Crafting Geek: ‘Saw it. Liked. Had to cross-stitch.’

Jess Swaim, aka The Crafting Geek, is the first to admit that the delicate, painstaking art of cross-stitch is often considered a “granny craft.” That’s why she likes to surprise people with her intricate cross-stitch takes on pop cultural icons, from video games, to movies, to Marvel and Disney characters, and more.

After learning to cross-stitch on pre-assembled kits in high school, and a foray into quilting, Jess caught the stitching bug again about five years ago. With an abundance of geeky patterns available on Etsy, she grew confident enough to modify designs and branch out into her own patterns.

If you visit her Instagram, where she has more than 11,000 followers, it’s clear other people find geek-themed cross-stitch as interesting as Jess does. She’s even built a formidable reputation as a crafter within the community of gamers devoted to the Destiny franchise.

Jess’ motto is “Saw it. Liked It. Had to cross-stitch it,” and she’s not one to shy away from a time-consuming challenge, especially if it will make the perfect gift for a friend and fellow geek. Whether stitching Destiny emblems, a pair of maps that took a total of 1,200 hours to complete, a project inspired by Disney’s It’s a Small World that may have sounded crazy but resulted in a stunning photo, or actually cross-stitching a pumpkin with glow in the dark thread, Jess’ works in progress are never boring.

She also shares charts, tips, and other knowledge on her website, thecraftinggeek.com. Take a look. Maybe you’ll be inspired to start something geeky yourself.

You do vibrant, painstaking cross-stitch pieces inspired by video games and other geeky properties. Your amazing work can be seen on your Instagram, @craftinggeek. When and how did you first learn to cross-stitch?

A very long time ago, before there were things like digital files and Etsy, LOL. I first started cross-stitching when I had just graduated high school. I bought the pre-assembled kits from my local craft store and learned how to cross-stitch from doing those. Then, I took a break from cross-stitching for several years and worked on teaching myself how to make quilts.

When I got the stitching bug again, which was about five or so years ago, I started shifting my focusing on cross-stitching geeky things and the rest is history.

For those who may be unfamiliar with this art form, how would you explain cross-stitching?  

Cross-stitching is a type of embroidery stitch. Typically, you use aida or evenweave, which is a type of fabric that has tiny holes that you use so that you can stitch x’s that will make up the finished image. There are a lot of different styles and methods that people use but, basically, it’s pixel art with thread.

Do you remember your first cross-stitch project?

I started a few projects before I actually finished one, just learning the basics of how to stitch, but I don’t remember what they were. The first cross-stitch that I completed was a wizard for my younger sister.

Could you describe the evolution of your skills and abilities over the years?

When I first started, I was very attached to the idea of using kits. They are super reliable and a great place to start for someone learning to cross-stitch. I stitched everything from wizards to landscape scenes.

After I came back from my cross-stitching break, I started looking around online for some more non-traditional designs and found some great patterns on Etsy. From there, I started to get more and more comfortable with the idea of modifying colors or adding little flairs that were more suited to my tastes.

Now, I am making patterns myself, which is a fun, yet challenging endeavor.

Your motto is, “Saw it. Liked it. Had to cross-stitch it.” Can you tell us a little more about where you find inspiration for your projects?

A lot of my inspiration comes from seeing something I like and thinking, “You know, I could probably cross-stitch that.” Usually, the project ideas revolve around video games but, really, anything within the geek culture is fair game.

Sometimes the idea is a little too ambitious and the idea has to be shelved, but I’ve been fortunate in that most of the ideas that I’ve had over the years seem to turn out fairly well.

I understand that you tend to begin a project with a specific person in mind. Do you find that more motivating than creating for yourself?

Absolutely. When I make a project for myself, it’s not uncommon for it to sit in a box for years because I have little to no motivation to finish it. However, if I start a project and have a person in mind, it’s like seeing the finish line at the end of a sometimes very long race. I love surprising someone with a little something because it’s my way of saying, “Hey! You’re awesome and I appreciate you!”

What you do combines your two loves — crafting and geeky things. Tell me your geek origin story. When and how did you discover this side of yourself?

Well, I’ve always been a bit of a geek. From playing the NES to watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, my childhood was a geeky wonderland. As the years passed, I never moved on from that part of my life, which is pretty awesome considering nowadays it’s “cool” to be a geek.

