Crewel Embroidery

In our last newsletter we talked about embroidery in general. One of the techniques is crewel embroidery. A famous example that has withstood time is the Bayeux Tapestry. Tina S. emailed us to say that she and her family got to see the original tapestry over the Christmas holidays. She says "The Tapestry is in surprisingly good condition for an object over 900 years old. Apparently the front side colors are nearly as bright as the colors on the back side. Besides the main scenes in the embroidery, there are all sorts of figures, both human and animal, in the top and bottom borders. For instance, in the scenes depicting the final battle at Hastings, dead soldiers are shown. Later, when it becomes clear the Normans have won the same soldiers are being shown stripped of their clothing which is what the victorious army did to the dead of the defeated. There are no women shown with one possible exception. In one scene, there is a figure off to one side that has been interpreted to be William’s daughter, Edwige, who was betrothed to Harold.

The Tapestry was stitched using only 4 stitches: a stem stitch for outlining, satin stitch for filling in, long stitches that run perpendicular to the satin stitches that anchor the satin stitches and also give it dimension, and a short stitch that nails down the long stitch. These last two make up the ‘Bayeux’ stitch." The gift shop sells crewel kits of some individual scenes. Tina bought the "Coronation of Harold".

While the Bayeux Tapestry dates back to the 11th century, crewel embroidery actually hit its peak during the 16th and 17th centuries. By the 18th century, it was no longer in vogue in Europe. However, it found favor in America where the crewel designs changed to reflect animals and plants common to the stitchers. Also, because of the scarcity of some supplies, there was a period where only blue and white colors were used. Also some stitches changed to require less thread on the back of the fabric. For example, the traditional satin stitch became a one-sided satin stitch to conserve yarn. In some texts this new stitch was called the "economy stitch."

Back in Europe, Berlin wool work replaced crewel for most of the 19th century. This technique was developed in Berlin, Germany. It appealed to the novice stitcher because the stitchers were basic and patterns simple. One good thing that came out of the Berlin wool work era was the way patterns were charted. German designers created patterns during the early 1800’s using "point paper" which had colored squares corresponding to the canvas squares. Prior to this symbols were used and once printed had to be hand-colored.

Crewel is named after the type of fiber is used – wool. Several sources say that crewel is Welsh for "wool". Others claim it comes from medieval words meaning a ball of yarn, "clew" or "krua". It does appear that wool was the medium used for the earliest embroidery techniques with examples found dating back to the 1st century BC. Let’s learn a little about what wool is and how it becomes a stitchable fiber.

What is wool?

Wool, also known as fleece, is the thick coat from sheep. Wool has several desirable characteristics for stitchers. It has an elastic property allowing it to stretch up to 50% of its length when wet and 30% when dry. Wool works well for producing yarn and takes dying very well. There is a somewhat lengthy process to get the wool off the sheep and into your needle. I apologize to all the fiber artists who turn the wool into fibers. I am able to present just the short version and don’t give you the appropriate credit for your wonderful art form. First the fleece is harvested by a person with a shear. The best shearer can take the coat off in one piece which gives the longest fibers. To see how a sheep is sheared here is a quick video taken at a sheep shearing competition.

The harvested wool is then cleaned. A by-product is lanolin. Carding is done with two paddles with teeth which gives another cleaning while pulling the fibers into long slivers. If the slivers are less than three inches it can be used for roving. The longer strands are combed and drawn before spinning. Spinning twists the fibers together to form the yarn.

Yarn is divided into worsted and woolen. Worsted yarn uses fibers at least four inches long which are carded and combed. The spinning process gives the wool a tight twist which is stronger, and the resulting yarn is smoother. In contrast, woolen yarns are comprised of fibers less than four inches in length which are just carded. The twist is slacker which makes it softer and bulkier but not as strong.

Here are some types of traditional crewel yarn:

  • DMC Medici is non-divisible, 2-ply 100% soft, crewel-type wool. However, DMC has stopped production of this product. We have a few colors left.
  • Bella Lusso wool is a good substitute for Medici. This is 100% merino wool from Italy available in over 65 colors. This wool comes from merino sheep and is thought to be the softest wool of all.
  • Appleton wool comes from England. There are over 400 colors, and all of the colors are available in tapestry wool (4 ply) and crewel wool (2 ply).
  • Paternayan, Paterna, or Persian wool is long fiber wool from New Zealand. The wool is a divisible 3-ply fiber with over 400 colors including variegated colors.
  • In 1965 Elsa Williams developed a special 4-ply tapestry wool yarn which provides ultra-smooth finished stitching. The yarns are available in 234 colors.

There were some articles talking about using silk and linen fibers rather than wool. However, by definition crewel embroidery is done with wool yarn so I will not recommend other fibers.

Work Basket Supplies

Traditionally, crewel was done on a linen twill fabric because it was firmly woven. Today there are many fabrics that can be used. Your choice needs to be a strong, medium weight fabric. It has to be firmly woven, but needs to have enough give to let your needle and thread go through. If possible, try to have some linen in the fabric content because that allows the fabric to give when the needle goes through and then closes behind it. Prepare your fabric by ironing out any creases before starting. Finish the edges either by machine or with masking tape.

You must have a hoop or frame when doing crewel work to keep your tension even. Hoops are a good choice for small projects. One drawback is that you often need both hands when doing some stitches. A solution would be a hands-free hoop (6914) or sit-on frame (6955). It is recommended to remove your stitching from a hoop each time you finish stitching so you don’t get a permanent crease.

