Today I would like to start this feature focus by introducing to you one of my eBay customers – Tana Dixon and ask her to share with us her work and tips on crewel work. Here is our interview...
1. Please tell us a bit about yourself and how you started in Crewel work.
I am 49 years old, and I have been embroidering since I was about 5 years old. I was perpetually bored as a child, so my Mom tried to introduce me to things that would catch my attention. I've been embroidering ever since! When the last crewel rage came along in the mid to late '70's, I was in high school and tried it, because I liked the bolder look of crewel as opposed to floss embroidery. And I was hooked, although I was using inferior quality materials. Now I know (and would advise anyone starting this type of needlecraft) to use only the best materials in both cloth and wool. And after that many years of experience, I have lots of hints on how to get best results. When I go to our State Fair and compare my work to the people who typically win second and third place ribbons, there is just a world of difference in the finished technique. There are some rather simple things that you do in crewel that make a total difference in your finished design, but many people just don't know what these things are. For example, I ran across an obscure hint buried deep in a crewel book that has made an astounding difference to my recent work. And that one book is the only place where I have ever heard this even mentioned!
The 2006 piece (exotic bird in the tree) is a vintage William Briggs & Co. design that I bought without the yarns--it was the printed linen only. So I sat down and decided the colour scheme and completed it with Appleton yarns.
I really love crewel and would love to see more people take it up again. It is sort of out of fashion at the moment. One of these days it will be so rarely done that people will "rediscover" it and there will be a high interest in it again.
2. Should a crewel work beginner have basic needlework experience before they start?
Basic embroidery skills would be helpful for a crewel beginner but not absolutely required. Floss embroidery and crewel are worked in many of the same stitches, so the person with that experience would have a head start on a crewel project. If you love the look of crewel, just try your hand at it and enjoy the stitching experience!
3. What would be your top 5 tips for a crewel work beginner?
6 Tips (one for good measure, I suppose!)
- Start with and always work with the best materials! Even as a beginner, enjoy using the finest wool and linen materials. It’s as though you are learning to cook with inferior ingredients or learning to sew on the cheapest fabric you can find. Will you get fabulous results in those instances either? Inferior materials will give you uneven results, an unattractive finish out, and some stitching frustration in-between!
- Always work with clean hands to keep your work from getting soiled. And never work around food or drink!
- Always work a crewel design from the back to the front. Within the design itself, do objects at the back first, followed by those in the middle, followed by objects at the front of the design. This is a subtle difference, but it is an important one in crewelwork. A crewel design worked in the correct order actually creates depth within the piece. It is a detail that your eye picks up. Observe two samples of stitching where the spatial order has and has not been observed, and you will see the difference!
- Be willing to pull out an unsatisfactory area and re-stitch it. I know, I know, this can be discouraging to a beginner who wants to see some progress on her piece, but it is important to be able to do this in order to get the "look" that you need. Hopefully you will be looking at this finished piece for quite awhile, so don’t hesitate to make it right. Practice does make perfect for many of the stitches like Satin Stitch and Long and Short Stitch, so don’t get discouraged! The more you make these stitches, the better you will do them in the future. The makers of a quality kit know that you will need to pull out an area now and then, and you should find that you have spare amounts of yarn to do so.
- The yarn has a nap. This is never mentioned in books or stitching instructions, but your work will definitely turn out smoother and prettier if you feed the smooth end through the needle. Take the length of wool that you are getting ready to use and run it gently between your relaxed thumb and index finger. Notice one way that the yarn feels smooth. Reverse the yarn and notice how the yarn feels scratchy. Feed the smooth end through the needle so that the smooth nap goes into the fabric. You will see the difference immediately in your work—a very subtle difference but vitally important, especially to Long and Short Stitch!
- Always use a chain stitch or a split stitch edge for areas to be worked in Satin stitch or Long and Short Stitch. This gives the stitching a smooth, firm edge. This is also a subtle difference but a very important one for these areas. It gives your stitching a raised appearance, and it ensures that all design markings are well covered by smooth stitches.
3. What would be your top 5 items of essential equipment?
- A comfortable wooden hoop is essential. Find one that suits you. Many people prefer scroll frames, for example, but I cannot use one conveniently. You can find round and oval wooden hoops of all sizes. Fanny hoops can be wonderful, as they leave both hands free to work.
- The correct needle will probably be provided with most kits. If not, be sure to choose a crewel needle with a very sharp tip that is the right size in diameter. A needle that is too thin will wear out your yarn; a needle that is too big will create "holes" as you stitch and will also be unwieldy. You want to create a stitch hole that is large enough for the needle to pass through but that will snug up against the yarn as it passes through.
- Good lighting is essential. Daylight is best for stitching, especially if you are working stitches into each other such as Long and Short Stitch.
- A pair of small, sharp embroidery scissors is helpful, especially when you need to snip out stitches for correction.
- A thread organizer is essential in order to keep the shades of color in the proper order, especially since you will often have 3-5 shades that are closely related to each other in one color series.
4. Can you recommend a crewel work book ideal for a beginner?
I like Jane Rainbow’s Beginner’s Guide to Crewel from Search Press. I also like The A-Z of Crewel Embroidery by Country Bumpkin Publications. Both of these books are beautifully illustrated and offer plenty of inspiration for the needleworker. Both are generally available in fine bookstores or through Internet booksellers.
5. Can you recommend and brands to look out for, when buying a crewel work kit?
I love traditional English crewel available from sources such as Sarah May Designs, Jane Rainbow, The Crewel Work Company, the Coleshill Collection, and similar companies. The most important thing, however, is to invest in excellent designs worked in excellent materials from whatever source. Crewelwork is always done with the attitude of permanence. So does the subject have beautiful, lasting meaning? Would you tug on someone’s sleeve to come have a look at this design? (For example, I would not waste my work on a depiction of a jar of strawberry jam on a country table.) Furthermore, a quality kit will feature a design permanently printed on 100% linen or a linen/cotton union cloth worked with 100% wool yarns. Some kits have a wool/silk blend yarn; that should be perfectly suitable, because both fibers are known for their archival quality. Reject any kit that works on 100% cotton or manmade fibers or a blend of those. Any material besides linen or union cloth will give you unsightly puckers that cannot be pulled out. These materials also will be literally difficult to pull the wool through and will wear and break the yarns. And cotton just isn’t quite the permanent fabric that linen is; it does deteriorate over time. Some inexpensive kits feature acrylic yarns (perhaps especially to feature bright colors in the design). These yarns are very wiry and will not lay down beautifully and feather out into each other as they should and will also give you problems while stitching, so I would not work with those yarns.
I have two samples of stitching from my high school days in the ‘70’s that illustrate perfectly why I want to work on linen. One is done with 100% wool worked on 100% linen, and it looks the same as the day I finished it. The other is wool and acrylic worked on a cotton blend fabric. This piece has an entire area of fabric that has rotted away, taking the stitching with it!
The Mary Jane Collection has some small "Crewel Tile" kits that look perfect for beginners. They feature the beautiful, traditional English designs in small, easily achievable projects. Completing a small project will give you a great sense of accomplishment and a taste to try a more extensive project!
Thank you for your helpful insights to crewel work Tana! Here is Tana’s latest piece and entry to the Texas State Fair… Good luck Tana!I hope that this feature has been useful and has given an inspirational starting point to beginners.
Please visit my eBay store for my current Crewel work selection - Sara's Texture Crafts - eBay shop/embroidery section