Saturday, January 16, 2021

Crewel Embroidery
Works on Cloth

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

For your convenience I have listed below the other post in this series:
Crewel Work or Old English Crewel Embroidery

The origins of crewel embroidery have become unclear over time. The nature of fabric and yarn has meant that much of embroidery's beginnings have perished as a result of vermin, climate and circumstance.

Wool does appear to be one of the most ancient media used for embroidery. It is depicted on fragments of leather and fabric, from as early as the first century BC, that have miraculously survived the ravages of time. Oner such piece is a fragment showing the face of a nomad warrior, which was found in Northern Mongolia.

Left: Embroidery on silk. A fragment of outerwear.
Right: A detailed drawing of images embroidered in a fragment of silk from outerwear. Noin Ula burial mound 20.

Another is is a hanging found in a tomb near Damietta, Egypt, that dates from the 4th or 5th century AD. The design has striking similarities to the later embroideries of the English Middle Ages.

Hanging with Polychrome Columns, 5th or 6th century, Found Egypt, near Damietta. Linen, wool, with height 208.3 cm.

The word 'crewel' is thought to have derived from the Anglo-Saxon 'clew', meaning a ball of yarn. It refers to the type of thread that is used - a two ply worsted wool yarn which can vary in thickness and texture. This wool was also known as 'cruel', 'crewel' or 'croyl'. Crewel wool usually has a long staple, which is very thin and can be twisted strongly and easily.

References to crewel are found in English records as far back as the 15th century. The Bayeux Tapestry which was worked in the 11th century, is one of the earliest and most famous examples of crewel work that we have today. This imposing work, which tells of the story of the Norman Conquest of England is over 70 meters long and is stitched with worsted yarns. It includes over 600 figures and many more animals, birds and fish, giving a remarkable insight into the way of life at that time.

Bayeux Tapestry, scene 55 - William Hastings battlefield.

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’.

Crewel wool continued to be used for embroidery throughout medieval England. However, it was overshadowed by the glorious works of Opus Anglicanum which were largely ecclesiastical embroideries that incorporated silk and metal threads.

Opus Anglicanum (13th century).

French crewelwork curtain.

Top: Late 17th Century English crewelwork curtain.
Centre: Detail of blue crewelwork.
Bottom: Detail of crewelwork bed curtain, 1689.

Crewel Embroidery[1]
Crewel embroidery was often used to dress beds in Elizabethan and Jacobean times. Bed hangings, with matching valances, coverlets and cushions, were not only used to keep out cold draughts and to provide privacy but were a symbol of prosperity and luxury. On occasion, the crewel designs of the bed hangings were reworked in tent stitch for covering chairs and stools. The cost of such needlework was incredibly expensive and many wealthier households had embroiderers as members of their staff.

English bed hanging from 1690 depicting birds, animals, flowers and fruit in a tree of life stemming from a hillocky ground.

Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, is one of history's most well known and prolific amateur embroiderers. As a child, she studied needlework at the French Court and during her twenty year imprisonment in Scotland and England she spent much of her time stitching.

Embroidery by Mary Queen of Scots with her name and emblematic picture of her roubles.

The needlework of the embroidery shown below began in Deerfield, Massachusetts, USA. Two local women, Ellen Miller and Margaret Whiting, had a desire to record the heritage of Massachusetts' needlework. They collected patterns and studied examples of old crewel embroidery, and began teaching to the local women of Deerfield. Eventually they established the Society of Deerfield Blue and White Needlework. The Society was disbanded in 1926.

Two wallhangings produced by The Deerfield Society of Blue and White Needlework between 1900-1916.

The brainchild of Anne Wynn-Wilson, the Quaker tapestry below depicts the history of Quakerism from the 17th century to the present day. Like the Bayeux Tapestry, it is worked in crewel embroidery. The seventy-seven panels, which make up this amazing work, are housed in Cumbria, England.
Four thousand men, women and children from fifteen different countries stitched the panels between 1981 and 1996. A special quaker stitch was invented for it.

The magnificent crewel embroidered bedspread that adorned the late Queen Mother's bed at Clamis Castle in Scotland disappeared in the 1950s. Her mother, Cecilia, the Countess of Stethmore, had originally worked it in 1904.

Phillipa Trunbull of The Crewel Work Company of Cumbria, England was commissioned to recreate the lost bedspread. With only a few photographs and the original headboard and pelmet as a guide, Phillipa spent over 600 hours in the research, design and stitching of the replacement bedspread. It was presented to the Queen Mother on her 100th birthday.

[1] S. Gardner, Editor, A ~ Z of Crewel Embroidery, Magie Bauer Melbourne (2004).