Frames are wonderful for crewel work because you can work on larger areas and attach them to stands for hands-free work (6917). Stretcher bars are another option.

It is important to keep your work as clean as possible. I highly recommend one of these products. Snap Wraps (6583) or Grime Gards (6576) http://www.nordicneedle.com/PROD/6576.html for hoops or Q-snap frames. Cozy Covers (6592) or Grime Gards (6593) for scroll rods.

It is important to have the correct needles. Be sure your needles are straight and have no burrs. The size of your needle depends on the size of your yarn. You want the needle to be just a little wider than your yarn. This will allow the yarn to go through the fabric without a lot of wear and still be able to fill the hole. One way to tell if your needle is too small is your stitching will become work, tugging your needle because the yarn doesn’t slide through the fabric.

  • Crewel needles have a large slender eye. They are sharp with a thin shaft. A rule of thumb is to use a size 3 needle with two strands of yarn and a size 4 with one strand. We now carry John James size 9 crewel needles (7048) which Trish Burr also recommends for needle painting.
  • Chenille needles can also be used. They are sharp, often shorter than a crewel needle with a thicker shaft. Chenille needles come in sizes 13 to 24 and should be used with coarse or thick yarns. John James has a Pebble set of chenille needles (7043B).
  • Tapestry needles are similar to the chenille needle but they have a blunt tip. These needles are great for areas where you are doing weaving or whipping stitches and don’t want to split the yarn.

Try this tip for threading thicker yarns! Cut a strip of paper about 1" long, narrow enough to go through the needle when folded. Fold the paper and put the end of the yarn inside the paper making it as flat as you can. Put the paper through the eye and gently pull. Better yet, attach the Clover yarn threader (7085A) to your chatelaine for easy threading. Another chatelaine tool is the Clover yarn cutter pendant (7257B).

A thimble can be handy. Wear it on the middle finger of your stitching hand to give an extra push to the needle so it is easier to grasp on the other side. A thimble should fit firmly with little slippage, but it should not feel tight or pinched. Clover has a flexible rubber thimble with a metal tip (6990A) that is available in three sizes. Another tool you might want to invest in is a needle puller. As you fill your fabric up, there may be times when it is difficult to pull the needle through. Here are three options: Lacis wooden needle puller (6995), Magnetic needle tugger (300-700-0001), and Dritz needle puller discs (6994).

A good pair of scissors, lighting and a magnifier will make your stitching experience more enjoyable.

Let’s Get to Stitching!

You can choose how to start your stitching. If your piece is textured you can use a regular knot. Knots made in yarn may unknot over time. If you leave a short tail on your knot there is less chance for it to unknot. A waste knot is always okay. A way to ensure your thread stays knotted is to do two small back stitches at the beginning of your work. The key is to split the first stitch with your second stitch and then give it a little tug to lock it into place. You can end your thread this same way.

STITCHES

Crewel embroidery uses standard stitches such as back stitch, blanket stitch, stem stitch, satin stitch, and chain stitch. There are several knotted stitches including the bullion knot, coral stitch, knotted pearl stitch, and French knots add dimension. Many stitches can be combined to showcase trellis work. Overall, this is a really easy technique to learn and with the design takes shape quickly.

JACOBEAN EMBROIDERY

This is a distinctive embroidery style that was influenced by the Far East. The Jacobean style was extremely popular during the reign of King James I (1603-1625). The monochromatic designs often depicted fanciful leaves, flowers, and birds. The basic stitches used are back stitch, chain stitch, seeding, and stem stitch. Here’s a tidbit: King James is responsible for the King James Bible. He didn’t like the existing English translations so in 1604 James requested a new English translation be made. The King James Bible was completed by 1611.

TIPS:

  • Use a thread length no longer than 16" to keep the yarn from wearing.
  • Watch the twist on your yarn. Many times we inadvertently twist the thread just a bit as we stitch. If the twist becomes too tight, let your needle dangle down and the yarn should unwind to its original twist. If the yarn appears to have unraveled, try twisting it to restore its look.
  • Dye lots for yarn can vary greatly so be sure to purchase more than enough to complete your project.

Here are some great resources that talk about the materials, stitches, patterns, and finishing.

FINISHING

First decide whether you need to clean the piece. Once the piece is cleaned, it needs to be properly stretched before you finish it whether framed or made into an accessory. Most crewel resource books have some suggestions on stretching your piece. I also found this helpful article on Sara’s Texture Crafts blog.

Are you ready to try crewel embroidery? I would recommend getting a kit that has the yarn included.

Here are some lovely kits in a non-Jacobean style:

If you prefer the Jacobean style, there are several kits available.

Here are two kits done in the Victorian crewel style:


We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!

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“The following article was written by Debi Feyh of Nordic Needle and published in their weekly e-mail newsletter. Permission was granted by Nordic Needle to share this article in (name of your publication). For information on subscribing to their weekly e-mail newsletter, visit www.nordicneedle.com. A free mail-order catalog is available to you upon request if you live in the USA or Canada.”

2 thoughts on “Crewel Embroidery

    • Hello! Yes, we think the DMC tapestry wool would wore great for crewel. It would provide excellent coverage, and being 100% wool it will produce a beautiful matte finish. Thank you for your question!

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