Dyed and Gone to Heaven – An Online Magazine and Needlework Resource  


by Elizabeth Creeden

It is interesting that embroidery, the end result of enslaving women to a needle, has become a means of expression for women in the 20th century who may never have held a needle previously in their lives. This has ironically coincided with this century's women's movement that repositioned women from an extension of a male to an individual. At a time when homemaking skills are low in priority, more women have rediscovered the needle, advancing embroidery skills and knowledge further than the previous generations of this century.

The crewel revival of the 1960's and 70's began mildly enough with Mildred Davis and Elsa Williams. Their discoveries and love of crewel focused attention on textiles preserved in museum collections for women who were still homebound. Erica Wilson, with her design ability and skill, represented a new freedom that was arriving quickly. When Susan Swan's book, Plain and Fancy, reached this market in 1976, a passion was flamed for textile research and study that continues today. Betty Ring's monumental work, Girlhood Embroidery, opened the past for many women who could clearly feel a connection to their history through embroidery. This excitement is reflected in amazing advancements in counted work on evenweave linen by women relearning 17th century techniques who are no longer bound by previous conventions. Crewel embroidery has had many revivals since its English and American zenith of the 17th and 18th century. Each revival alters and redefines stitch names and techniques with losses and gains sustained during each period.


 Detail from Mary Bulman Bedhangings, Courtesy of Old York Historical Society


The word crewel, with a variety of spellings, can be found in English records back to the 13th century. It is thought to have come from the East to Egypt then to Greece and Rome where it traveled with the Roman conquests to England. From the 15th century crewel embroidery meant any embroidery technique using fine worsted yarns. I've been known to say repeatedly that the name surely refers to the effect of the sharp needle on your fingers while stitching. This is definitely an untruth for past usage of the word crewel included tent and cross stitch using an inoffensive tapestry needle. By the 20th century crewelwork had been redefined to mean surface embroidery with wool. Crewel, by definition, is the application of a variety of stitches to the surface of fabric, usually linen, following a design applied to the fabric.


COPYRIGHT NOTICE: No part of this feature story nor the included designs can be reproduced or distributed in any form (including electronic) or used as a teaching tool without the prior written permission of the CARON Collection Ltd. or the featured designers or contributors.

© 1999 The Caron Collection / Voice: (203) 381-9999, Fax: 203 381-9003

CARON email: mail@caron-net.com