Of course. Aida. Lovely Aida fabric with its perfect grid of squares, big (30 count) and small (14 count). Cotton, open weave, appealing. Usually plain although sometimes flecked, often white or cream, red or green at Christmas (the perfect background for a stocking), black if you have your eye in and want a challenge (everyone’s choice for Halloween).
For me, Aida means the start of my stitching journey, stitching comfortably, stitching with ease (now, not then). It makes me think of my first project (as well as my second, my third), when I committed to producing acorns and squirrels for an Autumn sampler by Moira Blackburn. I still stitch on Aida because I like the effect. It’s folky and upbeat; I like that. It looks very different to linen and in that difference lies its charm. It makes me think of samplers, which I love, and stitching bookmarks at school. They had frayed edges, the fabric extremely soft, cream Aida getting dirtier by the day as it collided with exercise books, pencils, and a leaky pen in my backpack (I wasn’t a neat child, rather I liked getting immersed in things and forgetting time and tidiness). It makes me think of kits, exciting, contained, everything you need in a plastic bag, floss/fabric/a shiny needle, always a square of Aida tucked inside.
When I started stitching, with my acorns and squirrels and lovely curled leaves making their way into my first ever border, I wondered about the name ‘Aida’. How did you pronounce it? Where did it come from? Who was this Aida? I imaged her as a person, someone who had the idea for this clever fabric but had been left out of history. I imagined her creating it on some home loom and then stitching crosses on it in the evening as the light went down over medieval chimney tops. Then I thought of other women with the name Aida (or Ada). The first who came to mind was Ada, Countess of Lovelace, a mathematician whose ground-breaking ideas on algorithms led to the first computer. I thought of links between the grid of fabric before me and the grid of a future world wide web. Aida and Ada joined together as we commune online. I thought of Verdi’s eponymous opera, where Aida is an Ethiopian princess. Isn’t there even a line about ‘Celeste Aida’, heavenly Aida? It certainly is to many of us who stitch.
There actually seem to be conflicting ideas as to why the most popular of cross stitching fabrics is called Aida. Its earliest incarnation was called Java (another link to computing), but in the late 1800s it was renamed. Some think this was a canny marketing move designed to capture an audience transfixed by the popularity of Verdi’s opera. Its earlier form was apparently also marketed as ‘Toile Colbert’, a version of French Flax possibly named for Jean-Baptiste Colbert who was minister of finances under Louis XIV, and who laboured to rescue France from bankruptcy in the 1600s. Apparently he also worked at regulating guilds, especially the textile industry. I read that ‘if authorities found a merchant’s cloth to be unsatisfactory they were to tie him to a post with the cloth attached to him’. Brick House Fabrics have a wonderful article on this period here.
I like to stitch on different fabrics simply because they give different effects and I have a stash of linen and a stash of Aida, which I seem compelled to move between. I also Iike to stitch on lower count fabrics to give my eyes a break sometimes. At the moment I’m stitching a seasonal sampler on 28ct Lugano and a bookmark on 16ct Aida. Both look perfectly placed to me. I have some black Aida that I cant face stitching on (yet) and some cream Aida earmarked for another Moira Blackburn design. I like marrying the folky look of Aida with folky designs: birds and flowers, simple trees and fruit.
Aida then, remains a mainstay of my stitching life. I sit and stitch, my needle plying the squares of this simple grid and think of how so many of our stitching journeys began (and are maintained) right here. I think of rogue merchants in 17th century France, Italian operas, the nascent world of computing, and Ethiopian princesses. But I’m not doing anything fancy at all, I’m ‘just’ stitching on Aida.