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


by Elizabeth Creeden

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In 1600 Queen Elizabeth of England signed the charter for The East India Company opening up trade with the Far East which then introduced painted cottons called palampores. Designs for these eventually were dictated by English fashion but translated by Indian painters where they evolved into the fantastic tree of life with multiple flowers and leaves often growing from Chinese style mounds. Crewel work exploded into fantasy bed hangings with a palette of greens and blue greens, oversized leaves, birds and animals. The stitching became a contest of pattern and motif, with each leaf competing against the next for variety. This was not the only crewel style available during the 17th century but it is the most memorable. As the century progressed, the style lightened, becoming more graceful for its move to America.

American women in the 18th century took crewel to their hearts producing their simplified but original style of bed hangings, pockets, pocketbooks, petticoat borders, chair seats etc. The amount of crewel remaining in collections today attests to the devotion and industry of American women. Design became regionalized with mounds and prancing animals remaining popular near the seacoast, while blue and white scattered patterns were favored in the Connecticut Valley region. The stitches also changed as they moved from England; long and short to the faster self couching stitch also called New England laid or Roumanian. By the third quarter of the 18th Century, crewel faded as women became overwhelmed with the American Revolution.

The next revival of crewel started in England when William Morris and his idealistic buddies, among them Edward Burne Jones, led a back to the earth movement in the mid 19th century. His marriage to Jane Burden and the establishing of their home was the pivot that steered Morris to his devotion and study of the decorative arts. His work with crewel caused his frustration with dyes of the industrial revolution driving him to investigate and experiment with natural dyes to recreate the palette of blues and blue greens used in the past. Embroidery was one tiny part of Morris's involvement as a designer, who along with Rosetti, Burne Jones and others, began the Arts and Crafts Movement. Remember each revival redefines techniques and design. William Morris expanded medieval design to reflect his generation and need. The long and short stitch was nicknamed the Kensington stitch and a cottage industry was formed to produce the embroideries.

Once again the ocean was no barrier for new ideas. Margaret Whiting and Ellen Miller of Deerfield, Massachusetts, under the influence of Englishman John Ruskin, formed The Deerfield Blue and White Society in 1898, for the production of embroidery based on 18th century crewel examples. As Morris had before them, they experimented with dyes to produce color fast indigo blues and madder roses on linen threads rather than wool to avoid moth damage. They were recognized in their time as part of the American Arts and Crafts movement and continued with their cottage industry until World War I changed the world's direction. Candice Wheeler, another recognized embroiderer of the American Arts and Crafts movement, actually preceeded the Deerfield Blue and White Society. As part of the Society of Decorative Arts in New York along with Louis Tiffany, she designed and stitched in wools along with silk surface embroidery. Her work is represented in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The first wave of craftspeople to develop after both wars' destruction was in the 1960's. That back to the earth movement moved embroidery, pottery and other decorative arts from its quiet existence to, once again, its place of prominence and respect. This generation's gods have not yet been selected. Embroidery, at one time the equal of fine art, has developed technicians and now waits for the next revival, whether of crewel or another medium.

The following examples of crewelwork were provided by The Plymouth Antiquarian Society with our special gratitude to Donna Curtin, Executive Director, for her research efforts and generosity in providing us with historical crewel work from the Society's collection.

Detail of bed hanging fragment, New England, 1760-75. Wool on wool, absract blossoms in monochromatic indidgo.

Petticoat Border (shown as trytych), Boston, 1740-60. Wool embroidered on linen. Pastoral scenes of trees, flowers, birds and animals, sometimes referred to as the "Fishing Lady" style.

Crewel pocketbook, 1763. Wool embroidered on linen canvas with wool tape edging and silk lining. Belonged to Revolutionary patriot Ephraim Spooner of Plymouth, MA, whose name is stitched on the green border panel below purse clasp.

Petticoat border, 1725-50, Boston area. Wool embroidered on linen. Floral pattern with few repeating motifs.

The following crewel work was provided courtesy of The Scarlet Letter with special thanks to Marsha Van Valin:
A Crewelwork Hanging, English, First Half of the 18th Century - Embroidered in colored wools with sinuous branches sprouting out-sized foliage and stylized flowers rising from an imbricated ground, with various animals, including a stag, lion and four rabbits.

The following crewel work was provided by the Old York Historical Society in York, ME, with special thanks extended to Scott Stevens, Executive Director, and Cheryl Farley, Community Relations Director, for sharing these priceless treasures with us.

Bedhangings of woolen crewel embroidery on unbleached linen, worked by Mary Swett Bulman of York, ME, circa 1745. This is the only complete set of American crewel embroidered bedhangings to have survived from the 18th century, consisting of 6 valences (an interior and exterior set) and there is a tester as well.. The colors remain incredibly vibrant and have been maintained in a remarkable state of preservation. Textile scholars consider them to be the most important extant examples of 18th century American needlework.

The pictorial embroidery shown was provided by the Historical Society of Old Newbury, with special thanks to Jay Williamsion for permission to display it on our website

The author, Elizabeth Creeden, is the proprietor of a needlework shop, The Sampler, in Plymouth, MA. She is a reknowned authority on crewel and has been enormously instumental in reviving interest in this technique. Not only is she dedicated to preserving historical examples of crewelwork, but she is herself a designer of original crewel patterns and has reproduced period pieces of all kinds for museums, public and private historic organizations, and private homes.For more information on Elizabeth Creedon, see our Shop Focus this month on The Sampler.

The Plymouth Antiquarian Society was founded in 1919 by a group of women volunteers dedicated to preserving historic American houses and artifacts. Located in Plymouth, MA, the Society maintains an extensive collection of fine furnishings, domestic objects and textiles and operates three historic houses museums. For information about membership or to receive a calendar of events and programs, please contact the society at P.O.Box 3773, Plymouth, MA, 02361, call them at (508) 746-0012 or e-mail them at pasm@ici.net

For more information on the Scarlet Letter, see the Feature Story and Gallery Feature on Samplers Part II in our site archives or visit their site at http://www.scarlet-letter.com

At the Old York Historical Society you can get an intimate view of three centuries of life in a distinctive coastal Maine Village. Discover the town's rich architectural, cultural, and maritime heritage as you experience tours of historic buildings located in the center of York and along the riverfront where the town was founded in the 1650s. Choose a tour led by a costumed guide through one or several museum buildings showcasing over three hundred years of furnishings and accessories that tell the story of life in York as it used to be. The Old York Historical Society can be contacted by phone - (207) 363- 4974, by e-mail - oyhs@oldyork.org or see their website - http://www.oldyork.org

The purpose of the Historical Society of Old Newbury is to preserve and perpetuate the history of Old Newbury. Artifacts in the museum have been donated by residents in the community and the Museum maintains a truly exceptional collection of furniture, painting, china, toys, fans, silver, clocks, clothing and needlework, displayed in rooms typical of the 19th century. The museum is located at 98 High Street in Newburyport, MA. For more information, please call (978) 462-2681.

Plain and Fancy, Susan Burrows Swan, Holt Rinehart and Winston, NY, 1976
American Needlework, Georgiana Brown Harbeson, Bonanza Books, NY, 1938
Deerfield Embroidery, Margery Burnham Howe, Charles Scribner's Sons, NY, 1976
English Domestic Needlework, Therle Hughes, Abbey Fine Arts, London, 1900
Girlhood Embroidery, Betty Ring, Alfred A. Knopf, NY 1993

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