It’s difficult to enter an anxiety spiral while cross-stitching. Believe me, I’ve tried.
Kikis Delivery Service not
The community that lent a dependable rhythm to our days had also disappeared: The senior citizens on morning walks; the afternoon exodus of uniformed students headed home; young couples on evening pani puri marathons at Sharma Chaat Centre; even the free Wi-Fi stragglers on the bank steps. The local trainshad completely stopped, and they never stopped for more than a few hours—not through the annual monsoon floods that submerged whole neighborhoods in waist-deep water, or the 2006 train bombings.
Though I was spending lockdown with my family and had food, health care, shelter—and, most importantly, I was alive—I couldn’t stop thinking of all the time I had lost, or comparing myself to my peers, who somehow still seemed to be doing great things: producing good writing, signing book deals, getting better skin. Or, at least, appeared to be coping with more ease and success: it’s easy to assume we understand other people’s inner lives from the distant outside.
Though I had had other breakups before, the pandemic had closed my usual routes to moving on: Being able to physically meet and hug friends, moping and ranting over wine and pizza; being dragged out of bed to dress up and go dancing; flirting awkwardly with cute people in bars. For weeks I did nothing except cry, watch Gilmore Girls marathons, and replay the relationship over and over in my head, trying to work out what we could have done differently. At first, I didn’t find pleasure in anything I had once enjoyed, including cross-stitch—a hobby I had briefly picked up before the pandemic.
I was desperate for something, anything, to get out of my own head.
It had been December 2019 when I had first taken it up on a lark, inspired by an acquaintance’s gorgeous, retro-lookingneedlework photos on Instagram. I loved the art’s simplicity—you could create anything you wanted just by making X’s on the fabric with thread, one after the other, until the design was complete—and immediately decided I had to learn it.
The other reason, though I wouldn’t admit it then, was that I was desperate for something, anything, to get out of my own head. I was in a relationship that, despite its great promise, was depleting my reserves just trying to keep it from falling apart. I didn’t feel like myself anymore. Every day, I’d wake up wondering whether we’d fight. Would he be indifferent, or resentful? Would I be the Cool Girl™, or the nag? There were no villains in this story, just two people who turned out to be hilariously unsuited for one another. But I had decided it was my fault, that I needed to somehow whittle myself into exactly what he wanted.
I noticed I felt calmer when I was cross-stitching. It seemed to pause the stresses of the day and quiet the hum of unease. A few months later, when the relationship reached its inevitable end, the stitching stopped, too.
I hadn’t expected to go back to cross-stitch. But one day, after months of depression, I saw a miniaturecross-stitched “Starry Night” on a subreddit I had joined ages ago. Held between the artist’s fingers, the artwork was barely as long as her thumb. It looked beautiful and perfect and so very tiny—dozens of colors and hours of work, all in a few square inches. “Oh my god, I should make that,” I thought. I felt the smallest shiver of new-project energy, which I hadn’t felt for a while.
Three months later, I’m in deep. Every couple of weeks, I order a shipment of embroidery threads, gently packed in brown paper, from a forty-year-old store at the other end of the city. If I need a specific shade, I inquire over WhatsApp. They help me find the color in question or its closest equivalent, sending a stream of pictures so I can compare. Today, I’m looking for a specific shade of brown that’s actually closer to taupe: Anchor 1084.
“Is it foreign pattern?” the nice uncle from Pradhan Embroidery Stores asks me over WhatsApp. I say yes. I’m embroidering Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” off an Etsy pattern and the vase needs a muddy brown thread. The shade does not belong to the Indian series.
He’s likely used to getting SOS texts from sleep-deprived crafters over his morning chai. “I will check in the evening when I go to store,” Pradhan Stores’s owner/manager/shop assistant (it’s hard to tell) assures me.
The mini “Starry Night” cross-stitch used twenty-four colors. Sitting at the window in a patch of late-afternoon sun, I started with the big cypress tree in black. Soon, I found myself humming along to my ‘90s Indipop playlist. Chandni raatein, crooned Shamsa Khanwal. On moonlit nights, when the world sleeps, we stay awake talking to the stars.
I finished the tree, and the tiny village at its base, then broke for my order of triple Schezwan and momos. The calmness I had felt all those months ago when I first began embroidering—I felt it again. It held me in place, carrying me from one stitch to the next.
Later in the day, Pradhan Uncle and I mull over the substitute colors. I’m undecided between 379, a darker fawn, and 375, which is closer to sand. I push myself to pick. 379 it is.
The most popular purveyors of embroidery threads are a British brand, Anchor, and an American one, DMC. They’re pretty similar overall, though they have different shade numbers. Most days, the cross-stitch patterns I buy on Etsy have been made by US-based crafters. We only have Anchor threads in India, so I do some good old fashioned jugaad: I make a spreadsheet, carefully type up all the DMC shade numbers, and run each one through an online converter for the closest Anchor equivalent. Objectively, it’s a tedious, finicky process. I relish every second of it. Patience and perseverance are not traits that come easily to me, but somehow, with cross-stitch, they have become possible.
I use the standard fourteen-count Aida fabric—an open weave cotton traditionally used for cross-stitching. The higher the count, the more stitches you can fit in a square inch and the more tightly packed your design.
