Revised from a comment I posted a while ago (in the last thread on the first page of comments here), prompted by tomorrow's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell post (no, really! Cross-stitching, slash, and a man wearing a ship on his head, all coming to a Tor.com near you.). Someone asked if I'd taught myself to cross-stitch, and I said I had when I was a kid: "Pretty much your threshold for 'looks good!' is 'all stitches go in the same direction' and 'no big lumpy knots on the back,' so it's pretty simple. => There are bunches of tips for making it look _great_ to close inspection, but start with the basics and see if you like it."
You can either find a pattern you like and get the cloth and thread you need for it, or you can buy it all together in a kit. (These days kits are harder to find in general craft stores.) There are also two kinds of kits, the kind with blank fabric and a chart ("counted cross stitch") and the kind with the picture printed on the fabric that you stitch over ("stamped cross stitch").
If you're assembling stuff to make a pattern you've found, I'd recommend starting with Aida fabric, because it's simpler. You want a tapestry needle, because it's blunt; if you're using the most common Aida size, which is 14, try size 24 or 26. And you want embroidery floss, the kind that comes with six plies or strands (for stitching on 14 Aida, you'll want two of those strands); DMC is the biggest name here, and Anchor is also a big name in the UK.
You'll probably also find it easiest, to start, to have a hoop or frame to hold the fabric. A kit may come with a hoop, and hoops are generally the easiest to find in general craft stores. (There are lots more options, but: basics.)
The actual stitching is super simple. Aida fabric is all nice neat little squares with holes at each corner. Push your needle up through a hole from the back, then bring it down through the hole that's diagonal from the one you started with, making the bottom part of the X. If you think of your square's corners numbered like below, you could, for instance, come up at 3 and come down at 2:
If you're doing a row of stitches, it's easier and faster to do all the bottom parts first. So bring your needle up at 4--it's part of the same block--and then make another diagonal stitch, until you're done that row in your pattern:
/ / / / /
ETA: when you're starting off, leave an inch or two of thread on the back side of your fabric, when you pull it through from 3. Then, when you go down at 2 and up and 4, you'll make a straight line down on the back: before you pull it taut, tuck the inch or two of thread through it, so it's trapped underneath when you pull the stitch taut. You can then do the same thing for the rest of the row, and you've safely secured the start of your thread without a lumpy knot. When you get to the end of your thread, use your needle to run it through a row of stitches on the back for the same effect. Here are some pictures I found on a super-quick search.
At the end of the row, come up again at 4 but this time cross the stitch by making a diagonal in the opposite direction (go down at 1), then repeat:
\ \ \ \ \
Et voila! You now have, err, five neat little X's of thread. (You can stitch in whatever direction you want, as long as it's always the same; I just used that example because it's how I do it and made it less likely I'd mis-state something accidentally.)
Here are some things that affect a project's complexity and difficulty, which you may want to consider when picking something to try--you know your own tolerance for diving in the deep end!
- number of colors
- whether those colors are mostly in their own areas (easier) or whether they are all mixed up (harder)
- besides cross-stitch and backstitch (used to outline: it's the brown in the polar bears), does it look like it uses any other stitches? beads?
- ETA: metallic threads (high difficulty level)
Questions? Disagreements? Demand for a 201+ discussion? (I was planning to save that until my next finish, or at least until I need advice on it, honestly, but we can set up a dedicated comment thread here if you all want.)