Crewel embroidery is a form of embroidery in which patterns are lightly stenciled onto a fabric and then they are embroidered over. This embroidery style is a type of free embroidery, meaning that the threads of the underlying fabric are not counted while the artisan works on the design. Numerous stitches are used in crewel embroidery to create complex and elaborate patterns; some very fine examples of crewelwork can be seen in museums all over the world. When one considers that historical crewelwork was accomplished by hand, these works of art are truly stunning.
Embroidery as a decorative technique has been used by humans for thousands of years. When Europe first began trading with the East, fine silk thread became available, and the art of embroidery exploded across Europe. Fine wool was also used in historical embroidery; the first use of the word “crewel” dates back to 1494, when it was used to refer to the wool yarns used in crewelwork. “Crewel” in the sense of embroidery first appeared in print in the late 1500s, although crewelwork was undoubtedly being made before this period. The origins of the word are unknown; embroiderers often joke that it refers to the cruel pricks of the needle which are endured by the craftsperson while making a piece of crewelwork.
The base fabrics used in crewel embroidery are sturdy and tightly woven, so that they can bear the weight of the crewel yarn without sagging. The technique also requires a frame to secure the area of the fabric being worked on, keeping the tension of the fabric tight so that the stitches will not be distorted. Most people think of embroidery hoops when they visualize embroidery frames, but historical examples of crewelwork such as crewel tapestries and bed hangings were actually created on huge standing frames.
Crewel needles are extremely sharp, as they must be able to penetrate dense, thick fabric. They also have elongated eyes which are supposed to facilitate threading, since thread colors in embroidery are often switched, and craftspeople do not want to fight with their needles. The earliest needles were made from bone, but metals are the material of choice for modern crewel needles, which are stored in needle cases when they are not in use.
Truly fine crewel embroidery is the work of a talented craftsperson, even when the base pattern is designed and applied by someone else. The crafter must be able to create smooth, clean stitches, using a variety of styles to add texture and shading to the piece. The crewelwork may densely cover the fabric, as in the case of Elizabethan embroidery, or it may be used to accent the fabric, as was common during the Arts and Crafts movement.
Many people are naturally attracted to the beauty of embroidery, and crewelwork is unlikely to go out of style, although the vogues for patterns and colors may change. Many craft stores sell the tools needed to begin crewel embroidery, including crewel yarns in a range of colors, and some stores also offer classes in the technique for beginners. Like many arts, good embroidery takes practice, and it can be frustrating, but the finished work can be very rewarding.