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Crewel in America: The Legacy of Erica Wilson

Dec 19, 2011

by Chappell Ellison

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

On Tuesday, I received an email that the craft world had lost another luminary, held in high praise by those who know the importance of always keeping a needle and thread at hand. Often referred to as the Julia Child of needlework, Erica Wilson was a driving force behind the dissemination of needlecraft in America during the second half of the 20th century. A career retrospective in The New York Times featured a recounting of her life, describing how in 1954, she was invited to teach in the United States, where post-war life saw a rise in the study of domestic arts. It wasn’t long before she held a position at Cooper Union and began teaching classes out of her own apartment. Wilson was overwhelmed with the voracity of her students. “Here were these very industrious ladies, so I found myself being a Royal School of Needlework because at that time there was nothing.”

In an era when the sewing machine had taken over, Wilson brought attention back to traditional handcrafts. Though she taught classes in cross-stitch and other needle arts, she is most remembered for her contribution to the art of crewel work. Quite simply, crewel is the art of hand-embroidering wool thread. Crewel work is as ancient as the human race, with examples found from all corners of the world.  But the handcraft truly flourished in 16th century Europe. “The Renaissance led to the revival of cultural activities, and attention turned to embroidery as an art, ” wrote Judy Jeroy in Creative Crewel Embroidery: Traditions and Innovations. “The new and widespread enthusiasm for ornament and display in dress and furnishings caused many women to devote their leisure to this art, offering both decorative results and an agreeable social pastime.” Crewel has since come in and out of fashion, adorning bed canopies and pillows during the Victorian era, and decorating purses and clothing during the craft revival of the 1960s.

Lady Loves Green

A close-up view of an Erica Wilson crewel design.

Too often, crewel is associated with the kitsch-laden 1970s, when the walls of American homes were covered in framed, embroidered still lifes of flower vases and pastoral scenes. Yet no one has destroyed that stereotype quite like Katherine Shaughnessy, whose practice and subsequent publications have sparked a small revival in crewel work. Through enlivening the craft with a contemporary edge, Shaughnessy has found new fans of the medium, continuing right where Wilson left off. “I never met Ms. Wilson, but consulted with her by phone for my first book, The New Crewel. She was generous in her comments, making corrections and offering a few tips,” wrote Shaughnessy in an email to her friends and followers. “My second book, New Crewel: The Motif Collection, goes to print this week and this morning I spoke with the publisher and was able to dedicate it to her. Her impact on the art of crewel embroidery is immeasurable.”

Crewel on Etsy

98 comments

  • Leocardia

    Leocardia said 5 years ago

    As I don´t live in the USA, I never heard of Erica Wilson, I did not even know the word "crewel"! But now I will try to find out more about her work and I will look for more new interpretations of embroidery. Thank you.

  • NutfieldWeaver

    NutfieldWeaver said 5 years ago

    My mother does crewel. Embroidery IS art!

  • Krystyna81

    Krystyna81 said 5 years ago

    I love work with fabric, thread, etc. Those who can intuitively work those materials into magic are truly talented!

  • volkerwandering

    volkerwandering said 5 years ago

    I simply adore handmade embroidery! The machines that spit them out sometimes look so fake and cheap. There's nothing like the real thing!

  • originalsbyannemarie

    originalsbyannemarie said 5 years ago

    Thanks for posting this article. I have done a number of works sold by Bucilla and then kept on practicing the style on my own for years. It is as relaxing and joyful as knitting which is now my number 1 craft.

  • AlisaDesign

    AlisaDesign said 5 years ago

    Great article!

  • PrairieGarden

    PrairieGarden said 5 years ago

    I've actually been teaching myself Crewel Embroidery and love it. Thanks for sharing this information.

  • MootiDesigns

    MootiDesigns said 5 years ago

    Great post. Coming from Europe, my grandmother was definitely involved in crewel. And carried that skill to handmade quilts that you would think only a machine could be that precise. Thank you for sharing!

  • sermengtk

    sermengtk said 5 years ago

    What a wonderful post. I have been mesmerized by the finished, framed ones for some time now and could never figure out why people would give up these pieces of art!

  • accentonvintage

    accentonvintage said 5 years ago

    Loved Erica Wilson and did much of my embroidery and crewel from her instructions!

  • BigBadBuddha

    BigBadBuddha said 5 years ago

    It really great doing craft by hand. Great Post

  • PearlAmourJewels

    PearlAmourJewels said 5 years ago

    How fascinating. Hand embroidery is gorgeous and so is her work. I really wish i knew how to embroider.

