Crewel embroidery is a popular type of surface embroidery for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it employs a nice variety of stitches.
Today, let’s chat about crewel embroidery, the materials used in crewel work and the types of stitches common to this popular form of hand embroidery.
All images via Needle ‘n Thread
Crewel work has been around for centuries. In 17th century England, crewel embroidery enjoyed great favor as a form of embellishment for household items, such as bed curtains and covers. The Jacobean-style designs of the 17th century were especially suited to crewel embroidery, and they’re just as popular today for all kinds of interpretations in needlework.
Because the wool used in crewel embroidery is so sturdy, it’s still a great option for embroidery on upholstered items. Think: chair cushions, ottomans, decorative pillows and the like.
What makes crewel embroidery crewel embroidery?
Today, the name “crewel” embroidery tends to evoke a particular style of design, and we can see embroidery called “crewel” emerging in the needlework market that isn’t precisely crewel work. The key element to crewel work is not the design style. It’s actually the thread. Crewel work is crewel work because it is worked in crewel wool, which is a strong, long-staple thread spun from wool.
Modern interpretations of crewel embroidery may, in fact, involve other fibers besides wool (or no wool at all). But these are not technically crewel embroidery — they’re surface embroidery. They might be worked in the stitches that are reminiscent of crewel work, and on designs reminiscent of designs used in crewel embroidery, but they really fall under the more general category of surface, free-style stitching.
So, crewel embroidery, accurately speaking, can be any design style. It’s usually worked with certain families of stitches (although the sky’s really the limit, when it comes to stitch variety), but real crewel work — to be accurately called crewel work — is worked with wool threads.
Of course, this begs further questions: wool threads, wool blends, other fibers that look like wool? In modern embroidery and modern interpretations of crewel embroidery, it’s not unusual to see a mix of fibers.
Today, you’ll find a terrific variety of embroidery threads suitable for crewel work available on the market, from traditional Appleton wool (pictured above) to exceptionally smooth merino wools that are a delight to stitch with, to hand-spun wools dyed with natural vegetable dyes, to wool blends mixed with other fibers such as silk, alpaca, mohair, and the like.
One of my favorite wools for crewel embroidery is Fine d’Aubusson, a wool thread produced by Au Ver a Soie in France. It’s a delight to stitch with, it’s smoother than other similar crewel wools, it’s available in an ever-widening range of colors, the colors correspond with Au Ver a Soie’s silk lines (which makes it a nice option for mixing wool and silk in the same piece) and it’s affordable.
The importance of many shades of color
When selecting wool threads for crewel embroidery, keep in mind that many crewel pieces rely on the range of shades of thread available, in order to achieve good blending within color families and a full, richly shaded finish.
Appleton wools are favored for traditional crewel work, not just because of their long-standing reputation (they’ve been around for almost 200 years!), but because their wools are available in over 420 shades!
Fabric for crewel embroidery
Traditionally, crewel embroidery is worked on linen, either in a twill weave or a regular weave. In modern crewel work, fabrics such as wool, jute, silk, cotton and blends (and sometimes even synthetics) might be used as ground fabrics.
If you’re trying to achieve historical accuracy with crewel work, linen twill is considered the fabric of choice.
The stitches used in crewel embroidery
Certain families of stitches have been a part of crewel embroidery’s repertoire for centuries. These are the common stitches used in crewel work, but if you’re pursuing modern interpretations of crewel embroidery, you shouldn’t feel limited to the stitches mentioned below. Within every family of stitches, you’ll find many variations that are perfectly adaptable to crewel work.
Line stitches like stem stitch, outline stitch, chain stitch and split stitch are often a part of crewel embroidery. Even knotted line stitches like coral stitch and Palestrina stitch are used effectively in crewel embroidery.
These stitches aren’t used only for outlining, though. Often, they’re used for fillings as well. In a previously published article here on Craftsy, we discussed line stitches that can be used as fillings, and you’ll see this happen quite a bit in crewel work.
When filling with line stitches in crewel embroidery, the importance of a variety shades within a color family becomes clear. In the photo above, the shading from light to dark in chain stitch lines is brought about by switching to different shades of green wool.
Line stitches also work great for stems and tendrils that make their appearance in crewel pieces.
Solid filling stitches
The two solid filling stitches used predominantly in crewel embroidery are satin stitch and long and short stitch.
