The most traditional needlework can evoke a surprisingly modern feel.

By Alexandra Churchill
February 04, 2021
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Credit: NGOC MINH NGO

Crewelwork—traditionally defined as embroidery done with wool thread on linen twill—has always been as much craft as it is art and is all the more pleasing for its high-low associations. And like most needlework, it harkens back to a rich history. Five hundred years ago, Brits filled their manor houses with the bright, warm handiwork, and they established crewelwork's stylized, fairy-tale aesthetic in the process: the Jacobean tendrils, bright-eyed flowers, peaceful beasts, and tree-of-life motifs. William Morris, the great British designer, brought it back to life in the late 19th century as an essential element of the Arts and Crafts aesthetic.

Crewelwork is undergoing another revival right now, no doubt due to its resolutely handmade appearance. Interior designers pride themselves on visual tricks and spatial illusions, but crewelwork is straightforward and earnest. Step into a room where crewelwork is part of the décor and chances are your attention will go right to it, its striking patterns emphasized by the raised, sculptural thickness of the fibers.

Tools and Materials

Crewelwork uses 2-ply wool thread that is called crewel, which gives the embroidery its name. Appleton embroidery yarn ($2.60, purlsoho.com), spun from pure wool and dyed in traditional colors, is considered the epitome of English craftsmanship. To stitch, a crewel needle ($2.99, michaels.com) has a large eye that allows the thickness of the crewel wool to pass through, while its sharp point is good for piercing through the heavy fabric as well as piercing through wool from previous stitches.

The range of needlework fabrics is vast, and there's one that fits virtually every decorating scenario. Their scale ranges from delicate, allover patterns to huge tree-of-life motifs up to six feet tall, which are best used on curtains or wall panels. The most traditional choice is linen twill ($20, potterybarn.com), also good for beginner projects.

How to Use It

Wool embroidery yarn has a substantial feel that gives the stitching a nice weight and depth. Pictured here: Yellow and gray floral linen gets a fresh update with bright royal-blue accents; we used running stitches and French knots. Plus, traditional crewelwork looks nearly as good from the back as from the front, because knots were shunned and thread ends had to be woven into the stitches.

The wool thread gives your stitches added thickness and texture—keep this in mind as you choose stitches. If you're ready to give it a try, you can purchase a kit from quality crewelwork designers such as Phillipa Turnbull of The Crewel Work Company and Sarah Stevens of Melbury Hill. Both of these U.K.-based designers source quality materials like linen twill from Scotland and Appleton wool yarns produced in London.

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