A Brief History of Jacobean Crewel Embroidery

A Brief History of Jacobean Crewel Embroidery

No style of embroidery is ever solely distinctive of one time in history or one century. Through evolution of design, there is always a correlation between styles that results in gradual changes of taste and a combination of influences. Designs are very rarely original, instead they have been developed from previous examples, where the best parts have been utilised and the undesirable parts eliminated.

Below you can see my first ever attempt at Crewel embroidery on the Royal School of Needlework apprenticeship.


Jacobean crewelwork

 

The oldest surviving and probably most famous known example of Crewelwork is the Bayeux Tapestry, which tells the story of the Norman Conquest. Laid stitches were used for the main characters, couching for the outlines and stem stitch for the details. Unlike the name suggests The Bayeux Tapestry is indeed not a tapestry at all, rather an embroidery.

Jacobean Crewel work was the outcome of earlier wool embroidery that even during the highly popular times of opulent Ecclesiastical embroidery, continued to be worked and admired. During the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, large grand houses were being built which increased the demand for furnishing textiles such as cushions, wall hangings, curtains, fire screens and bed hangings which were decorated with Crewel embroidery.

In 1600 the East India Company was founded and was formed to pursue trade with the East Indies. It was in the eighteenth century that the company interests turned from trade to territory. The merchants on their expeditions brought back to England, brilliant coloured textiles which depicted the tree of life design along with exotic birds and animals.

It was when King James I came to reign in the early seventeenth century that Jacobean started to gain popularity. In the earliest examples the hillocks were broken up into smaller sections (more like the mounds in the painted Palampores) than in later examples. Around the 1650’s, as with everything else, designs became more exuberant, colour more brilliant due to the further development of dyes and the exquisite stitching began to give way to solid fillings combined with tendrils that filled space between the larger leaves and flowers. The large leaves were rarely angular, instead they swept in curves with the points curled over to show the underside of the leaf, allowing  a wider arrangement of the stitches.

A wonderful illustration from the book Jacobean Embroidery but Ada Wentworth Fitzwilliam and A.F. Morris Hands
A wonderful illustration from the book Jacobean Embroidery but Ada Wentworth Fitzwilliam and A.F. Morris Hands.

 

Long and short was used for large branches and leaves. Satin stitch was used for a variety of flowers or small foliage. Buttonhole, also widely used for leaves gave a lighter filling. With rope stitch, coral stitch and chain stitch being used for outlines.

A heavily worked leaf in long and short

 

Colours used were rich blues, shading from the darkest indigo to a soft blue-grey which were paired with pale and silvery greens and a subtle use of an accent colour in rose pink, bronze greens or browns.

A stylised leaf in rich blues with many decorative filling stitches.
A stylised leaf in rich blues with many decorative filling stitches.

 

During the reign of Queen Anne, taste returned to the the older, lighter designs and the bold shapes and colours gave way to a softer modified design. In the Georgian copies, heaviness returned. However, eventually the designs fell out of favour, making way for more fashionable embroidery techniques of the time.

Today, modern Jacobean Crewelwork is generally worked in a 2-ply Appletons Wool on a Linen Twill. Designs are still often based on the tree of life and include floral motifs, animals, birds and insects. Usually a limited colour palette of two main colours is used while adding a minimal amount of a third colour that makes the design pop and bring it to life. Modern Crewelwork also uses a wide range of surface stitches such as, Trellis, Satin stitch, Block shading, Raised stem stitch, chain stitch, laid work, heavy chain stitch, long and short among many more others.

 

If you are interested in learning this wonderful technique then you can purchase this kit from my shop

 

IMG_4075Jacobean Crewelwork

I hope you enjoyed this article. please feel free to comment and share.

Happy stitching

Sara



12 thoughts on “A Brief History of Jacobean Crewel Embroidery”

  • Fascinating article! I discovered (and fell in love with) Jacobean Crewelwork a couple of years ago and have been looking for kits in the UK ever since; there seem to be very few available, so it’s great to see a new one! Will you be designing more in the future? I particularly love designs featuring Jacobean – style animals (stags especially!) and birds.
    Love the stitch descriptions you provide here, too – so clear. Great for a novice like me!
    Best wishes
    Sally

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the article, Jacobean is one of my favourite too. I will be adding more kits in the near future and also adding stitch tutorials on Youtube.

      Sara

  • Hi Sara. I’ve just discovered your website and blog because someone on Facebook posted this article. Can you drop me a line when your kit is ready for sale? I’d be really interested. I live in Canada so I don’t know if you’ll mail to there but here’s hoping. Thanks.

    • Hi Sarah,
      Of course I’ll let you know when it’s ready and I’m sure I can work something out with regards postage to Canada.

      Sara

    • Hi Sarah,
      I hope you are well. I just wanted to drop you a quick message to say that the Jacobean kit is now available to buy on my website and I have set up postage to Canada.

      Best Wishes

      Sara

  • My pleasure. I hope you are enjoying the certificate course. I’m currently teaching on it every Tuesday and Jacobean is my favourite technique to teach.

    Sara

  • Hello,

    I am beginning research for a correspondence course on Jacobean Crewel through the Embroiders’ Guild of America. I am interested in learning more about the dying techniques you mentioned and the evolution of design elements. Can you point me in a direction of research materials or pattern books that speak to these areas of crewel history? Thank you so much for any help you can give.

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