An Introduction to Crewel Embroidery

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(One of my Jacobean inspired crewel work pieces. Stitched on linen twill using Appletons wools).

Crewel embroidery or ‘crewel work’ is very popular. A decorative form of surface embroidery, it uses wool and a variety of embroidery stitches to follow a design outline applied to the fabric – traditionally a linen twill. The technique is at least a thousand years old. It was used in the Bayeux Tapestry, in Jacobean embroidery and in the Quaker Tapestry sewn in the 1980s.

I love the technique as it’s usually full of colour, texture and stitch variations. It’s a technique you can play with and almost anything goes!

With many forms of embroidery, it’s traditional to stick to a single colour palette, but with crewel work, clashing colours isn’t unusual. There really are no rules, and the common themes of flora and fauna can be completely disproportionate to one another – for example a giant flower next to a tiny stag.

Getting Started

I originally learnt crewel work from my grandmother and then perfected my technique at the Royal School of Needlework.

It’s a very easy technique to learn, not least because the linen twill fabric and wool thread are both very forgiving and easy to unpick. The best thing to do is start with simple designs and the simpler stitches, such as chain stitch, back stitch, split stitch and stem stitch. You can then build up to battlement couching, silk shading and the dreaded bullion knots! Most things run smoothly with a bit of practice, and I’ve included more detail on these stitches further down.

Modern Crewel Work

Crewel embroidery was, in the past, used to create elaborate and expensive bed hangings and curtains. Now it is most often used to decorate cushions, curtains, clothing and wall hangings.

Crewel work is one of the most popular types of embroidery around; I’m constantly producing crewel DIY kits because so many love the technique and it’s excellent for beginners. My beginner’s kit was inspired by my passion for crewel work and the conservation work I did on the oratory curtains for Tyntesfield. It was a really interesting project to work on, and if you love exploring National Trust properties, I definitely recommend a day out there – there’s always lots on.

Crewel embroidery is also experiencing a modern-day revival thanks to the addition of beads and needle lace, making it a really exciting medium to work with right now.

There are many stunning historical and modern examples of crewel work, from wall hangings to armchairs decorated in vibrant colours. I’ve always been drawn to early examples of crewel embroidery, many of which the V&A has displayed.

(1630’s crewel work jacket – Victoria and Albert Museum).
I’m also a fan of Phillipa Turnbull’s work and Nicola Jarvis’s modern take on crewel embroidery. Phillipa works mainly with the historic patterns and has an exhaustive knowledge of the technique and where to find some of the most beautiful pieces. Nicola’s work has a much more modern twist, still using the traditional stitches but mixed in with a splash of gold work, beads and far more unusual subject matter.

(Green Woodpecker by Nicola Jarvis. Using crewel wool, metallic thread, sequins and beads on heavy furnishing cotton).

Jacobean Influences

The Jacobean* crewel work designs of the 17th century were influenced by the changes taking place in society at this time. Under new rule of the extravagant Charles II, England was emerging from a very sober existence under Oliver Cromwell.  

Trade had been expanding since Elizabeth I, and English ships had reached Southeast Asia.  Merchants bought home in their cargo many examples of beautiful craftsmanship: exquisitely painted calicoes or palampores – a cotton print woven in India used for clothing and items such as canopies. These directly influenced typical Jacobean wall hangings and tapestries, which often incorporated the Tree of Life* featured in the palampores. Today you can see similar themes of flora and fauna in original and modern examples, as illustrated below.

(Newly released ‘Tree of Life’ by Phillipa Turnbull. Using long and short shading stitches, crewel stem stitch, satin stitch and French knots).

Materials

You need a firm fabric to support the weight of crewel work stitching. This has traditionally been linen twill, but more recently, commercially made crewel is appearing on silk, cotton velvet, rayon velvet, silk organza, net fabric and also jute.

You need special crewel needles or chenille needles, with a wide body, large eye and a sharp point. The sharp point pierces the fabric easily and the more rotund body of the needle creates an easier path for the thread to pass through.

When it comes to thread, I like using Appletons crewel wool range. It’s relatively easy to source and comes in a large range of colours and tones. They’re also helpfully arranged in “family” groups of colours, so you can easily choose light to dark shades of a selected colour.

Finally, I would definitely recommend using a hoop or slate frame with crewel embroidery to stretch your linen fabric “drum tight”. This will ensure an even amount of tension in your stitches so your design doesn’t distort.

Transferring the Design to the Fabric

I prefer to use the prick and pounce method to transfer the design to the fabric. To do this, you prick design outlines on tracing paper with a needle to produce perforations along the lines. You then force powdered pounce material through the holes on to the fabric using a felt pad or stipple brush to replicate the design on the material. It can be a little tricky to begin with so just take some time with it. As a beginner, you may like to start with pre-printed kits, like my new Crewel work kit, which comes preprinted on the fabric for ease. As you progress, you’ll need to prick, pounce and paint, too, but I will save that for a later blog.

