What is crewel? Where did it come from? Why was it so popular in the colonies?

Crewel Picture
Crewel as we know it today was derived from the Welsh word for wool. Broadly defined, crewelwork is embroidery on fabric using a twisted worsted yarn. The soft texture of the wool lends itself to almost any closely woven fabric, historically linen as well as linen blends were the preferred medium. Although today silk as well as velvet continues to gain popularity. The craft is a very old one with surviving examples such at the famous Bayeux Tapestry which dates back to the 12th century in France. This tapestry is an impressive 230 feet long piece of linen woven with supple hand dyed twisted wool.

Crewel Picture
We can thank the Elizabethans women for its popularity with their fluent needle work skills and love of nature. They created art work, stitching everything from dresses to purses, shoe tops, curtains, and bed hangings. With elegant gardens and wildlife acting as their muse, they created beautiful flora and fauna motifs in wool such as the famous Tree Of Life. Although in retrospect, one of the catalysts for the crewel movement would have to be the establishment of the famous East India Trading Company in the early 1600’s. With this expanding scope in trade, it afforded a broader view of exotic worlds that broadened the creative minds and fanciful design elements that only added in the popularity of the craft.

Crewel Picture
This leads us to yet another key player in the evolution of the crewel trade, India. This country with all of its exotic spices and culture clouded in mysticism, and influenced by British design, began to export “Palampores” which were painted cotton hangings most often depicting the Tree of Life with its stems grounded in dirt mounds called "terra firma" and billowing branches extending towards the heavens with clusters of colorful foliage and fowl. This added in ushering in yet another blossoming period knows as the Jacobean period under the English rule of King James I (1603-1625). This period in time saw crewelwork being applied with a very ornate and heavy hand covering the entire ground. It was characterized with wavy borders and small motifs of opulent texture and stitchery. During the Jacobean period, crewel was used on chair cushions, beds, bed curtains, and drapery. The wool yarn was a thin worsted wool yarn made of two threads.

Crewel Picture
By the beginning of the 18th century, crewelwork reached its pinnacle of refinement bowing to the graceful curves and delicate forms of the furniture fabricators and design esthetics of the day. The overall effect of the fabric was transformed by delicate needle work , more of the background being uncovered and the popularity of the chain stitch, stem, French knot, satin and herringbone. Just as it reached its zenith of success in the colonies in the 17th and early 18th centuries, it experience a rapid decline. The pragmatic New England housewife had not the time nor the inclination to afford her the leisurely activity of fanciful needlework in a purely totalitarian way. Also, with the China silk trade in full bloom and the advent of silk worm farming being introduced into the colonies, silk, not crewel became the fashion of the day.

Crewel - Vintage crewel
Vintage crewel
During the 19th century, needle work schools across England and America tried to rekindle the flame of the dying art with all of its twists and changes over the prior two centuries, but to no avail. By the beginning of the 20th century, it had all but been forgotten until the country yet again looked back to the past to once again call upon the one of a kind beautiful fabric called crewel.

Although crewel will likely never again bask in the glory as it once did it will always have a special place in our colonial hearts as one of the premier decorating fabrics in our period homes? A forgotten friend continues to drape our poster beds, camelback couches, wingback chairs and mingling with all of our historic artifacts as it once did in days gone by.
Crewel Picture

Source: Overview research & text by Shawn Wright; Making Pillows research & text by Bryan Wright

Related Links:

Museum Collection Project: A Jacobean Gem - Owen Davies
Sharon Boggin's Online Stitch Dictionary

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