A Crewel World: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – October 2006
Crewel work is any embroidery worked with lightly-twisted, two-ply, worsted wool yarns. Unlike silk and cotton, wool yarns could be dyed at home using indigo, sumac, golden rod, madder, and walnut to achieve deep vibrant colors. Stem, long and short, couching and filling stitches could quickly cover large pieces of fabric in colorful design, making crewel embroidery especially suitable for bed furnishings.
However, crewel work is not confined to bed furnishings. A chasuble, a toddler’s dress, a sampler, and fragments from an early eighteenth century dress will introduce you to a beautiful and bountiful crewel world.
Drawn from the museum’s permanent collection and on exhibit through February 2007, Crewel World focuses on a period from the late-17th to the mid-18th century, when crewel work appeared in abundance as decoration in domestic quarters as well as for personal adornment. The lightly twisted, two-ply wool yarn used in crewel embroidery, coupled with diversely textured stitches, made fairly quick work of covering large surfaces, such as bed curtains, with freeform designs.
The exhibition also illustrates the changing aesthetic, patterns and techniques of the period. While the brilliant colors of crewel yarns remained consistent, the ground would shift from dark colors to the natural, light hues of fustian and linen, and back again to dark. International trade would inspire new designs. In Colonial America, frugality would be another mother of invention.
The bed was one of the most important features of a wealthy home and was dressed accordingly in rich textiles. Crewel work produced colorful bed curtains that afforded warmth and privacy. A wool twill bedcover was embroidered by Harriet Dunbar of Lenox, Massachusetts, in brightly colored crewel yarns against a dark ground. Using Roumanian, chain, stem and blanket stitches and cut pile for the floral motifs, she also added her initials at the top. The change from using crewel yarns on natural linen to crewel embroidery on dark ground took place during the mid-18th century and brought back an earlier aesthetic seen in the English wall hanging of 1675.
Also included in the exhibit is an English wall hanging that was made up of indigo-dyed linen/cotton with densely embroidered designs of exotic animals like monkeys, elephants, birds and wildflowers, arranged in a grid pattern. Copied from seventeenth century books on botany and animals, the skill of the drawing indicates that a professional prepared the cloth, although the vertical panel appears to have been embroidered by a different hand than the horizontal panels. Originally 186 motifs, the piece was broken up several times, reduced to 126 patterns in 1954, and dispersed at a Lockwood, New York sale. Today the Abegg-Stiftung, Switzerland, holds a fragment with forty-nine motifs, while the Wadsworth Atheneum holds three fragments containing thirty-three motifs. The three extraneous panels that would have been part of a third row on the vertical panel have been mounted so that the original brilliant color of the crewel yarn on the reverse side is revealed.
Neither patterns nor technique remained static in crewel work. Although the chain stitch had long been part of the English embroidery repertoire, by the mid-18th century it began to predominate in crewel work with commercial embroidery. In the British-American colonies, the motif of Adam and Eve appears first in Boston needlework in 1729. A piece made in 1760 by Mary Sarah Titcomb was identified by her great-granddaughter as “never finished.” Nevertheless, it is a charmingly rendered Adam and Eve, both with improbable blue hair and a dog chasing a stag, disturbing Paradise.
Crewel World is the final exhibition organized by the late Carol Dean Krute, who served the Wadsworth Atheneum for fifteen years as Curator of Costume and Textiles. Her intent with this show was to “introduce you to a beautiful and bountiful crewel world.”
The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art is located at 600 Main Street, Hartford. The museum is open Wednesday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; the first Thursday of each month until 8 p.m.; closed Mondays, Tuesdays and major holidays. Admission is $10 adults; $9 seniors (62+); $5 students age 13 through college (with student ID); children age 12 and under free. At 5 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month, admission is $5 for ages 13 and up. Visit www.wadsworthatheneum.org or call (860) 278-2670 for more information.