What appeals to you specifically about doing geeky cross-stitch vs. other types of projects?

I think it’s that geeky cross-stitch projects tend to keep my interest longer than traditional projects. It’s fun to see something that I’ve seen on screen come to life on a canvas. And it’s always great seeing the reactions it gets from people when they see something from pop culture incorporated into something that most people consider a “granny craft.”

I do occasionally dabble with other crafts, but I wouldn’t consider myself artistic so you’ll never find me sketching or painting or anything like that. I’ll stick with cross-stitching.

Tell me briefly about your process when working on a project. Is there a particular place or time you like to practice this craft?

I don’t really have a process when working other than to stitch on the project that I have the most interest in. Doing that usually makes the progress go a lot faster. I also have at least a dozen or so projects that I cycle through so I don’t get burnt out on one particular project.

In regards to a certain place and time, I take whatever spare time I can find throughout the day. That’s the plus of having a craft like cross-stitching — it’s easy to move around and you can work on it as short or as long as you want without too much hassle.

What tools, materials, and techniques do you tend to use?

I use the three basic things needed for any cross-stitcher: thread, cloth, and a needle. I tend to stick with digital charts because I don’t have to worry about accidentally spilling Dr. Pepper on them. Oh! And I use a Q-Snap which is the most magical thing of all when it comes to cross-stitching because it holds the fabric in place without making stains and marks the way a hoop can.

I know there are a lot of techniques that people use when they cross-stitch, but honestly, I just cross-stitch without thinking too much of particular methods. It seems to work for me.

Do you use prepared patterns and charts, design your own, or both?

I use both. Recently, when it comes to geeky patterns, I design the charts myself. When it comes to other types of designs, I purchase them. There is a wonderful variety of cross-stitch patterns by some talented artists on Etsy.

Many of your projects are inspired by video games. How long have you been gaming? How did you first get into it?

I’ve been gaming since my parents bought my sister and me a NES system. I played everything from the original Legend of Zelda to Paperboy to Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. It was great.

Throughout the years, gaming has stayed a big part of my life. I love all the consoles and all different types of games. (I may have a soft spot for Destiny. And Halo. And Legend of Zelda. And Kingdom Hearts. And, er, let’s just stick with I love them all.)

You’re especially obsessed with the Destiny franchise. How were you introduced to it?

Well, I have been a fan of Bungie since Halo: CE. So, naturally, I wanted to see what they had in store for their next franchise. It was such a magical time seeing all the theories and guesses as to what everyone was thinking Destiny was going to be.

What do you like about this particular game?

I like that you can choose your own way to play — if you’re a PvE (player vs. environment) player, great. If you want to focus on PvP (player vs. player), they got you covered there too. Bungie just makes a smooth, fun-to-play game. Plus, the entire community is just filled with the most wonderful people.

There’s a whole community of Destiny gamers and, I was surprised to learn, a community of Destiny crafters. Why do you think the game lends itself so well to crafting?

I think it lends itself to crafting because there are just so many creative elements interwoven into the game. There is inspiration literally everywhere you look in Destiny. From emblems to the designs of the armor, there is just so much that appeals to people who love making crafts, whether it’s cosplayers, prop designers, or cross-stitchers.

Plus, the community itself is extremely supportive to artists and crafters. It’s always a joy to see how we celebrate each other in our creative endeavors.

It seems you’re pretty well-known within this crafting community. What’s that experience been like?

It’s been a joy. Both the community and the awesome people at Bungie have been incredibly supportive of my work which is humbling and something that I hope I never take for granted. To be fair, I really don’t consider myself well-known, I just stitch things and am fortunate that it is well-received by the Destiny community.

Tell me about the Destiny-related cross-stitch projects you’ve tackled.  

Where to start? I’ve made a lot of Destiny cross-stitch projects. I think the project that I’m the most proud of is the Destiny 2 Emblem project that I finished a couple of months ago. It was a 48-week craft-a-long that I had put together. It was so fun having a group of people tackle this huge project with me week after week.

Some of the other projects that stand out in my mind are the Gambit snakes (made with variegated thread, which I absolutely love and adore), the SRL banner, and Cayde-6 based off of Spykles’ pixel art.

