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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Time Warp: Crewel Embroidery and The Needle Arts

For the past few years, I've had a yearning to re-engage with crewel embroidery. Crewel work involves embroidering with woolen "thread" or "yarn," otherwise called "fibers."

Interestingly enough, crewel embroidery was extremely popular in the U.S. in the 1970s (and the 1980s)--in fact, it was a white-hot fad. Family Circle, Women's DayLadies' Home Journal, and Good Housekeeping  all vied to provide soup-to-nuts instruction for beginners and offer lovely designs as well. And  I can tell you that it was not just for older ladies, not at all! Women and girls of all ages were doing it.

At that time, my town had several stores that carried crewel embroidery materials and other embroidery necessities.  I know it may be hard to imagine today, but cross-stitch embroidery was not at all popular the way it has been since the early 1990s, except as one of many styles of stitchery in historic sampler embroidery. It was a very different time. I imagine working women today love the simplicity and relaxation of picking up a cross-stitch project for the evenings and weekends without having to worry about mastering numerous complicated embroidery stitches. I completely understand that, because as soon as I was working full-time, embroidery went out the window! During those years I was only into very simple patchwork quilting and knitting.

As a young woman in her very late teens and early twenties, I was fascinated by the challenges of embroidery and crewel work; and most of all, I was astonished by how beautifully lush the inter-weavings of multi-colored embroidery wools and polished cotton threads were when created into a landscape or a flowery still-life. I grabbed the women's magazines and crafted samplers and designs all over. At that time, it was a relief from the mindless jobs I had during the summers as an undergrad. Cross-stitch has never grabbed me personally, although I have lots of friends and relatives who craft beautiful projects in cross-stitch and counted cross-stitch.

For me, I have never forgotten how beautiful and personally satisfying crewel embroidery is, and it seems that now might be a time to explore it and perhaps re-engage.

When I went searching for books and websites and materials, I discovered that in the U.S. there are very few stores that carry anything at all in the way of crewel embroidery materials, or any that are willing to order from British suppliers. As far as I can tell, very, very few books have been published about crewel embroidery and needlepoint and embroidery since 2000-2004 in the U.S.

Crewel embroidery is much bigger in the UK (and I believe it's also bigger in Australia than the U.S.), although I imagine it may not be as popular in both the UK and Australia as it once was. Tapestry embroidery is possible to pursue in the UK, which sounds fascinating to me, although difficult to pursue here without importing everything you need. And, as Josephine, one of Margaret Drabble's characters in Dark Flood Rises comments, tapestry wool (and crewel wool) have become extremely expensive.) Ridiculously so, really.

I have discovered that some libraries have hung on to their old books on embroidery, needlework, and crewel work. I'm so grateful for that. Ebay and Etsy have old kits and books available. I purchased a wonderful crewel kit on Etsy--it's a kit from the 1970s, in beautiful condition, produced by Avon Products. So reasonably priced--I'm lucky indeed.

Do you engage in needlework of some sort? Please discuss it, and please let us know of the state of needlework in your country or your neck of the U.S.

10 comments:

  1. Yes I do embroider, I prefer crewel to cross stitch as there's more scope to put your own spin on the design. I have a lot of books and magazines from the 1930s to the 80s. I really must get back into it - when I've finished my knitting! You can look on Pinterest for embroidery design ideas.

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    1. Katrina,
      I so agree with you about the advantage of crewel--it seems more creative and, well, painterly to me.
      I'm very interested about all the books and magazines you have. Is that a result of your used bookstore hunting?
      And thanks for the head's up about Pinterest!

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    2. Yes I binge bought loads of old books and vintage magazines a few years ago, mainly from bookshops, but also Ebay for vintage magazines, often with the iron on patterns still unused.

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    3. Oh, Katrina, I am so envious--With the iron-on patterns still unused. Glorious. I'm beginning to seek out the same. Just lovely! I've been checking out Ebay as well. Thank you.

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  2. I did crewel work as a young teen and still have a sampler pillow that I did. I moved to counted cross-stitch in my 20s and made lots of fun stuff before my eyes started weakening and I decided to save them for reading!

    I'm intrigued by the Margaret Drabble book you mention.

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    1. Jane,
      Well I agree about needlework being a strain for the eyes. And if it came to a tug-of-war between needlework and books, I agree with you that books would win hands-down.
      I have noticed in the crewel embroidery books I've scoured over, that the women artists portrayed have exquisitely bright lighting while they are working. I think I will need to get some super-lighting for my workspace. Now that we have no more incandescent lighting, we've got to get creative in this department.

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  3. I never did that well with a needle. Presumably I simply needed more practice, but I was more likely to pick up knitting needles (which I've abandoned at this stage, favouring a book every time). Nonetheless, I absolutely LOVED flipping through the kits sold in craft stories (especially for crewel, which none of the woman in my family did very often - they were big on needlepoint and crossstitch, in kits and by patterns - because they were always so lush and striking).

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    1. Your love of examining crewel kits in craft stores touches a very familiar chord with me. Maybe you will understand this passion of mine.
      I love gazing (and reading) quilting magazines, gardening magazines, and other needlework magazines, not because I am intending to actually do one of the projects or gardens, but rather, because I'm a quilting arts appreciator, a garden appreciator, and so on. I love seeing the **possibilities**. It's an art museum at home.

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  4. I never did crewel work but the my 2 kids were toddlers I did a little cross stitch. I admire crafty people - it's such a talent.

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    1. I imagine cross-stitching could be life-saving while toddlers are napping or after they are in bed.
      I know what you mean about admiring crafty people--I go to quilt shows, watercolor painting exhibits, and so on, and just so admire the work. I think that "admirers" play an important role in the whole artistry scheme of things.

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