  • PapillonVintageShop

    PapillonVintageShop said 5 years ago

    Very interesting, thanks for sharing this.

  • LiliDMagpieCreations

    LiliDMagpieCreations said 5 years ago

    Wow...the World Has lost a Living Treasure at her passing. :( I have a number of her books that I inherited from my grandmother's collection that have been an invaluable resource over the years.... She will be missed. Li

  • DaisyandFlorrie

    DaisyandFlorrie said 5 years ago

    Erica Wilson will be missed, but like all great practitioners of hand arts, her art will continue and will be rediscovered by those who follow.

  • SneakyPoodle

    SneakyPoodle said 5 years ago

    What a great tribute! Thanks for sharing with those of us who still truly appreciate handmade delicacies. ~sneakyPoodle

  • RYEPcashmere

    RYEPcashmere said 5 years ago

    I have loved Crewel for a very long time and I have a small collection.

  • BeatificBijoux

    BeatificBijoux said 5 years ago

    Thanks for sharing this. I'm a huge fan of embroidery and of crewel work in particular. My style of embroidery embraces the designs, stitches, and color theory of traditional Jaacobean crewel work, but I typically use cotton thread and work on whatever fabric I have available.

  • mermaidtoes

    mermaidtoes said 5 years ago

    what a beautiful tribute to a woman who encouraged us to express ourselves thru embroidery...I loved to do my jeans ala Erica....

  • VintageEyeFashion

    VintageEyeFashion said 5 years ago

    I remember seeing Erica's work in the 70s. I did some crewel back in the day & would love to take it up again some time. Great post.

  • handjstarcreations

    handjstarcreations said 5 years ago

    I remember having a needlework book she wrote which was like a definintive guide! I loved that book!

  • BrightSpotDesigns

    BrightSpotDesigns said 5 years ago

    I did Erica Wilson kits when I was younger. It is a lovely craft. Sorry to hear of her passing, but she left a wonderful legacy behind.

  • needleyou

    needleyou said 5 years ago

    So nice that you paid tribute to her & told us about her. Crewel looks like a cool art form full of possibilities. Always have admired it --

  • quiltfever

    quiltfever said 5 years ago

    I have always loved the beauty of crewel embroidery and did a few pieces in the 70's. Thank you for the article on this Icon .

  • Lotuslulu

    Lotuslulu said 5 years ago

    Erica Wilson's books made me try my hand at crewel - I love her books and her easy to use kits. What a treasure she was.

  • Rosie605

    Rosie605 said 5 years ago

    Erica Wilson has always been an inspiration to me. I have the book that you've pictured, and one of my favorite needlework pieces from her still hangs in my bedroom. If it weren't for her I would never have tried Crewel work. She will truly be missed. Thanks for including this on Etsy.

  • desertflowercreation

    desertflowercreation said 5 years ago

    I have all her books. Erica Wilson inspired my work more than once. May she rest in peace.

  • ApolloHillsCrafts

    ApolloHillsCrafts said 5 years ago

    Erica Wilson was one of the first books I bought on needlework of any kind. She was a great inspiration to me when I did Crewel work. I have 2 framed pieces that are from the 70's and one is a shakespere pome, and had thought of selling them, but maybe are keepers now.

  • bstudio

    bstudio said 5 years ago

    I admire artisans such as Erica Wilson who are so dedicated and passionate about their work and so willing to share it with others!

  • sudahlia

    sudahlia said 5 years ago

    She started my life long journey of creating beautiful treasures with my own hands. I am a big fan of hers & will miss the wonders of her talents.

  • AsLuckWouldHaveIt

    AsLuckWouldHaveIt said 5 years ago

    I love this! Thank you for sharing!

  • leatherstockingal

    leatherstockingal said 5 years ago

    Erica Wilson was a GIANT handcrafter, very big shoes for us to fill.

  • paramountvintage

    paramountvintage said 5 years ago

    i love embroidery and i love this article. thanks!!!

  • uniquefabricgifts

    uniquefabricgifts said 5 years ago

    Machines can do so many things , but hand embroidery is a real art! She was amazing!

  • OuterKnits

    OuterKnits said 5 years ago

    Awesome article! One of those things I look forward to exploring in the future.

  • LivingVintage

    LivingVintage said 5 years ago

    Is she British? Interesting article. Thanks.

  • myvintagecrush

    myvintagecrush said 5 years ago

    Art in every medium! Loved this!

