I have idle hands — not in the “if I’m not busy I’m going to get myself into trouble” kind of way, but in the “I need to be doing at least two things at once during my downtime, otherwise I get bored” kind of way.
Whether I’m running errands, or watching TV, or eating, I need to be doing something else at the same time. For a while, if it wasn’t aimlessly scrolling through Twitter or Instagram, that “something else” was various mediocre Candy Crush-style iPhone games that make you pop all the bubbles to get to the next level. There was also Sudoku and solitaire, when I felt like concentrating harder, but nothing beat shifting my eyes between the screen a foot in front of my face and the screen 10 feet further.
Then, a little under two months ago, while my boyfriend and I were marathoning seasons of MTV’s Are You the One? (or was it Ex on the Beach…), I picked up a cross stitch kit that a friend had gifted me two Christmases ago. It was from a Portland shop called Junebug and Darlin, and fairly simple — the word “feminist” in cursive, decorated with a small arrangement of color-blocked flowers. I finished it in a few days, and then added a few flourishes of my own, unable to let the project just be done.
It was a very basic design, but doing it was so incredibly… relaxing? Freeing? It gave me something to work on that wasn’t related to my career, or focused on my personal growth or productivity. This wasn’t 30 days of yoga, or journaling, or a meal plan, or any other activity marketed to me as necessary for bettering myself. For maybe the first time during the pandemic, I had found something that brought me an almost unreasonable amount of joy, because I could just sit and pick apart embroidery floss and thread needles and stitch stitches without a higher purpose. A piece of 14-count aida cloth with several hundred or thousand stitches could just be.
I got so much joy out of it, that it soon became an accidental hobby that took up all my free time. Before I even finished the first “feminist” piece, I purchased three other kits and one digital guide — for the ACAB piece pictured above — from that same Portland store my friend had gotten the original kit from. I checked the delivery tracker daily to see when it would get here, and then obsessively on the day it was supposed to arrive. The package arrived on a Friday, giving me a full weekend of cross stitching, but I had my bimonthly therapy session about an hour after work, and I lamented to my therapist that I was kind of bummed that we had an appointment that day, because all I wanted to do was get to those new kits. As soon as our time was up, I started a new project — the flower arrangement. I finished it after maybe four or five days, and then moved onto the ACAB piece, and finished that in about a week, and then moved onto the next piece — the moth trio — and finished that in two nights.
When I wasn’t cross stitching, I was perusing cross stitching videos on Tiktok. I was addicted to hearing the graze of thread being pulled through a taut piece of aida cloth, and clocking their various little needle minders — a magnetized pin that holds onto needles — and how they marked their patterns. I found a few YouTube tutorials to see how hobbyists organized and kept track of their embroidery floss. I eventually landed on r/CrossStitch, a buzzing world of information on where to buy supplies and find free and paid guides.
But I was mostly consumed with my new cross stitch kits. If I wasn’t working or out of the house, all I wanted to do was work on my stitching. On my days off, one hour of morning cross stitching would turn into two, and then I’d have to peel myself away in order to get other work done. And by the time I had my next therapist appointment, I was well aware that I had a bit of a problem. Not a problem that hurt anyone, but one that made me feel so comfortable that it was a drag to do anything else. The only thing that motivated me was the idea of sitting in front of the TV, or listening to a podcast or a YouTube video, and cross stitching, shifting my focus between the embroidery hoop a foot in front of my face, the stitch guide pinned inside the clipboard a foot to my side, and the screen 10 feet further.
So I told my therapist that, and she suggested I try to plan out my work, and then plan my cross stitching time around that. I bought an expensive day planner, one that lets me write out my plans in hour-long blocks and keep track of important days on monthly calendars. (It also comes with fun stickers and a personalized cover, etc. etc.) I got the planner and, while it worked to help me prioritize my time with work and other obligations, it mostly showed me that I really had no time for cross stitching.
That didn’t stop me from wanting it to be my only entertainment, but it just made it harder to justify giving it time. Even when I truly needed it — such as when I took my dad to his operation last week, or was sitting with him during his first week of recovery — I left my projects at home, convinced that I had to do so in order to get other work done. But the distance made my heart grow fonder. I’d curse myself for leaving the cross stitching behind, wondering why I didn’t just realize that I’d need to be doing something comforting during such an uncomfortable time.
Cross stitching was always right, I’d conclude, and whatever else I “needed” to do was in the wrong. I brought my latest project — a floral arrangement outlining the phrase “chill vibes only” — to my parents’ house on Tuesday, my last day with my dad before I went back to work. I knew I was going to finish it, so I brought along some more supplies for a new project. No use in making myself wait until I got home if I had the time, I told myself.
Regardless, perhaps all this work re-prioritization and planning was the break I needed to reorient myself with reality. My cross stitch honeymoon was over. I didn’t have the ability to do what I love 100% of the time — most people rarely do. But I still love and appreciate the craft. This past weekend I bought a few new guides — some exciting vintage-looking styles for Halloween — along with a few more wooden hoops and some plastic hoops that will last me longer, and something like 50 different colors of DMC thread, and a pack of flat plastic spools, and a clear box to keep the threads organized. But I’m not letting it take over my life, and I’m learning to put my projects down even when I have free time.
There’s probably some metaphor about work and play and joy somewhere in my obsession with cross stitching, but I’m just glad I picked up a hobby that doesn’t feel like a chore. It seems to do wonders for my mental health and has allowed me to take a break from the work that consumes me daily.