CharacteristicsTraditionally worked in wool yarn Fabric-linen twill (a strong material with diagonal parallel ridges), or woollen fabric Designs-from nature including flowers and leaves, not geometrical Using a careful selection of graded colours A great variety of stitches, predominantly long and short stitch.
“Crewel” means a ball of thread, from the Anglo-Saxon word “Cleow”. Originally the word crewel meant a worsted yarn of two threads and crewel embroidery, that which was sewn with crewel wool.
In the 16thC, the invention of the steel needle made sewing much easier. At this time in England, embroidery moved from the church to home. It was a period of great opulence. Furniture and clothing were richly decorated. Houses and manors were cold and draughty so embroidered hangings, curtains, valences and bed hangings helped to make them more cosy.
During the reign of Elizabeth I, trade routes between Europe and the East were opening up and advancement of art and science, resulted in a rich exchange of decorative styles, materials and techniques. Designs on porcelain goods, patterned chintz fabrics and palampores (printed or painted calico wall hangings in polychrome designs) brought to Europe by the East India Company were adapted into charming and intricate patterns for embroidery. Later these embroideries were exported to India, where they inspired a type of embroidery featuring swirling lines of coloured chain stitch. Indian craftsmen, unfamiliar with the English plants, improvised and in so doing turned them into exotic creations. Most of the earliest pieces of work were in shades of one colour – green brown, blue (indigo), yellow (buff), red, mulberry and mauve from iris and rose.
The 17thC and 18thC crewel work was influenced by a great interest in natural sciences and botany. Needle painting with ‘crewels’ became popular and pretty, romantic, naturalistic designs, with smaller delicate motifs were set around the gently undulating line of the rococo.
Today, the terms ‘crewel’ and Jacobean’ work are often incorrectly used synonymously. In the reign of James I, (1603-1625), the word Jacobean was associated with crewel embroidery but had distinctive design elements.
The Tree Of Life design, which originated in Persia, had great religious significance. A thick trunk springing from a rounded mound, twirling branches filled with large acanthus leaves and exotic fruits and flowers, wild birds and animals, having little regard for realism. These designs were adapted by the Englishwoman substituting deer, strawberry plants the oak tree and acorns.
Elizabethan scroll design consisting of an overall pattern of sweeping stems worked on a large scale, curving around and almost enclosing the different flowers and leaves within.
A Wavy Border.pattern which came later and consisted of a wavy border enclosed with straighter lines. This framed area contained regularly sprigged small motifs within.
The early vegetable dyes faded and so many of the soft colours associated with Jacobean work today are not necessarily those of original designers. In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution brought roller printing and cheap woven fabric. Thus the need for decoration by embroidery declined in popularity.
© Valerie Cavill 2008