  • HandcraftedorVintage

    HandcraftedorVintage said 5 years ago

    I love every embroidery technique and are able to do most of them due to a very traditional education :o) It's a pitty one can not live long enough to make al the pieces one would like to make. I would love to have two extra hands and more houres in a day..... Hand embroidery take's a lot of time practicing to do it well and without commercial patterns. And once you are able to use the more difficult technique's you need even more time to create projects. Very under estimated craft embroirdery. I am often amazed how cheap lovely pieces are sold here on Etsy. A lot of vintage sellers have no idea what treasures they sell for almost nothing.

  • Parachute425

    Parachute425 said 5 years ago

    Embroidery is a wonderful art with limitless possibilities and Erica was a true artist.

  • luckyrosiescreations

    luckyrosiescreations said 5 years ago

    I am a huge crewel fan and Erica Wilson's crewel is truly a work of art

  • Artdeleonardow

    Artdeleonardow said 5 years ago

    My name is Kathie, and my stomping years were 1970-80... I worked in NYC. Erica Wilson was known by everyone. All the women would work on her crewel work patterns. I still have some tucked away. Erica taught us the difference between crewel and needlepoint...most people dont know the difference today. Erica Wilson came along and started the arts and crafts movement. When I was a child, no one had an arts and crafts section in a store, it was all sewing. Until the late 70's the only arts and crafts catalog was Lee Wards and Erica Wilson. Of course I looked in the mirrow and saw aging, but I didnt realize she got any older. I hope she is resting in peace. She taught an incredible amount of people to go into their zone and enjoy their crafts...

  • go2girl

    go2girl said 5 years ago

    I'd never heard of her prior to this- beautiful work, thanks for sharing.

  • polkadotmagpie

    polkadotmagpie said 5 years ago

    Erica Wilson was my Mom's idol. Inspired by her work, my Mom made all the seat covers in our dinning room in her crewel patterns. A great loss, and a great spirit.

  • RossLab

    RossLab said 5 years ago

    Amazing and talented woman. Thanks for sharing.

  • RetroRevivalBoutique

    RetroRevivalBoutique said 5 years ago

    Erica's "Needleplay" books are the whole reason I picked up crewel embroidery, and they really helped me develop my skills in that area. I'm so sorry to hear that she's passed. R.I.P. Erica! ♥

  • PeonySTBebe

    PeonySTBebe said 5 years ago

    I began learning crewel embroidery at age 13 because of Erica Wilson's designs. My mother bought me many kits and we would have "show and tell" with my projects, whenever my Granny would come over for dinner. I loved all the bright colors of wool on linen! Unbelieveably, I still have some of the wool yarn leftover from some of the projects, and this is over 30 years later and too many moves to count! Thank you, Erica!

  • Ebrown2503

    Ebrown2503 said 5 years ago

    She really was singular in her field! I am thinking of a few pieces that I did when I was younger, and of course they hang on a wall, just as you said. It is such a freeing art form! Literally coloring with fibers! For all of us at Etsy, she is a national treasure and will be missed.

  • NeedleCraftNook

    NeedleCraftNook said 5 years ago

    Wonderful article I was so sad to hear Erica Wilson has passed away, her works were always so beautiful she will be missed.

  • Waterrose

    Waterrose said 5 years ago

    Such a wonderful lady and inspiration. She is certainly one of the people who helped move needlework to the forefront and younger generations.

  • velvetbrownstudio

    velvetbrownstudio said 5 years ago

    I have always loved crewel work. Knowing how much time and work goes into each piece, I am always amazed when I find a pillow or framed art at a thrift store for a few dollars.

  • ReEnhabit

    ReEnhabit said 5 years ago

    Erica Wilson's impact on my life started when I was a child and watched my mother doing crewel work. She brought such artistry to the need and thread (yarn) - She will continue to teach us all thru her books and legacy.

  • bellaloona

    bellaloona said 5 years ago

    As a teenager I bought my first Erica Wilson book and have cherished it ever since. I still refer to that first one for instruction and inspiration and have since added more of her books to my library. Glad to see she is so well remembered here.

  • katrinaalana

    katrinaalana said 5 years ago

    Lovely work!

  • auntsuesoldnewlovely

    auntsuesoldnewlovely said 5 years ago

    I knew of Erica Wilson and crewel work back in the 60's/70's when I was a young teen learning the art. I remember doing a freehand crewelwork bird of blue and green on a shirt that I proudly wore to high school. What a wonderful skill she helped us to discover once again.

