Crewel Embroidery

To those of us who have been stitching for many years, crewel embroidery is probably the best known sharp needle embroidery.  Who among us has not heard of Erica Williams, stitched one of her kits, or perhaps even taken a class from her?  I first encountered crewel work in my college library at Mount Holyoke ?there were four, large, wing-backed chairs upholstered in crewel in the main reading room that had been hand-stitched by some alumnae women.  Too much time on their hands I think.  For those of you who are not sharp needle fans, Elizabeth Creedon, one writer I came across in my research said, ‘I've been known to say repeatedly that the name [crewel] surely refers to the effect of the sharp needle on your fingers while stitching.


Technically, crewel refers to the type of 2-ply wool that was used to stitch the embroidery.  Over the years, crewel has come to describe the technique of wool surface embroidery on linen or twill fabric.  Crewel is thought to have originated in the east (Persia or Turkey), then to have made its way to Egypt, Greece, Rome and finally to England with the Roman conquests.  As we heard from Carole Lake at the fundraising luncheon, Mary Queen of Scots was an avid embroiderer, and most of her work was done in the crewel or Jacobean style.  I came across a quote in the Erica Wilson book listed in the resources section below from Mary Queen of Scots where she tells how she spent her days? all day she wrought with her Nydill, and that the diversity of the colors made the Work seem less tedious, and continued so long at it till very Pain made her to give over.

Prior to the 16th century, almost all embroidery was stitched for ecclesiastical purposes only.  But in the 16th century the steel needle was invented and a period of great opulence in embroidery began, with masses of embroidery done for homes and personal use for the first time.  At about the same time, England granted a charter to the East India Trading Company and began trading with India and importing beautiful cotton hangings known as paramours.  They featured extravagant designs of twining trees with fantastic motifs of flowers, fruits, birds and animals, all dyed with bright dyes on the cotton.  English noblewomen were fascinated by these hangings and began to employ embroiderers to copy these designs in wool on linen as bed and wall hangings, valences and petticoat decorations.  The idea of the sampler originated with this embroidery as books on embroidery were very rare at this time and designs were passed from household to household via the sampler.  The most popular motifs were the Tree of Life design, taken from the Indian paramours; the Elizabethan scroll design with flowers and leaves entwined by stems and vines; and the Wavy Border, a wavy border enclosed within straight lines

In the late 17th century, American women were finally able to find a few moments of spare time for embroidery and took up crewel to beautify their homes and persons.  Many of their embroideries of the 18th century can be seen in museums today, and attests to the popularity of crewel embroidery.  These works are more light-hearted in design and include less stylized animals and plants.  There are rabbits and squirrels and chickens, grapes and fruit from the orchard, and pine trees in their embroideries ?all reminders of how close to the land the American woman was.

As with many styles of embroidery, crewel work done by hand faded in popularity as machines were able to do similar work much quicker.  There was a resurgence of crewel work, and especially the designs, by William Morris at the end of the 18th century, and then again in the 1960’s when women revolted against housework and once again discovered hand embroidery.

Crewel Technique

Crewel embroidery is surface embroidery, usually on linen, stitched with wool.  A wide variety of stitches is used ?the Erica Wilson book lists more than 60 stitches in the pieces that she features in her book.  Outlines of the designs are drawn or stamped on the linen and then rendered with the wool.   Because many long stitches are used, crewel work is generally done on a frame or in a hoop.  And since this is The Sharp Needle column, crewel is stitched with a sharp needle.  Designs range from historic reproductions of Jacobean motifs, to landscapes and fanciful critters.  A common thread to all the designs is the abundance of shading in the stitching.

Previous:The History of Crewel Embroidery

No comments