Some early American crewelwork

Editorial Staff Art

By FLORENCE PETO; from The Magazine ANTIQUES, May 1951.

Eighteenth-century crewelwork, especially favored for bedspreads and bed furnishings, is one of the most delightful types of early American embroidery.  Though it has become very scarce, resolute seekers may still occasionally acquire a piece. 



Tree of Life Design, crewelwork fragment with leaves, fruit, birds, insects, and caterpillar. New York Historical Society.


 The “crewel” in which the designs were worked was a loosely twisted wool yarn.  That which was made commercially came in three grades, a heavy one for tapestry, a medium one for general use, and a two-ply zephyr for the finest embroideries.  Very often, however, the yarn was spun at home.  In fact, all the steps of the processes might be carried out on the needle-woman’s own property, from the raising of the sheep to the carding, spinning, and dyeing of the wool.  The quality of the yarn was affected by the quality of the sheep, the manner in which it was cleaned and spun, and the method of dyeing-which accounts for the fact that the wool in some crewel work looks wiry and harsh while in others it is fine and lustrous. 

Detail of Crewelwork Spread, lined and quilted in cross stich, Made by Anna Ray at the time of her marriage to John Ray in Ridgefield, Connectitcut about 1740.Author’s Collection. 


The colors which enlivened the crewel yarns were products of domestic ingenuity, derived from shrubs, berries, nuts, bark, and the vegetable garden (see Old Time Methods of Dyeing, ANTIQUES, June 1950). The wide range of natural dyes covered greens, yellows, a few dull reds, and mulberry violet, with the blue of indigo.

The background material for crewelwork spreads and bed furnishings was almost always homespun linen-plain or twilled, fine or heavy, bleached or natural.  It was usually finished as a counterpane, less frequently lined and quilted.  Light colored grounds are typical, but dark ones were occasionally used. 

Spread of brown wool twill, with crewelwork embroidery in red, green, and tan (c.1820). Made by the sisters of Honorable Amos Patterson, one of the first settlers of Union Township, Broome County, New York, who owned a farm near Binghamton from 1780. Outline herringbone, buttonhole, and couching stitches. Chicago Art Institute. 

Designs were derived from Oriental Tree of Life patterns and from English floral motifs. Examples most strongly in the Oriental tradition show a continues, un broken “tree,” with exotic blossoms, tendrils, leaves, animals, birds, and fruit. In others, the design elements are scattered over the piece with little or no connection.  On the whole, English and American needlewomen seem to have preferred the latter arrangement.

Foreign needlework pattern books were available as design sources, but many women apparently made up their own, combining elements from different patterns and introducing fantastic and amusing motifs.  One of the bottom flowers in Figure 2 shelters a mermaid!  Not much attention was paid to proportions or naturalistic coloring, but crewelwork designs are full of gaiety and charm.

The design was drawn on the back ground material, sometimes free-hand, more often by means of priced transfers.  The perforated pattern was pinned to the desired position, and the dots marked on the material with dusting powder, sometimes with pencil, or with chalk in the case of dark backgrounds.  Outlines were often “fixed” with water colors.

Homespun Linen Counterpane with crewel embroidery in Oriental Tree of Life designs. Three branches, with intertwining vines and flowers worked in many shades of green, and tones of blue, purple, and gold. New York Historical Society. 


After the deign was transferred to the background, the actual stitchery was done on a tambour, or circular drum-like frame.  Crewel embroidery exhibits a bewildering variety of stitches-chain, Oriental, long0and-short, satin, stem, seed, buttonhole, herringbone, daisy, dot, split, couching, French knot, coral, and others.

Darning stich was sometimes combined with others, creating the effect of a woven fabric set into the design.  Material with a definite weave was needed, since one, two, or three threads were picked up in the alternating or staggering sequence, and regularity was important.  Checkerboard, chevron, brick, herringbone, and other diaper weaves were achieved in this way.  While darning stitch is not unique in crewelwork, it appears seldom enough to be rare.



Dark Blue Twill Spread, with crewel ebroidery in shades of green and tan. Made by Mercy Post in Newport, Herkimer County, New York. Signed and dated 1824. Chicago Art Institute.


 Crewelwork was done in New England from the early eighteenth century.  By 1800, crewel-embroidered spreads were being made elsewhere.  Embroidery was taught at academies for “young females,” which advertised instruction “very much to their advantage” in the arts of painting and fine needlework.  Marcy Huntting, who made the crewelwork hearth rug in Figure 7, was a pupil at the school conducted by Lyman and Mrs. Beecher in East Hampton, Long Island, from 1799 to 1810.  A portfolio of Marcy’s sketches, water colors, and picked transfers is still in existence. 

Gray Wool Hearth Rugh with crewel embroidery, by Marcy Huntting of East Hampton, Long Island. (c. 1800). The work has been done with a down-and-up stitch, let a bit longer on the face than on the back. The large flowers, leaves, and birds have been worked in heavy yarn laid in coils and secured with couching stitches. Stem, chain, and French knots supply details. Mrs. Etta Hedges Pennypacker. 

 Mrs. Peto has made such a specialty of collecting and studying quilts and needlework that one almost automatically thinks of her when the subject is mentioned.  She gets a great deal of pleasure out of it herself, and enjoys sharing her knowledge with others.