  • Moosemom

    Moosemom said 5 years ago

    I was saddened to hear of her passing. The needlework industry will surely miss her. I absolutely adore crewel with its amazing colors and textures and she's one we can thank for its continued popularity.

  • silkoak

    silkoak said 5 years ago

    Thanks for honoring the pioneer that Erica Wilson was to the DIY movement of today! We take much for granted, in a world of instant information and instruction. Back in the day, Erica re-introduced us to the world of "craft" and helped us to reshape it for our times. Many thanks!

  • auntsuesoldnewlovely

    auntsuesoldnewlovely said 5 years ago

    Back in the 60's/70's when I was a teen I made a freehand crewelwork bird design of blue and green on a shirt that I proudly wore to high school. What a lovely art Erica Wilson helped us to discover once again.

  • auntsuesoldnewlovely

    auntsuesoldnewlovely said 5 years ago

    Oops sorry for the double post!

  • jojosvintagecupboard

    jojosvintagecupboard said 5 years ago

    Truly an art form! What a wonderful article!

  • funkomavintage

    funkomavintage said 5 years ago

    Oh... how her lovely work influenced so much of the embroidery work I did in the 60s and 70s....I adored her poppies and little birds...and I still gain inspiration and energy from her books in my collection...

  • PruAtelier

    PruAtelier said 5 years ago

    Yes indeed, a great force for a return to needlework of all kinds that many enjoy today! I had her book too for years and recall visiting her shop and purchasing one of her kits many years ago....needless to say, I never really got into it and finished the project! I particularly love that floral still life piece you feature, a testimony to the overall sophistication and excellence of her work. Sadly, I have to say that much of today's oversimplified, cutesy, childlike projects can never hold a candle to what she accomplished!

  • peshka

    peshka said 5 years ago

    Love it!

  • handcraftedbooks

    handcraftedbooks said 5 years ago

    Erica Wilson was such a great talent! I have so many of her books and I continue to enjoy them and be inspired by them. It is such an awesome place to be when you are in that "creative zone"!

  • freesoul

    freesoul said 5 years ago

    wow, thanks for this honourary article, off to find out more about this lady.

  • driftforever

    driftforever said 5 years ago

    Love this article!

  • Craftelina

    Craftelina said 5 years ago

    thank you very much for this article. it is great to know about such people. we all learn from them and develop ourselves.

  • redemptionart

    redemptionart said 5 years ago

    I love her work! What a wonderful legacy of inspiration she has left us with! Aren't we the fortunate ones! Aloha..

  • beadyiz

    beadyiz said 5 years ago

    She was a wonderful artist - thank you! I loved her Chessie kitten pattern when I was a child...

  • slumbersoft

    slumbersoft said 5 years ago

    I enjoyed this article very much. Though I did not remember Erica Wilson by name, I certainly did my share of crewel back in the seventies. Thanks for this article.

  • LittleWrenPottery

    LittleWrenPottery said 5 years ago

    Fascinating work, I'd seen the technique many times but not known the name of it. Such detail in the colourwork, I used to do needlepoint when I was a little girl!

  • jewelkingthai

    jewelkingthai said 5 years ago

    Thanks for your article

  • catnipcricket

    catnipcricket said 5 years ago

    Thanks for your article.

  • breadandroses2

    breadandroses2 said 5 years ago

    Indeed, Erica Wilson was a master of her art and craft of the highest degree. Crewel work was one of first forms of needlework I learned quite young though neither I nor the adult women in my life heard of her until much later. A seminal figure in the revival of all hand work, she will be missed.

  • TheMillineryShop

    TheMillineryShop said 5 years ago

    There is loads of great inspiration here. I did crewel work as a kid and had already learned to sew by hand and to use a sewing machine. But all that hand sewing influenced me. Most people are very surprised to hear that I don't use a machine to make hats, every stitch is done by hand. It's something I mention in my profile, but a fact that I think goes un-noticed. Or at least mis-understood in an age when if there's a machine to do it, why not use it. Of course the big secret is that I get a superior hat by being dedicated to handmade and THAT is what it is all about.

  • theroyal

    theroyal said 5 years ago

    that is a shame.. goodbye lady

  • Jackphelpsstudio

    Jackphelpsstudio said 5 years ago

    Nice work! wonderful article.

  • CapeKathy

    CapeKathy said 5 years ago

    My mother enjoyed working her designs. Timeless and classic.

  • gulliver62

    gulliver62 said 5 years ago

    She was a real inspiration. As a girl, I used to read her books and tried some designs on jeans--I ended up doing some pairs for a few of my friends as well. Her influence really colored how I see the needle arts, and why I love it.

