A Guide to Crewel Embroidery
Written by Rissa Peace, June 2002, all rights reserved.
For me, the words "crewel work" always elicited images of my stepmother
and the 1970's owl designs she worked in acid yellow, avocado green, burnt
orange and tobacco brown. It must have been that persistent association
that kept me from exploring "crewel" as I expanded my interest in historical
embroidery. I had a persistent mental block that kept me from realizing
that much of the wool and linen embroidery I adored was actually crewel
work. I would see historical embroidery as surface embroidery, wool
embroidery, silk embroidery, free embroidery or any moniker other than
Crewel. My recent interest in crewel was sparked by the linen crewel
designs of the Deerfield Society of Blue and White Needlework. In a sense,
I studied the history of crewel in reverse, first learning about the revival
of colonial needlework that occurred during the Arts and Crafts Movement,
then going back to the needlework of 16th through 18th centuries where it
has its roots.
While reading a book on the Arts and Crafts Movement, I stumbled onto
images of some of the work of Society of Blue and White and was completely
enamored of of their handwork and their story. The original Deerfield
Society of Blue and White Needlework existed from 1896 to 1926. Two women,
Margaret Whiting and Ellen Miller, started the society with the intention of
preserving embroideries from the Colonial period for future generations.
They had found some old needlework in very poor condition at a museum in
Deerfield and were struck by the lovely designs and workmanship they found
far superior to that of their contemporaries. Margaret and Ellen set about
meticulously copying the colonial designs with an eye toward preservation
and gathering materials for their reproduction. There was a lot of time and
effort put into experimenting with vegetable dyes to get the right colors
for the linen threads.
Margaret and Ellen also began to design original works on linen, but with
a broader variety of colors than just blue and white. Most of the varied
items sold were stitched by women employees, who were paid approximately
$0.20 an hour for their labor.  Only needlework
which met the exacting standards of the Margaret and Ellen was allowed to
bear the Society's emblem, a letter D inside of a flax wheel. The Society
of Blue and White, though short-lived, was a recognized force of the Arts
and Crafts movement and their influence forever changed the town of
Deerfield. These two women managed to create a thriving business out of
their passion for needlework at a time when women had not yet even earned
the right to vote. Ellen passed away first, then Margaret decided to close
the business rather than see it continue on without their vigilant
stewardship, but their legacy still lives. Luckily, they kept meticulous
records and those papers made their way into the hands of Margery Howe, who
used them to write Deerfield Embroidery.
Much of the colonial crewel work has nice clean flowing lines, so it is
easy to see why the revival was so successful during the Arts and Crafts
Movement. The traditional designs, even worked in blue and white rather
than authentic colors had a distinct natural feel. The needlework was much
more elaborate than Redwork, but it was not fussy. Vines, trees and flowers
were predominant design elements. Most of it was worked in wool,
specifically crewel wool, however a lot of American crewel was worked in
linen threads (as evidenced by the vast body of work created by the SBW).
Modern stitchers have an extensive choice of materials. Some purists define
crewel as surface embroidery created using crewel wool, but that would
exclude a lot of beautiful and historically significant pieces of crewel
Even though crewel wool is more traditional, I prefer the feel and the
color range of linen and silk. I discovered Silk Mori® in Milkpaint™ colors
by Kreinik this year and thought they would be perfect for working some of
the crewel designs from Deerfield Embroidery. The colors have a soft
an appealing look and texture that seems well suited for crewel designs.
The following information is a quoted directly from their website.
"Milkpaint as a common type of paint used in Colonial and early 19th century
periods. Kreinik has created a line of 55 colors in Silk Mori that has
reproduced the wonderful tones of this historical era." 
I agree with the advertising at Kreinik and think that any antique sampler
or colonial revival design would look great worked with this beautiful and
As you browse through some of the links and books listed in the
bibliographic portion of this article, note the consistency of design from
the colonial period and the revival. And the graceful movement of the flora
and fauna across the ecru backgrounds on which most are stitched.
|The Reader's Digest Complete Guide to Needlework. |
|Howe, Margery Burnham. Deerfield Embroidery. |
|Homespun and Blue.|
|Baker, Muriel. Handbook of American Crewel Embroidery.
Hardcover. ISBN 0-80480-2300.|
|Bradbury, Frances M. Early American Crewel Design. Stemmer
House. Soft cover. 48 pages. ISBN: 0880450924.|
|Bradbury, Frances M. English Crewel Designs: Sixteenth To
Eighteenth Centuries. Stemmer House. Soft cover. 56 pages. ISBN
|Hawkins, Sue. Crewel Embroidery. Sterling. Soft cover. 128
pages. ISBN: 0715310747|
|Jeroy, Judy. Creative Crewel Embroidery. Sterling.
Paperback, 128pp. ISBN: 1579901875|
|Rainbow, Jane. Beginners Guide to Crewel Embroidery. Soft
cover. 64 pages. ISBN: 085532869X.|
|Remmington, Preston. English Domestic Needlework of the XVI, XVII,
and XVIII Centuries. Dated 1945. There is a nice historical article
that precedes the dozens of black and white photos of the exhibit. The
author was the Curator of Renaissance and Modern Art at the Metropolitan
Museum of Art.|
|Victoria and Albert Museum. Flowers in English Embroidery.
Curator notes and guide, with black and white photographs, for an exhibit.