Meet the Cross Stitch Designer: The Handlebar Stitcher - Poking the Grid

"Cross stitch is what I do to relax. I find embroidery too open to interpretation – you need to plan and think about it a bit more, at least that’s how it is in my brain. I’m happier to poke the grid where the grid needs poking"

Justin Mercer is the Handlebar Stitcher, designer behind the striking design ‘Love Bugs’, the wonderfully punny ‘Biscornroo’ and resident Cottage Garden Threads Cross stitch translator. Justin has a talent for transforming embroidery designs into cross stitch charts so designs can be stitched and loved by both worlds.

With a background in drama and a knack for storytelling, Justin's creations are delighfully imaginative. Dive into the colorful world of cross stitch with Justin as he stitches together artistry, imagination, and heartwarming collaborations!

Justin Mercer - The Handlebar Stitcher holding his cat
Justin Mercer - The Handlebar Stitcher

Justin lives in our neck of the woods and teaches drama, film making and digital technology at Mirboo North’s Primary School. He’s a self professed drama and musical tragic, but not so much tech wizard, “I really want to teach drama and that was the deal with being a specialist drama teacher – computers came with the job,” although a certain amount of tech knowledge does come in handy for cross stitch designing!

Justin had just finished a day of teaching when the cyclonic weather event hit our town in February. His house and garden wasn’t spared and, like all of us, he’s coming to terms with the permanent changes the cyclone has made to our once leafy town. It's typical of his sunny disposition that he’s just counting himself lucky that the damage wasn’t worse. In the aftermath of the storm he says there were lots of very upset kids at the primary school. Classes were postponed for a week to focus on getting both teachers and students the counselling and support needed to recover almost 8 weeks on, things are returning to normal. The computers are back on, the cameras are rolling and the drama is drama-ing. 

From the needle to the stage

As a queer man living in a small Australian town, there is good and not so good. We love his courage, humour and talent for stitching and for bringing out the best in people with his theatrical productions. Justin is the production genius behind local amateur theatre company called Strzelecki Showtime. Every year he leads the production of an original musical or theatrical event, seamlessly weaving together the talents of individuals of all ages.This initiative not only entertains but also strengthens community bonds and provides a platform for collective artistic expression. The productions are a showcase of Justin's dual passions for storytelling and crafting, where the drama of the stage mirrors the drama of his needlework. Through Strzelecki Showtime, Justin has transformed his love of drama into an opportunity to mentor and inspire, fostering a vibrant, inclusive community space where the arts flourish and where every participant, much like in his cross stitch designs, adds a unique thread to the broader tapestry. 

Justin Mercer perfroming for Strzelecki Showtime
Justin perfroming for Strzelecki Showtime
Justin Mercer performs in Strzelecki Showtime
Justin performs in Strzelecki Showtime
Justin Mercer performs in Strzelecki Showtime

A love of costume is the key to another of Justin’s great passions – designing and producing plays for Strzelecki Showtime. “I had to learn to talk sewing and textiles to give the people sewing costumes for us instructions on the designs I wanted made. Very soon I’d bought a sewing machine and it’s been a slippery slope since” he says.

“My stitching practice has developed a lot since I started" says Justin. He first picked up a needle and thread about 10 years ago, after spontaneously deciding to create an elaborate handmade birthday present for his sister and teach himself to cross stitch from scratch in the process. We’re so glad that he did!

"When I saw the first iterations of CGT’s Field Journal I was jealous of my friend's ability to embroider the designs, but I also didn’t want to do embroidery. So I asked Katie if I could translate her designs to cross stitch”. The 'FJX' collaboration is an ongoing series of floral motifs available as digital or print copies. There are 4 so far and many more in the pipeline. Each design is small and achievable in a few hours. The versatilty of the designs are endless, they can be stitched alone or together to create samplers. 

Poking the grid

“Cross stitch is what I do to relax” he says, and his preference for cross-stitch reflects a leaning towards the more formal, constructed process: “I find embroidery too open to interpretation – you need to plan and think about it a bit more, at least that’s how it is in my brain. I’m happier to poke the grid where the grid needs poking” he says laughing. When pressed about what he looks for in a cross stitch design Justin says that he wants a design to be aesthetically beautiful but also to have technical aspects to the work.

Justin's 'Love Bugs' pattern stands out as a hallmark of his design philosophy, blending aesthetic beauty with technical challenge

When Justin came to design his Love Bugs for our Hearts For Pam project, he started with the idea of a pattern of insects that wouldn’t look out of place in an entomologists collection. Except that every bug he’s created is a concoction – “made up” bugs which recall Justin’s childhood fascination with the old-fashioned framed collections of butterflies and bugs he’d loved seeing at the Melbourne Museum. But look closely at Justin’s bugs and you’ll see that there’s a common element to each – little hearts which have been drawn onto their bodies by Pam’s granddaughter Mae add a personal touch to the work.

