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Most historians date Celtic cross stitch to 500 B.C. and note that many influences throughout history have added new elements to the original designs. The cross stitch is a simple stitch that dates back to the Egyptians, but the Celtic influence introduced intricate, complicated designs. These designs included geometric patterns, stylized animal and people, and interlacing patterns. The Celts were nomadic warriors who traveled throughout Western Europe, and so Celtic embroidery and patterns were spread beyond the Celtic Isles.
Although many people believe the word Celtic refers to an Irish heritage, it actually is a blend of Irish, Manx, and Scottish heritages. This blend of influences provides the base for Celtic cross stitch. In true Celtic tradition, the artisans stylized the animals and people to avoid imitation, in accordance with their religious beliefs. The zoomorphic designs are one of the patterns that people associate with the these designs.
Another common Celtic design element is the knot work. Many patterns include the gracefully flowing and twisting ropes. The entwining ropes and intricate knots sometimes symbolize the body of a snake.
Other animals that Celtic embroiderers used were many types of birds, land animals such as deer and hounds, and sea life such as salmon. Celtic artisans rarely used designs that were merely decorative. The animals symbolized the traits and characteristics that the Celts admired in the animals. Often many people in the modern world misunderstand the symbolism because they view art as decoration only.
Historians believe that even the complicated geometric designs had significance. Some of the designs resemble mazes that held religious meaning. The Celtic knot, which sometimes is termed a mystic or endless knot, is an example of incorporating spiritual symbolism into art. The spiritual significance of this symbol alludes to beginnings and endings, and because the beginning and ending intertwine, the design refers to the eternal spirit, or soul.
To make the Celtic cross stitch, there are two simple stitches: the half stitch and the back stitch. Usually the cloth has a distinctive weave that creates small boxes or squares. The embroiderer works the stitches within these boxes. Aida cloth is one example of cross stitch cloth.
The basic cross stitch is composed of two half stitches. A person stitches a half stitch by diagonally stitching from one corner of the box to the other. For a completed cross stitch, another half stitch is laid in the opposite direction of the first half stitch. For a nice-looking piece, the top stitch needs to run in the same direction on all stitches.
A variation of the half stitch is the quarter stitch. Instead of stitching from corner to corner, the embroiderer stitches from the corner to the center hole. This gives a short, dash-like stitch. By combining the quarter stitch and a half stitch, an embroiderer creates a three-quarter stitch.
The back stitch is a straight line in the center of the box. It bisects the box into two equal halves. It may run from one box border to the opposite one or run only part of the way across the box. Often a series of backs titches creates a running outline.
There are many sources for Celtic cross stitch designs. Most modern designers use traditional patterns for inspiration. People who want to replicate the authentic designs can find patterns online, in books, and in magazines. Some museums offer patterns and kits of the old Celtic cross stitch designs.