Learn about crewelwork starting with a brief history, followed by a fascinating interview with traditionally trained artisan embroiderer, Jen Goodwin.
Get ready to delve further into the wonderful art of crewelwork, one of the many exquisite embroidery techniques.
Start with an overview to crewelwork – where it originated from and how this wonderful technique has evolved through the centuries.
Then, Jen Goodwin, who’s particularly enamoured with crewelwork shares how she got into embroidery, why she loves the crewelwork technique, advice on needles, threads and fabrics, along with hints and tips for beginners. Happy reading!
What is crewelwork? A brief history…
Crewelwork (or crewel embroidery) is a type of embroidery that’s worked with wool thread. The word ‘crewel’ can be found in English records, with a variety of spellings, back to the 13th century. It’s postulated that the word may have come from the Anglo-Saxon ‘cleow’ or ‘clew’, meaning a ball of thread. The earliest English language usage of crewel (or cruell) referring to a thin, worsted yarn, was in 1494.
The most notable example of early crewelwork is the Bayeux tapestry. The invention of the steel needle greatly propelled the use of crewelwork, with increasingly intricate and complicated wool work creation more possible. It was during the 16th and 17th centuries that crewelwork had its heyday, becoming known as Jacobean Embroidery after King James I came to power in 1603. Particularly popular as embellishments on hangings, curtains and bedspreads in unheated stone castles of 16th and 17th century England, crewelwork added warmth and charm to domestic furnishings throughout the cold and drafty buildings.
Swirling, tree-of-life designs are characteristic of crewelwork, which developed as a result of cross-cultural exchange between East and West. English crewelwork fell out of fashion for almost 200 years, before being revived by William Morris, Jane Burden and his friends in the 19th century. Experimenting with natural dyes, seeking to recreate a long-lost palette of blues and blue greens, crewel embroidery was just one of the mediums they used to adapt medieval design to reflect their time. Since then, crewelwork has seen many revivals, alterations and interpretations – traditional Jacobean crewelwork motifs are particularly popular in the present day.
Information adapted from ‘Needlework Through History: An Encyclopedia’ by Catherine Amoroso Leslie (Greenwood, 2007).
An interview with Jen Goodwin
Jen Goodwin is a traditionally trained artisan embroiderer who focuses on creating highly detailed and technical pieces, incorporating imaginative designs and naturalistic depicted themes. Jen loves the freedom of colour and stitch choice you can have with the crewelwork technique.
Hi Jen! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I grew up in a Dorset village with my mum, younger brother and a collection of pets. My mum wanted to know what I wanted to do once I’d finished my A levels. I think would have enjoyed something logical, like science or maths, but she knew me far better and suggested I consider other options and, after a complete fluke of luck at the career office, I found myself with the address for the Royal School of Needlework.
After a few letters back and forth (this was before emails!) I had myself an interview for the apprenticeship. I’ll always be grateful to my mum for encouraging me to follow an unconventional path, as I’ve ended up with a career that I absolutely adore. I do still spot my logical side creeping into my stitching though, as I find having a love for geometry is incredibly helpful when working in stitch, as understanding angles is invaluable for so many elements of embroidered work. However, I still find I lack organisational skills…
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Do you feel you chose embroidery? Or did it choose you?
I feel like I fell into embroidery. Growing up, mum would give us a craft kit for every Christmas or birthday. These covered a wide variety of different techniques and subjects, but she felt that there was no excuse for us not to be able to use our hands creatively. It also worked very well when we complained of being bored, as we knew how to make things! I think I worked my first cross stitch kit when I was around about 7 – it was a Christmas ornament and when it was found a few years ago, I refused to let mum throw it out.
I continued with cross stitch for a few years but I started to find them frustrating, as every square effectively needed two stitches and each cross needed to be a set colour in a set place… I didn’t always want to put stitches where I was being told to! So, in my early teens I tested out some blackwork, crewelwork and goldwork. This is when I realised that freehand embroidery is my chosen technique.
What’s your take on crewelwork as a technique?
Crewelwork is a lovely technique! It’s one of the freest styles of hand embroidery, as it doesn’t need to be bound by complicated rules like silk shading and goldwork. I like to think that crewelwork pieces are just eclectic stitch samplers – there are so few techniques where so many different stitches can be combined together in different combinations. I think there’s so much potential for getting creative with colours and texture that it’s difficult not to be excited by it.
“I want my crewelwork to have a feeling of being traditional but not old fashioned.”
What it is about crewelwork that you really enjoy?
Every process in embroidery, for me, is enjoyable, from the design to the final stitch (maybe not the mounting). As I’m drawing a design, I find myself starting a stitch plan as I go along. I always know a design is ready to stitch when I can imagine it finished in my head.
From there, I just need to translate that vision onto fabric. I enjoy choosing the colours, as these can either make or break a finished piece. Usually, I aim for tonal colours as those are my favourite to work with, but I do break away into bright colours occasionally too.
From there, it comes down to me playing with stitch combinations to create shape and dimension. I want my crewelwork pieces to have a feeling of being traditional, but not so much that they feel old fashioned.
What needles, threads and fabrics are best for crewelwork embroidery?
The materials needed for a traditional crewelwork piece would be a heavy linen twill and crewel wool, which is worked in a chenille needle. These are all fairly easy to acquire. However, it’s possible to work these stitches onto any fabric – tweed included. It’s important that a crewel weight wool is used though, because if wool isn’t being used, the work is really just plain embroidery.
“Crewelwork is one of the freest styles of embroidery.”
Finally, what hints or tips for those wanting to give crewelwork a go?
You can never sample too much! If you’re unsure of how a new stitch is to be worked, it’s a good idea to practice until you have the hang of it. If I'm unsure how I want an area to look, I'll draw out onto a spare piece of fabric and test out my ideas until I’m happy with how I want to proceed. This saves repeated unpicking on the main piece, which can damage the fabric and it also becomes quite frustrating too. I’d also suggest being brave with your design and your colour choices, you will enjoy your work far more if you choose colours you really love!
Now you’ve delved into crewelwork, explore more stunning embroidery techniques and see what’s possible with needle and thread!