A Guide to Crewel Embroidery

Rissa Peace Root© (2002,2004, 2007) All Rights Reserved

Background Information

For me, the words "crewel work" always elicited images of my stepmother and the 1970's owl designs she worked in acid yellow, avocado green, burnt orange and tobacco brown.   It must have been that persistent association that kept me from exploring "crewel" as I expanded my interest in historical embroidery.  I had a persistent mental block that kept me from realizing that much of the wool and linen embroidery I adored was actually crewel work.  I would see historical embroidery as surface embroidery, wool embroidery, silk embroidery, free embroidery or any moniker other than Crewel.  My recent interest in crewel was sparked by the linen crewel designs of the Deerfield Society of Blue and White Needlework.   In a sense, I studied the history of crewel in reverse, first learning about the revival of colonial needlework that occurred during the Arts and Crafts Movement, then going back to the needlework of 16th through 18th centuries where it has its roots.

While reading a book on the Arts and Crafts Movement, I stumbled onto images of some of the work of Society of Blue and White and was completely enamored of of their handwork and their story.  The original Deerfield Society of Blue and White Needlework existed from 1896 to 1926.  Two women, Margaret Whiting and Ellen Miller, started the society with the intention of preserving embroideries from the Colonial period for future generations.  They had found some old needlework in very poor condition at a museum in Deerfield and were struck by the lovely designs and workmanship they found far superior to that of their contemporaries.  Margaret and Ellen set  about meticulously copying the colonial designs with an eye toward preservation and gathering materials for their reproduction.  There was a lot of time and effort put into experimenting with vegetable dyes to get the right colors for the linen threads.  

Margaret and Ellen also began to design original works on linen, but with a broader variety of colors than just blue and white.  Most of the varied items sold were stitched by women employees, who were paid approximately $0.20 an hour for their labor.   [1]   Only needlework which met the exacting standards of the Margaret and Ellen was allowed to bear the Society's emblem, a letter D inside of a flax wheel.   The Society of Blue and White, though short-lived, was a recognized force of the Arts and Crafts movement and their influence forever changed the town of Deerfield.   These two women managed to create a thriving business out of their passion for needlework at a time when women had not yet even earned the right to vote.  Ellen passed away first, then Margaret decided to close the business rather than see it continue on without their vigilant stewardship, but their legacy still lives.  Luckily, they kept meticulous records and those papers made their way into the hands of Margery Howe, who used them to write Deerfield Embroidery.

Much of the colonial crewel work has nice clean flowing lines, so it is easy to see why the revival was so successful during the Arts and Crafts Movement.  The traditional designs, even worked in blue and white rather than authentic colors had a distinct natural feel.  The needlework was much more elaborate than Redwork, but it was not fussy.  Vines, trees and flowers were predominant design elements.  Most of it was worked in wool, specifically crewel wool, however a lot of American crewel was worked in linen threads (as evidenced by the vast body of work created by the SBW).  Modern stitchers have an extensive choice of materials.  Crewel Embroidery is surface embroidery created using crewel wool, but that would exclude a lot of beautiful and historically significant pieces of work that are grouped by pattern and execution, but not materials. 

Even though crewel wool is traditional, I prefer the feel and the color range of linen and silk. I discovered Silk Mori® in Milkpaint™ colors by Kreinik many years and thought they would be perfect for working some of the designs from Deerfield Embroidery.  The colors have a soft an appealing look and texture that seems well suited for crewel designs.  The following information is a quoted directly from their website.  "Milkpaint as a common type of paint used in Colonial and early 19th century periods.  Kreinik has created a line of 55 colors in Silk Mori that has reproduced the wonderful tones of this historical era." [2]  I agree with the advertising at Kreinik and think that any antique sampler or colonial revival design would look great worked with this beautiful and subtle thread. 

As you browse through some of the links and books listed in the bibliographic portion of this article, note the consistency of design from the colonial period and the revival.  And the graceful movement of the flora and fauna across the ecru backgrounds on which most are stitched. 

On-line Resources:

Print Resources:

Periodicals:

  • Embroidery and Cross Stitch. Vol. 4, Number 5."Deerfield Embroidery Tray Cloth" pp. 44  
  • McCall's Needlework.  October 1996.  A Look Back: Tree of Life Pattern.  (p. 20) Instructions and chart are in the Pattern Pull-out Section.  
  • Embroidery and Cross Stitch. Volume 6, Number 4.  "Deerfield Tablecentre" p. 28

Books:

  • The Reader's Digest Complete Guide to Needlework.  
  • Howe, Margery Burnham. Deerfield Embroidery.  
  • Homespun and Blue.
  • Baker, Muriel.  Handbook of American Crewel Embroidery.  Hardcover. ISBN 0-80480-2300.
  • Bradbury, Frances M. Early American Crewel Design.  Stemmer House.  Soft cover.  48 pages.  ISBN: 0880450924.
  • Bradbury, Frances M. English Crewel Designs: Sixteenth To Eighteenth Centuries.  Stemmer House.  Soft cover.  56 pages.  ISBN 0-88045-0150
  • Hawkins, Sue. Crewel Embroidery.  Sterling.  Soft cover.  128 pages. ISBN: 0715310747
  • Jeroy, Judy.  Creative Crewel Embroidery.  Sterling.  Paperback, 128pp. ISBN: 1579901875
  • Rainbow, Jane.  Beginners Guide to Crewel Embroidery.  Soft cover.  64 pages. ISBN: 085532869X.
  • Remmington, Preston.  English Domestic Needlework of the XVI, XVII, and XVIII Centuries.  Dated 1945. There is a nice historical article that precedes the dozens of black and white photos of the exhibit.  The author was the  Curator of Renaissance and Modern Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  • Victoria and Albert Museum.  Flowers in English Embroidery.  Curator notes and guide, with black and white photographs, for an exhibit. Printed 1947.

 

[1] Becker, Jane S.  Selling Tradition: Appalachia and the Construction of an American Folk, 1930-1940. University of North Carolina Press.  1998.

[2] Welcome to Kreinik Silk Mori Milkpaint Threads


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This site is intended to be an educational site to share my passions. The images and ideas herein are my sole intellectual property, unless other wise noted, and I reserve and retain all rights. Linking to this site is perfectly acceptable, but reproducing any of the contents electronically or in print, without my express permission, is not.  

 

 Rissa Peace ©1999-2013

This site last edited: 01/01/13