Dive into the wonderful world of crewel work with this introduction to crewel embroidery! This style of embroidery is rich with history and charm, so keep reading if you’re ready to learn how to do it.
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What is Crewel Embroidery?
Crewel embroidery is a type of embroidery that traditionally uses 2-ply wool thread on natural, evenly woven fabric. This style of embroidery creates a textured, almost 3 dimensional look.
Crewel embroidery is surprisingly old. There isn’t a definitive date when people began embroidering with wool, but there is evidence of embroidery that dates back to the fourth or fifth century. (Wilson, 3)
A notable piece of crewel work is the Bayeux tapestry which is a visual representation of the Norman Conquest of England.
According to Crewel Embroidery by Audrey A. Francini, “Although wool embroidery was worked in many European countries long ago and other forms of embroidery date back into early China, Coptic Egypt, and Greece, crewel embroidery as we know it today originated in England in the sixteenth century”. (Francini, 7)
Another term that you may hear it referred to is Jacobean embroidery, which was form of crewel embroidery that was popular in 17th-century England. This is usually the most prevalent form of crewel work you’ll see in older embroidery books.
Traditional designs had a very distinctive look to them. Many feature beautiful floral and animal motifs, some of which have a more primitive or folky appearance.
You can read even more about crewel work’s history in this article from the Textile Research Center.
What is the difference between crewel and embroidery?
Traditional crewel work can be found in museums and in old books. However, the only thing that truly differentiates crewel work from surface embroidery is the yarn that is used, which is made of wool.
There are a few types of needles, yarns, and fabrics that fair better for crewel work compared to some that can be used for modern surface embroidery, but for the most part both styles are very similar to one another in technique.
Visually, wool yarn has a fuzzy, more textured appearance. And depending on the weight of crewel or tapestry yarn you use, it may also look a bit more fluffy and 3-dimensional.
Crewel Embroidery Tools
Best Fabric For Crewel Embroidery
The best fabric to use for crewel work are natural, evenly woven fabrics.
- Irish linen
- linen twill
- twill weave wool
Fabrics that are closely woven and more durable are ideal to use so that the fabric doesn’t pucker or tear under the tension of the stitches.
A general rule of thumb is to match the weight of the fabric to the weight of the yarn you are using. (i.e. use heavier / more durable fabrics for thicker yarns)
Crewel and chenille needles are the best types of needles to use for crewel embroidery. Chenille needles have a large/elongated eye while crewel needles are longer and have an eye that is slightly smaller than chenille needles. Both have a sharp point and have a large eye to fit thicker crewel thread through.
If you are making stitches that require weaving in and out of stitches, tapestry needles are helpful to have. They have a blunt end which won’t snag or split yarn as easily.
The needle size you will need will depend on what weight of the yarn you are using. Here is a helpful article, but I generally recommend you grab a pack that has various sizes.
Crewel work was historically done using 2-ply twisted wool yarn. There are many yarns to choose from today that come in a variety of different weights and colors.
Here are a few common yarns:
- Traditional Appleton Wool
- DMC Tapestry Wool
- Anchor Tapisserie Wool
- Stuart Moore’s Textiles Naturally Dyed Crewel Wool
- Array Yarn by Zollie Makes
Depending on the yarns you purchase, they may be anywhere from 1 to 4-ply. (The ply is the number of single pieces of yarn twisted together.) Unlike embroidery floss, the yarn should be used as one piece of thread and should not be separated.
You can experiment with different weights of yarn and different kinds of stitches. If you want something to be a bit more intricate or you want to add in fine detail, consider using embroidery floss or a lighter weight fiber such as the Array yarn!
How To Do Crewel Embroidery
Just like modern surface embroidery, it is helpful to use an embroidery hoop or frame to secure your fabric while you are working.
The same embroidery techniques for transferring designs to fabric apply to crewel as well.
Once you have set up your embroidery hoop and transferred the pattern, you can get started stitching.
Threading The Needle
If it is your first time stitching with yarn, the thickness of the crewel wool may take some getting used to, but it’s oh so lovely to embroider with. Threading yarn can be a little bit tricky, so try this trick next time you need to!
- Fold the end of a piece of yarn over the needle.
- Add some tension to it and then pinch the top of the folded thread in between your fingers.
- Remove the needle, keeping the thread between your fingers.
- Place the eye of the needle over top of the pinched end and thread it through.
Crewel Embroidery Designs
You can essentially embroider any design you want with crewel work. I personally like the look of floral motifs and repeating patterns, so I designed 2 simple ones. You can download the traceable design here.
Crewel embroidery uses the same stitches that modern day surface embroidery uses.
However, the finished product of crewel work looks vastly different than surface embroidery using cotton floss. I suggest experimenting with a variety of different stitches and yarns so you can see what it looks like! Here are some basic stitches that work well.
For the leaves, I love using the fishbone stitch.
- Make a small stitch at the top of the leaf.
- Come up right beside the tip of the stitch you just made and bring your needle and thread back down slightly to the bottom left of the stitch.
- Then repeat this on the other side of the stitch going in the opposite direction.
- Continue filling in the leaf, alternating down the shape until you’ve filled it in.
The stem of the leaves uses a stem stitch.
- Bring your needle and thread up through the fabric.
- Leave some space, and along the marked stem line, grab a small amount of the fabric slightly below the working thread.
- Pull through and repeat the second step, this time making sure the tip of your needle comes up just below the last stitch you made.
The split stitch is another great one to use for outlines and stems of flowers and leaves.
- Come up through the fabric and make a small stitch.
- The next time you come up through the fabric, place the needle through the stitch, splitting it in half.
- Make a small stitch and repeat, splitting each stitch as you go.
- Make a straight stitch across the shape.
- Repeat this, laying the stitches side by side one another until you’ve filled the entire shape in.
- Pull the thread through the fabric and place your needle back down the same hole.
- Begin pulling the thread until a small loop forms. Go back up through the fabric and catch the loop with your needle.
- Place the needle and thread back through the fabric directly above the loop and previous stitch.
Work this stitch the same way as the lazy daisy, but instead of securing each loop, continue making a chain of them.
- Come up through the fabric and make a straight stitch.
- Skip some space the equivalent of a stitch length and come up through the fabric.
- Place your needle and thread back down directly beside the end of the previous stitch.
- Repeat the desired length.
Lastly, the center of the flower uses French knots.
- Twist your working thread around the needle 2-3 times.
- Place your needle and thread directly beside where you initially came up through the fabric and gently pull the thread through. A knot should form.
Simple Floral Repeating Pattern
This design uses a few basic embroidery stitches.
- Satin stitch the tulips.
- Split stitch along the stems and leaves.
- Add French knots above each flower.
- Satin stitch the thicker curved lines and back stitch along the thinner curved lines.
Amanda is a hand embroidery artist and teacher. With over 15 years of experience in the craft industry and embroidery, she owns and runs Crewel Ghoul, sharing tutorials and patterns to help inspire fellow crafters to get inspired and creative. In addition to running this website, she teaches on Skillshare and Youtube.