Crewel Embroidery: Weaving on Wool
Crewel embroidery, also known as crewelwork, is a decorative form of embroidery using wool yarn. Sheep’s wool is used because its elasticity allows it to stretch up to 50% when wet and 30% when dry.
In crewelwork, numerous stitches are applied to linen or similar fabric to create complex patterns, then the design is lightly stenciled and embroidered over. Crewel embroidery works with surface embroidery and filling stitches, but is also often found solely in chain stitch.
Crewel embroidery should not be confused with "Jacobean embroidery". Jacobean is a style of design that can be applied to any material, while crewel is a specific kind of embroidery worked in wool.
The Design and Technique of Crewel Embroidery
Crewel embroidery is impressive for being done freestyle, and in China, it is called luàn zhēn xiù (乱针绣), meaning the threads of the backing fabric are not counted while the artisan stitches.
Crewel wool is much thicker than silk or cotton thread, so it has a textured, colorful effect and creates a raised, dimensional feel.
Crewel embroidery designs range from modern to traditional patterns inspired by nature, featuring floral and animal patterns with stylized vines and leaves. The designs are arranged in repeating patterns with a key point of heavy shading, creating a 3D effect and giving the designs richness and depth. The tight-knit texture comes from many uncounted filling stitches, which remain light and airy.
How Do You Make a Fine Crewel Embroidery?
The first step is choosing the right material. Traditionally, crewelwork was done on linen twill because of its strength, but many different fabrics can be used today.
Crewel embroidery backings need to be firmly woven with medium weight fabric. Having linen in the fabric content is preferred because it allows the fabric enough ‘give’ for when the needle and thread goes through and closes behind it.
The fabric must be ironed out and creases removed before starting, then edged by a machine or with masking tape.
Design outlines are often painted in paper and then marked onto the fabric. In ancient time, people used pins or powdered chalks; these days water- or air-soluble ink works as well.
Another indispensable tool is backing. Crewelwork requires an embroidery hoop or frame to spread the fabric, ensuring the backing material is taut enough to work on easily. This also creates an even tension so patterns will not distort after completion.
Early embroidery was usually worked on large standing frames, but nowadays portable hoops can be used for small projects. One drawback is that sometimes both hands are required for difficult stitches, resulting in a permanent crease.
However, a good needle is certainly the most important tool. Crewel needles are very sharp, usually with a large slender eye and thick shaft, which is great for weaving or whipping stitches.
The History of Crewel Embroidery
Crewel embroidery is at least a thousand years old, stretching as far back as the early medieval period. The word “crewel” first dates back to 1494 AD when it was referred to the wool yarns in crewelwork, although crewelwork itself undoubtedly appeared before this time.
Nobody knows where the exact origin of the word “crewel” comes from. Embroiderers joke it refers to the sharp pains of the needle endured by craftspeople while working. Some say “crewel” is a Welsh word for "wool"; others claim it derives from the medieval words "clew" or "krua", referring to a ball of yarn. It may also describe the curl in the ‘staple’, the single hair of the wool. Crewel wool usually has a long staple, which is very thin and can be twisted strongly and easily.
Crewel embroidery was very popular during the 16th and 17th centuries and hit its peak in the Jacobean era (1567-1625 AD), when crewelwork was used to make exquisite and expensive bed hangings and curtains for aristocratic families. However, by the 18th century crewelwork was no longer in vogue.
In the 1970s, crewel embroidery enjoyed great popularity and now it is seeing a revival. In crewelwork today, there is a variation from traditional crewel with the addition of other types of materials; it will incorporate silk threads, cottons, blends of fibers, and even paillettes and pearls in the designs. However, by definition true crewel embroidery is still done with wool yarn.
A Masterpiece of Crewel Embroidery
A great work that has withstood time is the Bayeux Tapestry, created in the 11th century. People find it stunning to consider this historical crewelwork was accomplished totally by hand, and that the colors on the front are as bright as those on the back.
At 70 meters long, the tapestry celebrates the Norman Conquest and was embroidered in a monastery in the south of England after the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066 AD.
The tapestry consists of some fifty scenes recording events during the conquest, separated by stylized trees; in the scenes depicting the final battle, dead soldiers are shown. Later, when it becomes clear the Normans have won, the same soldiers appear again but stripped of their clothing, which is what the dead of the defeated would have suffered.
The Bayeux Tapestry used only four kinds of stitches: stem stitches for outlining, satin stitches for filling in, long stitches for anchoring the satin stitches (also giving it dimension), and short stitches for nailing down the long stitch. The latter two have come to be known as the ‘Bayeux stitch’.