"God has given you one face, and you make yourself another."
- William Shakespeare
Crewel embroidery or crewelwork is a traditional form of embroidery known for its large and bold designs made unique by the specific type of yarn used in the embroidery. The word ‘crewel’ is an old word that refers to the yarn itself ; a two-ply wool thread called crewel, from where the name for the technique originates.
Crewelwork dates back many centuries and was traditionally seen on tapestries, curtains, and clothing. The true origins of the technique is difficult to know but it rose to prominence in Jacobean England during the 16th and 17th centuries, with the oldest, most famous piece of crewel being the thousand-year-old Bayeux Tapestry. It made a comeback in the 1970s with bold colours, big flower designs , fun phrases and more.
Today, we see crewelwork framed as art, embroidered on pillows and more. In addition, the art is ever-evolving with the introduction of new, modern patterns, convenient kits and a wide range of materials. One thing, however, remains unchanged – the crewel wool thread.
While many people have begun to prefer a looser definition of crewel embroidery placing importance on the type of stitches and design over the type of yarn, the fact is there is no difference between the stitches used in other kinds of embroidery and the ones used in crewel embroidery. Some stitches are more traditional in the kind of embroider – for example filling stitches are a common type of crewelwork stitch- but there is really no special type of stitch to classify your embroidery work as crewelwork ; you are free to choose anything from satin stitches and laid stitches to feather and blanket stitches.
The type of design isn’t a significant factor in crewel embroidery. As long as the space to fill is large, any design can be stitched using crewel embroidery. Traditionally, the designs focus on flowers, birds or animals but crewel embroidery is also suited to modern, abstract designs – so there’s nothing to stop anyone from getting a bit non-traditional with their crewel embroidery. The only real caveat to consider when it comes to design is having a large enough surface to work with as the yarn used in crewelwork is much thicker than traditional yarn, and may therefore not suit for embroidering miniatures.
Before moving on to the yarn, the most central part of crewel embroidery, let’s discuss what kind of fabrics can be used for crewelwork. Linen or linen twill with its loose weave, is often considered the most traditional material for crewelwork. While tightly woven fabrics can be used for crewelwork, the yarn is likely to wear quicker in these cases. Therefore, linen fabrics which are sturdy with a close weave to keep stitches in place while still woven loosely enough for the larger/thicker crewel wool to pass through are best suited for this type of embroidery. While linen might be the most common choice, this doesn’t mean you can’t experiment with fabrics for crewelwork. You can choose whichever fabric you prefer, as long as you do a few tests with the thread before committing to a type of fabric.
Finally, coming to the deciding factor – the thread to be used for crewel embroidery. Wool yarn is what makes crewel the thing it is so the right thread is an important place to start if you want to try crewel embroidery. If you’re worried about telling the difference between standard embroidery threads and crewel wool, don’t worry ; crewel wool is almost always labelled. Most often sold as two-ply – and sometimes one-ply- unlike standard cotton embroidery floss, you don’t separate the wool thread used in crewel and it’s much thinner than tapestry wool.
You can easily find crewel wool in needlework shops or online – and there’s always a nice variety of brands to pick from. A good tip : if you want to keep the texture of your stitching uniform then it’s always better to stick to one brand for one project. However, if you’re interested in adding texture then go ahead mix different brands of crewel wool.
The final thing you need to start crewelwork is a crewel needle. These needles have a large eye and sharp point ; while the eye allows for the thickness of the crewel wool to easily pass through, the sharp point is good for working through both the fabric and the wool from previous stitches. The needles are usually specifically labelled as crewel embroidery needles and are typically found with other embroidery needles.
There we have it, crewel embroidery might sound daunting and confusing if you’re hearing of the technique for the first time, but it’s no different from any other type of embroidery as long as you’ve got the right wool and pick your other materials in a way that suits your crewel embroidery style the best.