Crewel embroidery

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Crewel Embroidery, or Crewelwork, is a decorative form of surface embroidery using wool and a variety of different embroidery stitches to follow a design outline applied to the fabric. The technique is at least a thousand years old. It was used in the Bayeux Tapestry, in Jacobean embroidery and in the Quaker tapestry.

The origin of the word crewel is unknown but is thought to come from an ancient word describing the curl in the staple, the single hair of the wool. Crewel wool has a long staple; it is fine and can be strongly twisted. Modern crewel wool is a fine, 2-ply or 1-ply yarn available in many different colours.

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Description of the technique

The crewel technique is not a counted-thread embroidery (like canvas work), but a style of free embroidery. It is usually worked on a closely woven ground fabric, typically linen or cotton. More recently crewel is being made on Matka silk, cotton velvet, rayon velvet, silk organza, net fabric and also jute. A firm fabric is required to support the weight of the stitching. Special crewel needles or chenille needles are required, with large eyes and sharp points.

The outlines of the design to be worked are often screen printed onto the fabric or can be transferred to plain fabric using modern transfer pens, containing water soluble ink or air soluble ink, or iron-on designs applied using transfer sheets. The old fashioned "pinprick and chalk" or "prick and pounce" methods also work well. This is where the design outlines on paper are pricked with a needle to produce perforations along the lines. Powdered chalk or pounce material is then forced through the holes onto the fabric using a felt pad in order to replicate the design on the material.

Designs range from the traditional to more contemporary patterns. The traditional design styles are often referred to as Jacobean embroidery featuring highly stylised floral and animal designs with flowing vines and leaves.

Many different embroidery stitches are used in crewelwork to create a textured and colourful effect. Unlike silk or cotton embroidery threads, crewel wool is thicker and creates a raised, dimensional feel to the work. Some of the techniques and stitches include:

  • Outlining stitches such as stem stitch, chain stitch and split stitch
  • Satin stitches to create flat, filled areas within a design
  • Couched stitches, where one thread is laid on the surface of the fabric and another thread is used to tie it down. Couching is often used to create a trellis effect within an area of the design.
  • Seed stitches, applied randomly in an area to give a lightly shaded effect
  • French knots are commonly used in floral and fruit motifs for additional texture

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