  • LavenderField

    LavenderField said 5 years ago

    Beautiful work and very inspirational

  • Iammie

    Iammie said 5 years ago

    Great article!

  • Alterity

    Alterity said 5 years ago

    Awesome post! Who doesn't still keep one of her books (or two) on their craft book shelves?!

  • OnlyOriginalsByAJ

    OnlyOriginalsByAJ said 5 years ago

    What a great article! Thanks for sharing :)

  • WhisperingOak

    WhisperingOak said 5 years ago

    What a lovely article and dedication in honor of Erica Wilson.

  • Shuttergirljarn

    Shuttergirljarn said 5 years ago

    I adore Crewel work. I grew up creating Crewel pieces from the little kits you could get at the craft store. As the years went by, I began to see fewer and fewer pieces. Now that I know the name Erica Wilson, I'm inspired to take up my needle once again and Crewel away! Thank you for sharing.

  • pinksnakejewelry

    pinksnakejewelry said 5 years ago

    Super Article!!! I've admired her needle work since I was a little girl- sorry to hear about her passing.

  • UglyBaby

    UglyBaby said 5 years ago

    I have looked at crewel for quite some time as something I might like to learn.

  • manicarteest

    manicarteest said 5 years ago

    Good to see someone keep an old tradition alive. I have embroidery stuff but I have been intimidated to do anything with it. Maybe i will now.

  • BanglewoodSupplies

    BanglewoodSupplies said 5 years ago

    Bless her...

  • alicefaysfancies

    alicefaysfancies said 5 years ago

    I remember her on Public TV I always looked forward to her show and sat entranced as I watched intensely . I have missed her ....may she rest in peace. She taught me many things....not only stitches but the love for the art. She was an incredable lady and I am saddened to know she has passed.

  • Mattiq

    Mattiq said 5 years ago

    I've been doing crewel stitching since the 1960's. I was blessed with a wonderful aunt who taught me. Erica Wilson was the rock star of crewel kits. I have quite a few vintage ones of hers that I haven't stitched as yet. She brought a fresh new style to the art and craft, not to mention vibrant colors!! In every photo I've ever seen of her, she is always smiling. She brought a lot of pleasure to crafters everywhere, and leaves a wonderful legacy behind. Thank you Etsy, for featuring her here. She's probably already started embroidering new drapes for the corridors of Heaven. Only, I'll bet she gets to use real gold and silver threads!!!! ;-)

  • Mattiq

    Mattiq said 5 years ago

    Crewel, its all in the thread. ;-)

  • ellenhowardhandmade

    ellenhowardhandmade said 5 years ago

    OMG, this is sad news and brings back so many memories. I was born to sew. I watched her show on PBS as a kid. I preferred it over the usual kid stuff. I learned so much from her. Her work is beautiful. There was some pretty rad crewl in the 60's when I was growing up. Fond memories and I'm sorry to hear of her passing.

  • OneInAMillinery

    OneInAMillinery said 5 years ago

    Sad news! Will definitely be looking up more info on Erica Wilson. When I was a teenager I made one of those crewel work wall hangings of flowers and had a great time with it. I haven't done crewel work since, but have been looking forward to taking it back up ever since I bought Katherine Shaughnessy's "The New Crewel" book at the Felt Club in LA.

  • tableclothpad

    tableclothpad said 5 years ago

    I love this articles is to good.

  • whytestuffs

    whytestuffs said 5 years ago

    Thanks for this article, and I enjoyed reading the comments and share the joy in crewel worl. It's been years since I've done crewel and Erica Wilson was queen. Sad to hear of her passing, in my mind she should be standing still as I remember her when I first became acquainted with her as a teen and for many years after.

  • tyingknots

    tyingknots said 5 years ago

    I stumbled on this article today and was shocked. We hear so much in the news of people in every genre in the world but rarely do we hear of our needlework icons. I had the opportunity to chat with her over the phone one day and found her to be an extremely articulate and pleasant person. She has been an inspiration to me as a needleworker since the early 80's. Her talent is unsurpassed and will be sorely missed.

  • TurnKeyCrafts

    TurnKeyCrafts said 5 years ago

    I have done many forms of needlework and still do some of them. Crewel embroidery I had left at the way side. Now reading this article on Erica Wilson I am remembering. I am sorry to see such an artist leave us.

  • iris756

    iris756 said 5 years ago

    her work is beautiful. Very inspiring.

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