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Charts have grid markings that make it easier to keep your place when stitching – the squares on the chart correlate to the squares on your fabric. To match them up, simply find the middle point of your fabric and cross-reference it with the middle point of the chart. Each symbol seen in the squares in the grid represents a stitch and a colour of thread. If there's no symbol in the square, you don't need to stitch there on your fabric.
The symbols found within cross stitch charts represent colours as well as stitches. They usually differ from brand-to-brand, as well as whether it's a colour chart or a black-and-white chart, but generally speaking they follow the following rules:
If a symbol or colour takes up an entire (or almost entire) square in the grid, it represents a full cross stitch.
If the symbol or colour takes up half the square, or you see a diagonal slash, you should perform a half stitch.
A diagonal line coming from the corner of the square and stopping at the centre of the square, or a miniature symbol coming to the centre of the square, represents a quarter stitch.
A triangle or miniature symbol usually represents a three quarter stitch.
A line in the square signifies a back stitch.
A bold dot in the square signifies a French knot.
Your chart is accompanied by a key which explains what each symbol seen within the grid means in terms of colour and type of stitch. You'll often see a list of symbols followed by stranded cotton colour numbers – if you see that symbol in a square, you simply need to stitch that colour there. Below the key, there are also instructions which tell you the brand of cotton the chart is based on, as well as how many strands to use.
On top of all this, you'll also find arrows on the grid to show where the centre of the design is. Stitchers generally begin stitching in the middle of the design to ensure that it'll be centralised on their fabric – so these arrows are especially useful for this reason! To find the centre of the design, simply find the place where the four arrows intersect.