randomly, and is used in conjunction with step stitch in a diagonal line with the direction of the stitch being either vertical or horizontal. Heavy linen is the normal ground fabric, and a light brick red thread is often used alternately with a green one.
Other distinctive forms of peasant embroidery using cross stitch come from southern and central Sweden. The town of Skane, in south-west Sweden, has long produced interesting embroidery and weaving. A large majority of the items made in the 18th and early 19th centuries illustrated Bible stories and included naïvely drawn figures such as Adam and Eve. These were worked in multiple colours in blocks of chain stitch, cross stitch and seeding on a linen and wool ground. Other popular motifs include Angels, lions, stars, flowers, plants, tulips and acorns. Individual motives were often worked in square compartments as borders for household linen. In central Sweden, in the region of Svealand, there are several forms of cross stitch embroidery. Delsbo work is distinctive because of its use of star and heart motifs worked in blue and red or white linen. It is usually used to decorate tablecloths, cushion covers and small items such as collars and cuffs. Jarvso work uses similar motifs but these are worked in rose coloured threads on a white or natural linen, often with additional small tassles of thread.