Jacobean Crewel: Painting with Wool
“You can get by on charm for about 15 minutes. After that, you better know something!” I’ve done a lot of research for this topic, just to make sure I wasn’t adding to the pile of misinformation on the internet!
There was not a King Jacob; the Latin form of the era of James is Jacobean. It also denotes a style of architecture, visual arts, decorative arts, and literature. This is when James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) was on the throne, and new influences combined with old themes. Foreign artists and styles began to be more popular than the traditional, local themes. The East IndiaCompany was bullying its way across the spice routes, bringing back with it exciting warm-weather flora and fruits, as well as artistic themes from the Moors, India, and even China.
Did you know that the potato flower was once a hot decorating trend? Yep, potatoes were a novelty from the New World, thus it was very chic to sport them on your bed hangings and cushions! Bed curtains were often a heavy-duty twill made of a linen warp with a cotton weft. Crewel wool embroidery made them even sturdier and warmer, and gave insomniacs something to count besides sheep! Imagine sleeping in one of those drafty stone houses! Your bed needed to be like a little tent, keeping your body heat contained in a cocoon of tapestries, smelly furs, and maybe even a couple of dogs! (Some houses had sleeping cabinets built into the wall! Some cool woodworking going on there, but not for the claustrophobe!)
Unlike canvas work, the goal of crewel is not to cover the fabric. It’s “free embroidery” in that you’re not using the threads of the fabric as your guide. The base fabric itself was usually part of the design, factored in from the planning stage. Linen twill is traditional, and of course that requires a sharp needle, as you’re piercing the fabric, not the spaces between the threads (that would be “counted-thread work”). The shaft of the needle needs to be big enough to make a hole in the fabric that won’t shred your wool, and the eye should be a longer slit than normal to accommodate multiple strands. Crewel can be as simple as one motif, usually involving a sprig of greenery, like this example:
FROM THE 1600's, A TYPICAL SWIRLED LEAF MOTIF
The next example is a classic design from the same era:
PAISLEY FLOWERS, SEED STITCH, NETTING
The original themes native to English surface design usually revolved around Life’s Great Mysteries, as well as legend and lore. The “Tree of Life” motif is common in Elizabeth’s time; James’ era added pomegranates, arabesques, and paisley-like stylized flowers to the mix, as well as irises, peonies and roses. You’ll notice lots of curves, swirls, and other sweeping designs in vines, branches, and leaves. This keeps the eye moving, and gives one lots of poetic license when interpreting flora and fauna. You’ll see animals that are relics from the “Bestiarta”, which was a book explaining the symbolism of different beasts. The hart, or stag, being chased by the evil huntsman represents the struggle of life and death. Also common: lions and leopards, rabbits, snails (very popular, probably the “cute factor”), and even grubs! Some scholars think that the riotous colors in the flowers and animals represent a reaction to Puritanism, kind of like the amazing, saturated colors of Amish quilts.
The word “crewel” probably refers to an ancient word describing the curl in the staple (a single hair of the wool itself). You’ll find it’s usually two-ply, sold in skeins with one to three strands twisted lightly together. Untwist them and recombine the number you plan to use. Paternayan and Appleton are two high-quality brands. Zillions of colors!
NEW TO CREWEL? I recommend a good-quality kit. It will usually be a lot cheaper than buying full skeins of the many colors you’ll want to use, and you’ll learn as you go. I’m just finishing the Bluebird of Happiness crewel kit, and it’s a perfect example of Jacobean crewel. Here you see (in progress) a stylized iris (you can easily see the paisley influence from India), a curled leaf with satin stitch and elongated French knots at the edge, and concentric circles made of simple buttonhole stitch. This same motif has been observed on bed hangings from the 1600′s! In the larger view you’ll see pomegranates, stylized almost beyond recognition.
DETAIL OF BUTTONHOLE FLOWERS AND IRIS, LEAF
NOTE THE TREE OF LIFE, POMEGRANATES, CURLED LEAVES
Clustered French knots are a great way to add texture, and simple lazy daisy stitch works well for small leaves and flower petals. The fabric has the basic design printed, leaving you free to customize; add beads and metallic thread, or keep it super-simple with lots of satin stitch. The blending you see on the leaves and the feathers is called long-and-short stitch. You make jagged satin stitches and then fill in those areas with the next color.
Try a small project first, like embellishing a velvet evening purse. In general, I find crewel to be a quicker project than needlepoint or cross-stitch. The open areas can be very large, allowing your fabric to be part of the design.
Like blackwork, Jacobean crewel is a way to connect with the past; great design never goes out of style. Designing knitting patterns is my main focus, but I find that the influences of other fiber arts bring lots of ideas together in a new way. Below, you’ll see how crewel can be an allover surface design resulting in a stunning art-to-wear piece. Imagine this on velvet or raw silk. Wow!!
CREWEL JACKET EARLY 1600's
In a future post, I’ll share my bluebird picture, completed and framed. I’ll have a few tips for framing your own needlework and some embellishment ideas with metallic thread, seed beads, and tiny charms.
Hope you enjoyed your little trip into the Bed, Bath and Beyond of the past! Good design never goes out of style!
For more on crewel, see www.gutenberg.org for a terrific book, “Jacobean Embroidery, Its Forms and Fillings, Including the Late Tudor” by Ada Wentworth Fitzwilliam; its a hundred years old but just fantastic. Make sure you see the version with the illustrations.
For more on the Jacobean era, specifically the 1745 Jacobite uprising, the semi-fictional version by Sir Walter Scott is entitled “Waverley”.
EVE STARR FIBER ARTS STUDIO