Despite how its name sounds, there's nothing mean about crewel, a form of surface embroidery. This traditional embroidery style goes back centuries and is known for its large, bold designs and the wool threads used to make them.
In days gone by, crewel showed up on tapestries, curtains, and even clothing. More recently, you might see this type of embroidery framed as art, stitched onto pillows, and more.
What Makes Crewel Embroidery Different?
Often when talking about different styles of embroidery, the thing that makes a style unique is the traditional motifs or the stitches themselves. What makes crewel embroidery unique from other styles is the materials, and specifically the wool threads or yarns. True crewel embroidery uses a 2-ply wool thread that is called crewel, which gives the embroidery its name.
The History of Crewel
It's difficult to know the full history of crewel work, but it dates back to Medieval times, if not earlier. Perhaps the oldest and most well-known piece of crewel is the Bayeux Tapestry, which is nearly one thousand years old. It was made in England and given to France.
Crewel rose in prominence in Jacobean England during the 16th and 17th centuries, and because of that, traditional crewel often displays motifs popular of that era. In fact, Jacobean embroidery is a style in itself, but it's also usually crewelwork.
Fast forward to the 1970s, and this embroidery style made a huge comeback. The pieces of this era featured bold colors and giant flowers, and fun phrases like "God Bless Our Pad." You could even find kits for stitching your favorite childhood characters.
Crewel embroidery continues to evolve and you can find designs and kits with modern patterns, and a wider variety of materials. One thing remains—crewel wool thread.
Materials for Crewel Embroidery
Because the wool yarn is what makes crewel the thing it is, getting the right thread is a good place to start.
Crewel wool is almost always labeled as such, and most often it's two-ply, but sometimes comes in one-ply. Unlike standard cotton embroidery floss, you don't separate this thread and it's much thinner than tapestry wool.
If you're lucky enough to have a dedicated needlework shop near you, they may carry one of a variety of brands, including Appleton wool from the UK. You can also find lots of options online. If you mix different brands, you'll see different textures emerge in your stitching, which is great if you want that. Otherwise, stick to one brand for your project.
Linen and linen twill are the most common fabrics for crewel embroidery. These fabrics have a close weave that keeps the stitches in place while being open enough for the larger crewel wool to pass through. They are also sturdy fabrics that create a good base for all the wool stitches.
The wool thread may be the one thing that defines crewel, but the fabric can vary, so if you'd rather try another material, go for it! No matter what you choose, do a few tests with the thread before committing to a type of fabric.
Crewel needles have a large eye and a sharp point. The eye allows the thickness of the crewel wool to pass through, including working with more than one piece at a time. The sharp point is good for not only working through the fabric but also piercing through the wool from previous stitches.
You'll find these labeled as crewel embroidery needles, typically with other embroidery needles.
Crewel Embroidery Stitches
You can use all your favorite embroidery stitches for crewel embroidery. The wool thread gives your stitches added thickness and texture, so as you choose stitches, play into that.
In the example above, the center stem uses long and short stitch, the leaves use chain stitch, and the veins use stem stitch. For this small piece of stitching, the stitches were formed with just one thickness of crewel wool, but you can also work with multiple thicknesses for more coverage (and fewer stitches!).
You'll find lots of patterns designed specifically for crewel embroidery, but you can also use patterns for standard surface embroidery.
Bear in mind when selecting a pattern that isn't designed for crewel that the thickness of the wool thread makes thicker stitches, which means you can't always work fine details. Patterns with large areas to fill are perfect for crewel!
Ready to give it a try? Download the modern branch pattern JPG to stitch the design shown above. You can use your finished embroidery to sew a mini pincushion to hold pins and threaded needles as you stitch!