Love Bugs cross stitch design
Love Bugs Cross stitch designs

Justin invited Mae into his design process. “Mae had been in my class a few years ago and we’d talked about threads and stitching then. So, when I was designing my Love Bugs, I pulled her out of class to do this project with me.” Justin says that at the time, when everyone surrounding Pam was very anxious about her health, it was special to actively involve Mae in the design work. "She’s in awe that people from all around the world are stitching the hearts that she drew " says Mae's Mum Katie.

This design, like all of Justin's work, showcases his ability to push the boundaries of traditional cross stitch, proving that even within the grid's constraints, there's ample room for innovation and heartfelt storytelling. 

Mae Dawson drawing hearts on bugs for cross stitch design
Pam's Grandaughter and Justin's student Mae



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Special offer ends 19/05/23 

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Lord of the Quaker

His latest, soon to be released cross stitch venture—a Quaker pattern inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien's 'The Lord of the Rings' is a design that captures the essence of Tolkien's work through careful design of symbols and motifs. Justin's appreciation for Quaker designs and in particular the work of Joanna Kabanoff of Mojo Stitches, with their rich history and elegant simplicity, informs his approach to design. read more about Joanna on our blog here 

He creates each motif design to tell a story, much like the intricate tales woven by Tolkien. In doing so, he invites stitchers to embark on a journey of 'poking the grid' where each stitch contributes to a wider narrative. We believe this blend of literary inspiration and cross stitch will resonate with fans of literature and stitching alike.

The Handlebar Stitcher Lord of the Rings cross stitch quaker design

Drawn to cross stitch designs that are both practical and beautiful, he’s loved creating many of his own biscornu - He designed the Australian themed Biscon-Roo featuring Kangaroos and Australian native flowers wattle and waratah “You can blame Katie for the cringe name” he laughs "although I wish I thought of it first."

The name 'biscournu' is derived from the French adjective, meaning skewed, quirky or irregular. Usually used as pin cushions, the biscornu is made from assembling two stitched squares.

See our special offer below to have a go at making your own biscorn-Roooo. 

Biscornroo cross stitch design by Handlebar Stitcher



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Special offer ends 19/05/23

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Justin's favourites

Justin’s favourite threads tend to be intense hues – the moody blood red tones in Waratah (a thread that CGT retired and then brought back due to Justin’s demand!). He adores Hugs’N’Kisses which we recently featured in a blog about it’s Namesake Read blog here. Blue is his favourite colour and he names the thread Lima from the Typography range as a particular favourite. Lima features in 'Love Bugs' design. And while he maintains that green is his least favourite colour, Lisa Mattock’s moody dark green thread Spruce is a standout for him. Both Hugs 'n' Kisses and Spruce are featured in Biscornroo.

Bold, creative and a touch unconventional

Although growing, cross stitch is not as prevalent as embroidery in Australia and so for stitchers like Justin, the way to engage with the cross stitching community is via on-line platforms. He sees young people increasingly choosing cross stitch as a form of mindfulness. He hasn’t met too many other men doing stitchery in Australia yet, but as he notes: “Everyone seems to have a story about a man in their life who has worked with textiles. For example, an ex-partner of mine had a grandfather who was famed for doing the most beautiful embroideries. So, they’re out there – just quietly doing it. Obviously, it’s not seen as a “masculine” pursuit, but I think that distinction matters less and less.”

As for mixing his profession with stitchery, he says: “I love teaching. Young kids make me laugh and theatre is fun. It’s creative and I like creative pursuits. I fear the 'turn your hobby into your profession’ switch; because if my mortgage was relying on me releasing great stitchery designs, I would feel very stressed. This way, I can create and release a few designs as a hobby – and what happens to them in the ether is a bonus”.

The moniker Handlebar Stitcher came long after Justin started to teach himself cross-stitch. It began as a Covid lockdown inspired dare – he let his moustache grow, eventually shaping it into the distinctive handlebar style and the result is spectacular. “And now, I don’t know how to get out of it” he laughs. His students increasingly refer to him as “Mr Moustache”.

The name has not only become a term of endearment but also a brand that symbolizes Justin's approach to life and cross stitch—bold, creative, and a touch unconventional. His presence, both online and in person, serves as a beacon for crafters, encouraging them to find their own unique identities within the stitching world. 

Follow Justin on Instagram: @handlebarstitcher