The process, though, is always the same. Whether you’re a hardcore embroiderer with lighted loupes and fancy needle minders or a disorganized muddler like me, there is only one way to make a stitch. And then you make another, then another, until your design is complete. For someone who otherwise got antsy at the very idea of monotony, it was oddly soothing.
My first big cross-stitch project was a gift for my ex. I had stitched a giraffe in a tutu—an inside joke—over three days until my fingers ached, pausing only to eat and sleep.
This was January 2019, when it had still been possible to visit physical stores. A local sewing shop kept their embroidery threads in big wooden chests of drawers—one for the yellows and oranges, another for blues and greens. After the project was complete, I took it there to get framed. The shopkeeper, surrounded by sedately smiling families and Ganesha idols in their respective picture frames, acted like he handled weird needlework projects all the time. “Black classic slim frame,” he insisted, regarding Ballet Giraffe with great solemnity. “Mast dikhega.” (“It’ll look awesome.”)
It’s difficult to enter an anxiety spiral while cross-stitching. Believe me, I’ve tried. Every so often, a mean thought would start to clamor for my full attention—the kind of thought that would have once sent me crashing into bed for hours, playing the misery highlight reel on repeat. But during cross-stitch, your brain can hold exactly one thought at a time: the next stitch. I was learning to enjoy myself again, to do instead of remaining preoccupied with my thoughts. I’ve been grateful for those moments of freedom from the spiralling and hyper-fixation on the past and future. Cross-stitch built a little raft for me, where I could hang out in the present for a bit and everything elsecould wait.
I’ve been grateful for those moments of freedom from the hyper-fixation on the past and future.
Others on Reddit’s cross-stitch community seem to agree. “It’s hard to freak out about anything when you have to count tiny little squares correctly,” one person said in a post. Several others credited the hobby with helping them deal with anxiety and depression. Some mentioned using it as a tool to cope with addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The therapeutic role of embroidery as therapy has a longhistory—in World War I, wounded soldiers were encouraged to do embroidery to help them deal with PTSD. There have also been mental health movements such as “slow stitching” or “mindful stitching,” which focus on the soothing effects of embroidery.
I’d argue embroidery is more fun than something like painting because it’s so tactile. You get to hold and feel your creation as you make it. Now, I frame my cross-stitched paintings as though they’re actual artworks—some in sleek, modern-looking picture frames, others in gloriously ornate creations painted in dull, antique-like gold. They’re so bloody cute, it’s mad.
By late December of 2020, the tiniest part of me hoped the clock ticking into a new year would magically fix everything. Just a couple months prior, newspapers had been warily optimistic about India’s Covid-19 trajectory. The number of active cases had remained under the one-million mark for fourteen days straight. The national recovery rate was reported to be at 84.3 percent. Businesses had begun resuming normal operations and the sense of paranoia seemed to be weakening.
We still knew people who were falling sick, vaccinations were far down the road, and the government’s handling of the crisis had been a shitshow at best. Still, we allowed ourselves the collective relief that maybe, probably, we were starting to make it out of the woods at last. Barely three months later, disaster struck.
It was a surreal time. Countries across the world had begun moving back to life as they’d known it. Half of my Twitter timeline was filled with joyful, post-vaccination photos from American friends, while the rest had SOS tweets from all over India, pleading for leads on oxygen cylinders and hospital beds. There were a handful of daily vaccination slots available, and those of us privileged enough to have mobile phones, computers, and relatively fast Wi-Fi frantically refreshed the government portal throughout the day, like we were participants in some sick raffle.
People rallied to get vaccines organized for domestic help and building guards, built bots to send reminders for when hospitals opened their slots for the day, and donated to local Covid-19 support campaigns—ones that were working nonstop to pick up the government’s slack.
There were rising reports of reinfections. I was terrified for mum and dad—they had recovered from Covid-19 some months ago, but Baba had a history of heart disease. Since her recovery, Aai had been finding it hard to walk for longer distances without running out of breath. In a complete role reversal, I’d admonish them like they were errant kids sneaking out to meet their friends during exam season.
“Where are you going?”
“Oh, is that so?”
“Sounds a little irresponsible, doesn’t it?”
“JUST STAY HOME. SMITA AUNTY CAN WAIT.”
The meditative comfort of needlework was something I clung to even (or especially) then. Cross-stitch doesn’t care if I’m depressed. It is singularly disinterested in my anxieties and their need to be acknowledged, parsed, and solved immediately. When I do needlework, the sharp concentric circles of what if and should I have and if only seem to get pinned, firmly, beneath the thread, the entirety of my attention focused only on the next stitch.
Cross-stitch hasn’t turned me into a super-organized person, or even a more focused or efficientone. But it’s given me a way to pause, appreciate where I am and how far I’ve come, instead of living among past regrets and future worries. My little threads in their little needles have led me, stitch by stitch, safely out of the darkness.
Now, a year later, that darkness seems far away. There are the beginnings of hopes and plans and, hopefully, tongue-kisses. But my love for cross-stitch is still here too, stronger than ever, gently reminding me to slow down and stay in the now. Here’s where the fun is, where the joy is. Here’s where the beauty is, on a square of embroidery fabric that fits in the palm of your hand.