In crewel embroidery, satin stitch is used to cover small spans of space requiring a solid filling. When working plain satin stitch by itself, it’s important that the space covered is not too large, because the stitches can loosen over time. Choose satin stitch for spaces that are less than an inch at their longest span.
To ensure a really smooth edge, it’s helpful to outline underneath satin stitch first, by working a split stitch over the design line and then working the satin stitch over the split stitch. Padding the area to be filled also helps the satin stitches to lie smoothly, exactly parallel to each other.
Padding also increases the friction behind the satin stitches, so that they don’t shift over time. Padded satin stitched spaces can be a little larger than satin stitched spaces without padding, due to the increased friction and tension the padding gives to the satin stitches.
The yellow dot and the red sections on the crewel work above is a good example of padded satin stitch.
Satin stitch can also be used to cover longer spans, if the stitches are somehow anchored. For example, in the photo above, the satin stitch spans the whole length of the leaf. If left without the additional stem stitching over the satin stitch, the satin stitches could become loose over time or simply not maintain their neat, parallel orientation.
Other methods of anchoring longer satin stitched areas involve couching stitches and laid work, discussed below.
Long and short stitch
Long and short stitch shading is very effective in crewel embroidery, where the wool threads are used to create gradually shaded, large or small filled areas.
On the photo above, the rooster’s wing and head are both worked in long and short stitch.
Although beginning stitchers tend to think that long and short stitch is an advanced, difficult technique, it’s really not! Especially with wool thread, which covers nicely and is quite forgiving, long and short stitch is an accessible and striking technique that can lend depth and vivacity to embroidered pieces.
Seed stitch filling and isolated stitches
Seed stitch shows up quite often in crewel embroidery.
Used as a light filling technique, seed stitch — which is comprised of small straight stitches worked randomly — adds interest and texture to embroidery.
You can achieve various effects with seed stitch by changing the shades of thread or by changing the distance between the seed stitches. Seed stitches worked closer together will give the impression of a heavier filling, while those spaced farther apart will give the impression of a lighter filling.
Other isolated stitches
Stitches like the detached chain stitch (daisy stitch, worked individually) or even small knot stitches like French knots or colonial knots can also work as a light filling, by spacing them randomly throughout a larger area or by stitching them in some kind of patterned layout.
Couched stitches and laid work
Couching is a two-thread technique, where small stitches in one thread are used to secure longer threads onto the fabric.
In crewel embroidery, couching can be used for line stitches, but it’s probably more frequently seen in laid work, where long lattice stitches (long threads that criss-cross over each other) are couched down at intersections with another thread, to create patterns used to fill large areas.
The exciting thing about couching and laid work is the vast variety of lattice patterns. When it comes to filling patterns created with couched lattice work, the embroiderer’s imagination is the only limitation. Lattice work provides a lot of room for playing with patterns! In the photo above, though not properly crewel embroidery, you can see that lattice patterns provide a lot of variety in filling.
French knots are the more commonly used knots in crewel embroidery. They can be used in isolation, as mentioned above, or they can be used to fill an area.
In the photo with the blue berries above, French knots are used to fill circles, for a berry-like effect. Towards the end of the article, you’ll find a yellow flower with French knots filling the center of the flower.
French knots are a wonderful way to add texture and interest to a crewel piece.
It’s not too common to see bullion knots in regular crewel embroidery, or other knots, like Chinese knots. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be used!
Remember, crewel work is defined more by the materials used than by the stitches themselves, which are simply surface embroidery stitches. If your work will benefit from the texture of bullion knots, try them!
Sometimes, tufted stitches, like Ghiordes knot (also called Turkey work), velvet stitch or Victorian tufting are used in crewel embroidery to add fluffy details to animals or flowers.
In the photo above, Turkey work is used for the bunny’s fluffy tail.
Other surface stitches
Again, the sky’s the limit, when it comes to surface stitches that are used in crewel embroidery!
Because many crewel designs often include leaves and other foliage, surface stitches like fly stitch and fishbone stitch can come in handy. They make a terrific filling for petal and leaf shapes!
Buttonhole stitch (blanket stitch worked close together) makes a nice alternative for satin stitch on some shapes, too. You can see an example of buttonhole stitch, worked in blue wool, in the photo with seed stitch filling, above.
Experiment with stitches!
While traditional crewel embroidery may make use of a more limited group of stitch families, don’t be afraid to experiment with non-traditional stitches for your crewel embroidery projects.
By using stitches that might not seem perfectly traditional for crewel work, you’ll create your own unique style — and you’ll have a lot of fun doing it!
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