Crewel, also known as wool embroidery, has beenaround for centuries. The word crewel is derived from an old Welsh term meaningwool. The word referred to the wool yarn used for stitching and not the styleof embroidery. Traditionally, heavy wools were used for this type ofembroidery, but today there is a wide variety of yarns and even threads tochoose from, depending on the desired effect.
Although crewel is considered the most difficultstitchery technique to master, it is ideal for pillows, curtains, clothing, andwall hangings. The use of tightly-woven fabrics enables stitchers to create aninfinite variety of shapes. There are a great number of stitches that can beemployed in crewel embroidery; these stitches add texture and depth to thefinished piece. The outlines of the design are often screen printed on thefabric, and the stitcher fills in, or outlines, each area with stitches.
Crewel Embroidery, or Crewelwork, is adecorative form of surface embroidery using wool and a variety of differentembroidery stitches to follow a design outline applied to the fabric. Thetechnique is at least a thousand years old. It was used in the Bayeux Tapestry,in Jacobean embroidery and in the Quaker tapestry.The origin of the word crewelis unknown but is thought to come from an ancient word describing the curl inthe staple, the single hair of the wool. Crewel wool has a long staple; it isfine and can be strongly twisted. Modern crewel wool is a fine, 2-ply or 1-plyyarn available in many different colors.
Crewelwork came to the United States from England, where it gained its popularity during the rule of King James I. Thistime in history was the Jacobean period and the embroidery of the time wascalled Jacobean. Crewel was taken from the type of yarn that was used"krua" which means wool. This wool yarn was a thin worsted yarn madeof two threads. The term crewel embroidery actually means wool embroidery andtoday refers to the design of the period not just the wool yarn that was usedin the stitching. The first crewel or Jacobean designs came from the orient andwere called "palampores." These were painted or printedby the East India Company and sent to England. The Tree of Life was thestandard design and was a stem rising from mounds or hills called "terrafirma." It was exaggerated foliage and flowers with birds and otherwildlife done in big and bold designs. Most of the crewelwork done wasextremely heavy as these were used to decorate walls and beds that were to keepout the cold winds. There were no standard stitches that were used in doing thecrewel embroidery but the most common stitches of the times were chain, stem,long-and-short, straight, satin, french knot, running, feather and herringbone.The fabric of choice during those times were very heavy to accommodate theuses. The colors were normally in the green and blue hues and only smallamounts of yellow and muted shades of red were used. When crewel was introducedto the colonies it was scaled down to suit the needs of the times. The yarnsthat were used were also more crude than the European yarns and the first dyethat was used was indigo and thus brought about an offshoot of crewel called Deerfield. Today crewelwork is done in almost any type of yarn and on any fabric.Only the style is the remnants of the original crewel of years gone by.
The crewel revival of the 1960's and 70's began mildly enough with Mildred Davis and Elsa Williams. Their discoveries and love of crewel focused attention on textiles preserved in museum collections for women who were still homebound. Erica Wilson, with her design ability and skill, represented a new freedom that was arriving quickly. When Susan Swan's book, Plain and Fancy, reached this market in 1976, a passion was flamed for textile research and study that continues today. Betty Ring's monumental work, Girlhood Embroidery, opened the past for many women who could clearly feel a connection to their history through embroidery. This excitement is reflected in amazing advancements in counted work on even weave linen by women relearning 17th century techniques who are no longer bound by previous conventions. Crewel embroidery has had many revivals since its English and American zenith of the 17th and 18th century. Each revival alters and redefines stitch names and techniques with losses and gains sustained during each period.
The word crewel, with a variety of spellings, can be found in English records back to the 13th century. It is thought to have come from the East to Egypt then to Greece and Rome where it traveled with the Roman conquests to England. From the 15th century crewel embroidery meant any embroidery technique using fine worsted yarns. I've been known to say repeatedly that the name surely refers to the effect of the sharp needle on your fingers while stitching. This is definitely an untruth for past usage of the word crewel included tent and cross stitch using an inoffensive tapestry needle. By the 20th century crewelwork had been redefined to mean surface embroidery with wool. Crewel, by definition, is the application of a variety of stitches to the surface of fabric, usually linen, following a design applied to the fabric.