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.
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.”