Commercially, design outlines are often screen printed on to the fabric or transferred to plain fabric using modern transfer pens, which contain water-soluble or air-soluble ink, or iron-on designs applied using transfer sheets. 

Types of Stitches

Crewel uses a thicker wool to create a raised, dimensional feel to the work. Crewel work uses various embroidery stitches for textured and colourful effects. Some of the techniques and stitches include:

  • Outlining stitches such as stem stitch, chain stitch and split stitch
  • Satin stitches create flat, filled areas within a design
  • Couched stitches, where one thread is on the surface of the fabric and another thread ties it down, create a trellis effect within the design.
  • Seed stitches applied randomly give a lightly shaded effect
  • French knots are commonly used in floral and fruit motifs for additional texture
  • Laid and couched work
  • Long and short “soft shading”

Examples and Diagrams

Chain Stitch

Bring the thread up at the top of the line and hold it down with the left thumb. Insert the needle where it last emerged and bring the point out a short distance away. Pull the thread through, keeping the working thread under the needle point.

Stem Stitch

Bring the needle up at the start of the design line, insert the needle 3-4mm ahead on the design line, at this point do not pull the thread tight. Next, take the needle up through the fabric again on the design line, as you pull the thread though the fabric, the first stitch will be forced to one side. Continue to achieve a twisted rope effect.

Blanket Stitch

Bring the thread out on the lower line, insert the needle in position in the upper line and take a straight downward stitch, keeping the working thread under the point of the needle. Pull up the stitch to form a loop and repeat. This stitch works nicely as a circle, as shown.

Couching

Lay the cord or braid to be couched. With another thread, catch it down with small, evenly spaced stitches worked at right angles over the top.

Fly Stitch

You can work this stitch singly, in rows or as a filling stitch.

Bring the thread through at the top left, hold it down with the left thumb and insert the needle to the right on the same level, a little distance from where the thread first emerged.

Take a small stitch downwards to the centre, with the thread below the needle. Pull through and insert the needle below the thread, as shown, to hold it in place, bringing the needle up again in position to work the next stitch.

For an open fly stitch filling, work as in fig 2 or place the stitches closer together with a short tying stitch for a closed fly stitch filling.

French Knots

Bring the thread out at the required position. Keep the thread taut, holding it firmly about 4cms from where it emerges. Encircle the thread just once with the needle and, still holding the thread firmly, twist the needle back to the starting point, inserting it close to where the thread first emerged (not in the exact place or it will simply pull back through).

Pull the taut thread so the knot slides down the needle until it touches the fabric. Pull the needle through to the back, leaving a small knot on the surface, as shown. To make a bigger French knot, use a thicker thread or wrap the thread around the needle two or three times.

Seeding

Small stitches between 1-2mm long are ideal for creating a shaded effect. The density and direction change the overall appearance, and you can alter them to great effect

Satin Stitch and Padded Satin

First outline the area with a split stitch edge. Use close packed long stitches to cover the area leaving no gaps. To achieve the best effect, angle the needle down at edges against the split stitch.

If you want a more raised finish to the shape, add a padding to the technique. Before adding the final top layer of stitching, sandwich layers of similar stitches in between, fitting within the shape. The number of layers depends on the raised effect you want.

Heavy Chain Stitch

First, create a small stitch on the surface of the fabric at the start of the line you want to stitch. For the first chain, pass the thread though the loop; for the second chain also pass it though the original stitch. Once these are in place, the chain continues but always passes through two chain stitches to create this heavy chain effect.

Long and Short Shading

This technique, again, uses a split stitch edge to give the space good definition and strength. The single strand of wool used creates a shaded appearance to the shape. Always stitch the first row from within the shape and over the split stitch edge, then work subsequent rows by splitting the previous stitches and working down the shape. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it should be enough to get you started and help you progress to more complex techniques, for example silk shading.

For more hands on tuition, I also teach a range of these stitches in my Introduction to Crewel Work Course, and my Jacobean Crewel DIY Kit includes detailed instructions to help you complete the design.

I’m always here to offer advice on projects or for general tips and tricks. Please feel welcome to contact me through the usual methods or leave a comment below.

Thanks for reading

*Glossary

Jacobean – pertaining to the style of architecture and furnishings in England in the first half of the 17th century.

Crewel Work – type of free style embroidery distinguished by the two-ply worsted wool yarn called crewel.

Tree of Life – a tree in the Garden of Eden that yielded food giving everlasting life and a theme that recurs in Jacobean Crewel work.

Palampores – a cotton print woven in India and used for clothing, canopies etc.

Twill – a fabric constructed in twill weave, i.e. a basic weave structure in which the filling threads are woven over and under two or more warp yarns, producing a characteristic diagonal pattern.

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