Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Sometimes it's the little things in life that take you by surprise, make you pause to think, reflect and remember.

I was sitting up in bed, drinking my morning coffee when I glanced down and, for whatever reason, took particular notice of the binding on my blanket and the stitching that held it there.  This is not a new blanket mind you, it has been on my bed all winter.  Why I decided to focus on it this morning is beyond me but focus I did. Maybe it is because Mothers Day is this month and I have been thinking about my mother and my grandmothers.  Let me explain some.  This is not a regular store bought blanket.  This is one half of a blanket that my grandmother (my moms mom) had cut into two because of wear and tear, and then hand-sewed the sateen binding around all four sides, neatly mitering and stitching each corner.  People were more thrifty back in the day (although with today's economy more and more of us are learning new skills in an attempt to be thrifty) and my Grandmother had learned to be very thrifty during the Depression.  She also had wicked great seamstress skills from years as a milliner (hat maker). 

Anyway, it was the stitching in particular that caught my eye this morning.  It wasn't a simple Running Stitch, Blanket Stitch, or Whip Stitch - it was more decorative, kind of cross-hatched and showed on both sides.  To me it looked like a one-legged chicken had walked all around the edge.

It has been years since I have done any decorative stitching and I reflected on how long it must have taken my grandmother, and thought about the care she had put into a project for household use rather than decoration.  It also reminded me of the many crewelwork, needlepoint, and embroidered projects my family has produced over the years...skills taught by and passed from both of my grandmothers and my mother, to my sister and myself.  This simple piece of handiwork brought back images of sitting by my grandmother learning how to create different stitches - the Lazy Daisy, Chain, Stem, French Knot, Trellis, Woven and Whipped Wheels, and Herringbone Stitches to name just a few.  I can not name them all here since there are over 100 crewel embroidery stitches (and no, I have not learned them all!)

Here is a piece I created for my Mother-in-Law back in 1983.  I had forgotten about it until a recent visit...I guess it was because I was mentally formulating this article that the piece caught my eye.  How opportune!

My Grandmothers taught me to always sew my initials and the date of completion in my work (it is under the pussy willow in the lower left side as you face it) - it surprised me to see I had made it nearly 30 years ago! 

Closer views show many French Knots (the brown dots), lots of Satin Stitch (white pussy willow catkins and mustard flower petals), a series of areas filled with the Turkey Rug Stitch (the rust colored fuzzy mounds) which is also known as the Ghiordes knot, and flowers made up from radiating Pistil Stitches (the white and mustard colored flowers visible in the second picture below).

The shading of the pitcher is achieved  with a series of Short and Long filling stitches and Block Shading.  (I was not terribly fond of working them as I recall!)

I love the diversity of stitches used in Crewel Embroidery because each stitched section provides short-term goals and a sense of accomplishment which keeps the projects from being boring.

I have noticed a slow resurgence of interest in the old needlework arts such as embroidery, crewel work, and needlepoint (to name just a few.)  I have seen an increase in circulation of our books on these subjects and needlework exhibits have been popping up, such as the recent exhibits on Needlework by Connecticut women at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme and the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford.  Just the other day, in fact, I came home from vacation and saw in the local paper that members of the Connecticut River Valley Chapter of the Embroiderers' Guild of America are showcasing examples of modern embroidery throughout May at the Granby Public Library (click on the organization names for more information.)

There has not been a whole lot of new material written on these old needlework arts, however bit by bit new books are being published. I turned to one such book as I decided to explore the stitch used by my Grandmother and feed my nostalgia.

CREWELWORK by Jacqui McDonald 
(click on the title to go to our catalogue record)

This is a wonderful little book by the Royal School of Needlework (or, in brief, the RSN) and is part of their new series of Essential Stitch Guides which to date will include the following three titles: Blackwork, Stumpwork, and Silk Shading (the last two have not yet been published.) 

The authors of all the books in this series are Graduate Apprentices of the Royal School of Needlework and, as such, are very knowledgeable on their subject matter.  The RSN was founded in 1872 to ensure high quality arts and techniques of hand embroidery would be kept alive. 

People from all over the world participate in RSN courses from beginners right through those pursuing degrees for professional careers in embroidered textiles.  (FYI: the RSN has worked for every British Monarch since Queen Victoria and had a hand in helping designer Sarah Burton create The Duchess of Cambridge's beautiful wedding dress!)

Let me begin by saying that this is not a project book...you will not find designs to create here.  You will, however, find all the essential information necessary to design and create your own crewelwork piece.  For those who are unfamiliar with crewelwork it is a "surface embroidery" technique in which stitches are applied to a fabric to create an image (rather than a mesh as with needlepoint).

In addition to its extensive stitch guide (hence the series title...) this book includes a brief history of crewel embroidery; a good section about materials and equipment; and a comprehensive design section to help you develop a design, choose colors and stitches.  Each section contains great photographs and clear step-by-step instructions.  The comprehensive stitch guide is divided into four types of stitches: Essential Stitches, Filling Stitches, Outline Stitches, and Surface Stitches.  Each stitch is introduced by a brief description of how it appears and what it is commonly used for.

Here are some photos of a chair my father's mother made years ago using many, if not all, of the stitches described in Crewelwork.


I can not imagine how long this took her to make!  It was part of an exhibit in her municipality and is one of many crewelwork items featured in an older book (1962) called The Art of Crewel Embroidery by Mildred Davis (our library doesn't own it but several of the others in our consortium do.)

Oh, and that stitch on my blanket that started this whole rumination...I think I have identified it as a Slanting Feather Stitch.  But I could be wrong..... The many years and many washings have created a bit of distortion - but now I have an odd need to continue exploring and wandering down my nostalgic path.


Connecticut Needlework: Women, Art, and Family, 1740-1840
by Susan P. Schoelwer
(click on title to go to our catalogue record)

This book was issued in connection with the recent exhibition at the Connecticut Historical Society and is a historical exploration of the subject matter with many photographed examples.

Crewel Embroidery
by Erica Wilson
(we own this title but not possible to link to our catalogue record)

Published in 1962 it is an old, but classically good, book by an author who is well-known to embroiderers.  Erica Wilson was trained by the Royal School of Needlework.

by Becky Hogg
(recently published, our library does not yet own a copy)

The second book in the Royal School of Needlework's Essential Stitch Guide series.  I haven't seen it yet, but look forward to exploring it since I am completely unfamiliar with Blackwork.