Fabric for Embroidery + Cross Stitch

Have you walked into a craft shop or haberdashery and been overwhelmed by the all choices?  Do you have a project in mind, but you're not sure how to get started?  Choosing your fabric is a big step, so we've made a list of what's out there.  It is by no means an exhaustive list, as you can apply stitching to nearly anything, but we’ll describe the items we typically use and carry in the shop. 
Fabrics are sorted by a few different characteristics.  The type of fiber used, also called fiber content, the weave, and the count.  When choosing fabrics think about how and what you would like to stitch on it, how you will use the end product, and how it will need to be cared for, or washed.
Fiber Content refers to the composition of the threads used to make the fabric.  Most common are cotton, linen, and wool.  Of course, polyester and other synthetics are used, either alone or blended with the natural fibers.  As well there are a number of new fabrics and new processes being developed.  Again, ask yourself "What is the end product?", this will help you determine which direction to go.  
The weave is how the fabric is constructed.  Most fabrics will fall into one of 3 categories: wovens, non-wovens, or knits.  A woven fabric is made by two sets of threads, the warp (which runs up and down) and the weft (which runs from left to right).  Plain weave is the most basic and is also known as a 'one-up-one-down' weave.  (We'll save the other types of weave for a different day).  Non-wovens is the term used when the fibers are actually bonded together to create the fabric.  Think about a sheet of craft felt, that is a non-woven.  Finally there are knits, your t-shirts is almost certainly a knit, and your sweaters, of course are knits.  You will also likely run into the words evenweave or open weave.  An evenweave fabric is just what it sounds like - the threads and spacing are evenly placed, giving the fabric a square grid quality.
Count is is an important factor when choosing your fabric.  The count refers to how many holes per inch, so 14 holes per inch = 14 count.  A stitch can also be made over two threads, therefore halving the count.  For instance, stitching over 2 threads on a 28 count fabric would equal 14 stitches per inch. 
Aida is a 100% cotton fabric with a wide and open weave, making it easy to see the holes you are stitching through. 

14 count AIDA, white
Evenweave is the name used for fabric that has single strands of fiber woven with holes left for stitching.  (Aida has multiple strands of fibers woven in groups).  The evenness will give you a straight grid that's easy to stitch.  If you're looking to start your first cross stitch project an evenweave fabric or Aida are great choices.

 Left: an evenweave cotton called Monaco, Right: an evenweave linen blend
Linen & Linen blends, there are two types of linen in regards to needlework, open weave and plain weave.  An open weave linen will have visible holes for stitching through and be classified as having a count.  Such as Natural Brown Linen, 28 count.  When you think of plain weave linen think of a nice linen shirt or pair of pants.  You can certainly stitch on either type of linen, but for cross stitch you would likely want to choose the open weave linen. 
Chambray is a cotton plain-weave fabric made with a dyed warp yarn and a white weft or filling yarn. Chambray was typically light blue in color, but is now available in many shades.  While it may look like denim, chambray is woven differently, it has a softer texture and is thinner in construction, and therefore easier to stitch through than denim.

Shot Cotton is typically a low-thread count woven cotton fabric with a two-tone effect created by using two different colors for the warp and weft fibers. Shot cotton can be used for apparel, quilting, or home decor accents.  It is typically a similar weight and drape of Chambray and can be used interchangeably.

Shot Cotton 
Muslin is a common choice for embroidery, both as the main fabric or as a backing fabric, layered together in the hoop.  It is natural in color and lightweight.  (Muslin is also used in garment making as the fabric used when you first test a pattern.  This tester garment is also known as a toile.) 
Towelling is generally 100% cotton, 16 to 18 inches wide it comes on a roll and is hemmed on two sides.  It is sold be the yard or a set length, typically you will have to finish the two cut edges.  As the name suggests it usually meant for tea towels or kitchen towels, but you could also use as a napkin, apron, or in other projects.  It’s great for adding embroidered decorations.
Duck cloth, or cotton canvas, is a great choice if you intend on making a tote bag or other project requiring a sturdier fabric. 
Wool, either a woven wool or felted wool is a great choice; it comes in a variety of weights and fiber content. It’s richness and texture will add depth to embroidery, cross stitch and other projects.  Thicker wools will also hold their shape well even when applying lots of stitches and/or heavy threads.
Collecting swatches of fabric is a great way to explore and experiment in your sewing practice.  Keep them in a little zipped pouch, or create a small booklet using a couple safety pins.