Crewel work is a style of embroidery using thick, worsted wool yarn. (Crewel is the old Welsh word for wool.) Any type of stitch can be used for crewel. Indeed, one of the loveliest aspects of crewelwork is that the stitches are so various—from feather and stem to running and chain, and everything in between. There’s no limit to the looks that can be created.
Other hallmarks of crewel work: large-scale designs suited to the thickness of the embroidery yarn; freestyle stitches, of any length or direction (unlike counted-thread embroidery, which requires stitches to follow the warp and weft of the ground cloth); and a hefty ground—such as linen twill—that won’t pucker and can support the weight of heavy wool stitches. Traditionally, the resulting warm, durable fabrics were perfect for curtains, bed hangings and upholstery. To this day, crewel is still most commonly used for curtains and upholstery.
A Very English Embroidery
The oldest known example of crewel work is the Bayeux Tapestry, which is so impressive it has its own museum. Dating back to 1077, the tapestry shows the events leading up to the world-historic Battle of Hastings—which had taken place only a decade prior—when William the Conqueror defeated the Anglo-Saxon English army and became the first Norman king of England. Measuring nearly 70 meters long, the 58 embroidered scenes depict all manner of medieval life—chainmail suits, Viking ships, horse-drawn carts, carnage, military regalia, even a detail of Halley’s Comet. The bouquet of colors and stitches—including herringbone, stem, chain and long-and-short—is incredible.
In the mid-1500s, Queen Elizabeth I, who was known as accomplished stitcher, established the Keepers or Wardens and Company of the Arte and Mystery of the Broderers of the City of London, an embroidery guild (run entirely by men!) that established rules and standards for high-quality crewel work. From there, crewel became very popular in 17th-century England and its American colonies. Inspired by fabrics imported from India, the designs were dense, highly colorful and full of exotic flowers and trees, creeping vines and fanciful fauna and insects. Today, vibrant, densely worked flowers are still popular motifs.
Crewel’s American Evolution
After crewel work migrated to the American Colonies, it was greatly changed by the scarcity of resources. Dyes were limited to homemade indigo blues and natural colors, and new stitches that conserved costly wool—and allowed more of the backing fabric to show through—were developed. Monochrome and blue-and-white designs, known as Deerfield stitching, became common (and are similar in spirit to Schumacher’s Raleigh Crewel and Sissinghurst Crewel).
Crewel work had more or less fallen off the embroidery map by the end of the 19th century, replaced by lacemaking and finer styles created with silken threads. It made a big comeback in the 1960s and ’70s, when this old art form was made mod, and it’s coming around again. Schumacher’s Crewel Garden, a faithful reproduction of a cheery floral pattern from the 1960s, is a perfect illustration of crewel’s beautiful journey through the ages.
Shop a few of our favorite crewel fabrics below, and discover even more gorgeous embroideries here!
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