How many total hours do you think you’ve spent playing Destiny?

Not as many as I’ve cross-stitched things for Destiny, LOL.

What are your thoughts on Destiny 2 and the recently released Forsaken expansion?

I think it’s great. Forsaken injected a lot of enthusiasm back into the community which has been a lot of fun to be a part of. I think the latest raid is absolutely brilliant, although I am not brave enough to tackle it — I’m much more of a not raid person, LOL. But yeah, seeing all the awesomeness from Forsaken has made me excited to see what lies ahead for the rest of year 2.

You’ve also done many other geek-themed projects, including ones based on Super Mario Bros., Legend of Zelda, Halo, Titan, Pokemon, Homestar Runner, Disney, Marvel, and DC. Tell me about some of your favorite projects you’ve done so far.

My all-time favorite projects that I’ve done are the Light World and Dark World maps from A Link to the Past. Combined, they took about 1,200 hours to finish, but they were so worth it. I will never get tired of seeing them on my wall.

Another project that I adore is the “It’s a Small World” cross-stitch I did. Actually, it isn’t the cross-stitch itself, which is fairly small and simple. It was the fact that I had this crazy idea to stitch a tiny portion of the Small World building and make it look like it “fit” into the building, and it actually worked, thanks to some clever camera positioning by my husband and the fact that (somehow) I managed to design the cross-stitch to the correct dimensions despite it being a total guess when I designed the pattern.

What projects have driven you the most crazy?

The first Destiny cross-stitch I ever did. It was an absolute nightmare. It taught me a lot about what not to do when designing your own pattern. I could not get it to look right, no matter what I did. I would stay up for weeks trying to figure out what I could do to salvage it, but there was nothing I could do.

I did push myself to finish it though. Now, I keep it in my craft box as a reminder of how far I’ve come in the past few years. It was definitely one of those projects that I wanted to throw out the window at least a dozen times while I was working on.

How long does it typically take you to complete a project?

It depends on the size of the project. Something like the little pixel sprites can take 2-3 hours. Something like the Light World map can take over 600 hours. I would say that most of my medium-sized projects take between 50-75 hours.

Halloween was a few weeks ago, so I have to mention that you actually have cross-stitched pumpkins with glow in the dark thread. That is awesome, but it does not sound easy. Tell me more about that!

It wasn’t easy! I had originally seen the idea of a cross-stitch on a foam pumpkin from Facebook with a bat and I was like, hold on there, I can totally make something geeky with that idea. I knew I wanted to stitch a Boo from Super Mario World with glow in the dark thread.

When I made my first pumpkin, I made a lot of mistakes. I learned from that and improved on some of the methods — cutting a hole on the back rather than the top, for example. But it isn’t a project for beginners, that’s for sure.

However, the nice thing about using foam pumpkins is that you can save them year after year. I am already plotting out what pumpkin I want to make next year to add to the collection.

Once you’ve completed a cross-stitch project, what do you do with it?

Give it away, typically.

On your blog at thecraftinggeek.com, you provide charts, tips, and other info about the projects you’ve stitched. What do you enjoy about sharing this with fellow cross-stitchers?

Well, the main purpose when I started posting charts to the blog was to encourage people to start this craft. I know not everyone is going to want to spend 1,000 hours stitching a basket full of flowers next to a straw hat so I love providing charts that include elements of pop culture that may encourage people to want to start to cross-stitch.

Do you have any advice for someone who might want to give cross-stitching a try but doesn’t know where to start?

Yes! There is a wonderful tutorial written by Sirithre that can point anyone in the right direction if they would like to start cross-stitching.  Also, start small! I would probably not start off with a pattern that is 16” x 16” as your first project. And finally, be patient with yourself. Cross-stitching takes time. So slow down, enjoy the ride, and when you’re finished, you’ll have a piece of art that you created.

Do you have any planned projects or dream projects you’d like to reveal?

Even though I told myself that I wouldn’t do it, I’m probably going to start a Destiny 2 Year 2 emblem project starting at the beginning of the year. My dream project is to stitch a map of Lorule from A Link Between Worlds and maybe someday I’ll actually be able to figure out how to make that work.

What’s a secret only true cross-stitchers would know?

That a cross-stitcher can never, ever have too many WIPs.

 

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