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This text comes from the book Art In Needlework by Lewis F. Day and Mary Buckle. The information has only been edited for clarity. It’s a lovely little book for anyone that does needle crafting.
For work in the hand, Crewel-Stitch is perhaps, on the whole, the easiest and most useful of stitches; whence it comes that people sometimes vaguely call all embroidery crewel work; though, as a matter of fact, the stitch properly so called was never very commonly employed, even when the work was done in “crewel,” the double thread of twisted wool from which it takes its name.
Crewel-Stitch proper is shown at A on the sampler opposite, where it is used for line work. It is worked as follows:—Having made a start in the usual way, keep your thread downwards under your left thumb and below your needle—that is, to the right; then take up with the needle, say ⅛th of an inch of the stuff, and bring it out through the hole made in starting the stitch, taking care not to pierce the thread. This gives the first half stitch. If you proceed in the same way your next stitch will be full length. The test of good workmanship is that at the back it should look like back-stitch
Outline-Stitch (B on sampler) differs from crewel-stitch only in that the thread is always kept upwards above the needle, that is to the left. In so doing the thread is apt to untwist itself, and wants constantly re-twisting. The stitch is useful for single lines and for outlining solid work. The muddled effect of much crewel work is due to the confusion of this stitch with crewel-stitch proper.
Thick Crewel-Stitch (C on sampler) is only a little wider than ordinary crewel-stitch, but gives a heavier line, in higher relief. In effect it resembles rope-stitch, but it is more simply worked. You begin as in ordinary crewel-stitch, but after the first half-stitch you take up ⅛th of an inch of the material in advance of the last stitch, and bring out your needle at the point where the first half-stitch began. You proceed, always putting your needle in ⅛th of an inch in front of, and bringing it out ⅛th of an inch behind, the last stitch, so as to have always ¼th of an inch of the stuff on your needle.
Thick Outline-Stitch (D on sampler) is like thick crewel-stitch with the exception that, as in ordinary outline-stitch (B), you keep your thread always above the needle to the left.
In Back-Stitch (E), instead of first bringing the needle out at the point where the embroidery is to begin, you bring it out ⅛th of an inch in advance of it. Then, putting your needle back, you take up this ⅛th together with another ⅛th in advance. For the next stitch you put your needle into the hole made by the last stitch, and so on, taking care not to split the last thread in so doing.
To work the Spots (F) on sampler—having made a back-stitch, bring your needle out through the same hole as before, and make another back-stitch above it, so that you have, in what appears to be one stitch, two thicknesses of thread; then bring your needle out some distance in advance of the last stitch, and proceed as before. The distance between the stitches is determined by the effect you desire to produce. The thread should not be drawn too tight.
Crewel Work And Crewel-Stitch
You begin Stem-Stitch (G) with the usual half-stitch. Then, holding the thread downwards, instead of proceeding as in crewel-stitch (A) you slant your needle so as to bring it out a thread or two higher up than the half-stitch, but precisely above it. You next put the needle in ⅛th of an inch in advance of the last stitch, and, as before, bring it out again in a slanting direction a thread or two higher. At the back of the sampler the stitches lie in a slanting direction.
To work wider Stem-Stitch (H). After the first two stitches, bring your needle out precisely above and in a line with them, and put it in again ⅛th of an inch in advance of the last stitch, producing a longer stroke, which gives the measure of those following. The slanting stitches at the back are only two-thirds of the length of those on the face.
Crewel and Outline Stitches worked (J) side by side give somewhat the effect of a braid. The importance of not confusing them, already referred to, is here apparent.
Crewel-Stitch is worked solid in the heart-shape in the center of the sampler. On the left side the rows of stitching follow the outline of the heart; on the right they are more upright, merely conforming a little to the shape to be filled. This is the better method.
The way to work solid crewel-stitch will be best explained by an instance. Suppose a leaf to be worked. You begin by outlining it; if it is a wide leaf, you further work a centre line where the main rib would be, and then work row within row of stitches until the space is filled. If on arriving at the point of your leaf, instead of going round the edge, you work back by the side of the first row of stitching, there results a streakiness of texture, apparent in the stem on Illustration 13.
What you get is, in effect, a combination of crewel and outline stitches, as at J, which in the other case only occurs in the centre of the shape where the files of stitches meet.
To represent shading in crewel-stitch, to which it is admirably suited (A, Illustration 41), it is well to work from the darkest shadows to the highest lights. And it is expedient to map out on the stuff the outline of the space to be covered by each shade of thread. There is no difficulty then in working round that shape, as above explained.
In solid crewel the stitches should quite cover the ground without pressing too closely one against the other.
It does not seem that Englishwomen of the 17th century were ever very faithful to the stitch we know by the name of crewel. Old examples of work done entirely in crewel-stitch, as distinguished from what is called crewel work, are seldom if ever to be met with. The stitch occurs in most of the old English embroidery in wool; but it is astonishing, when one comes to examine the quilts and curtains of a couple of hundred years or so ago, how very little of the woolwork on them is in crewel-stitch.
The detail on Illustration 13 was chosen because it contained more of it than any other equal portion of a handsome and typical English hanging; but it is only in the main stem, and in some of the outlines, that the stitch is used. And that appears to have been the prevailing practice—to use crewel-stitch for stems and outlines, and for little else but the very simplest forms. The filling in of the leafage, the diapering within the leaf shapes, and the smaller and more elaborate details generally were done in long-and-short-stitch, or whatever came handiest.
In fact, the thing to be represented, fruit, berry, flower, or what not, seems to have suggested the stitch, which it must be confessed was sometimes only a sort of scramble to get an effect.
Of course the artist always chooses her stitch, and she is free to alter it as occasion may demand; but a good workwoman (and the embroidress is a needlewoman first and an artist afterwards, perhaps) adopts in every case a method, and departs from it only for very good reason. It looks as if our ancestors had set to work without system or guiding principle at all.
No doubt they got a bold and striking effect in their bed-hangings and the like; but there is in their work a lack of that conscious aim which goes to make art. Theirs is art of the rather artless sort which is just now so popular. Happily it was kept in the way it should go by a strict adherence to traditional pattern, which for the time being seems to have gone completely out of fashion.
Quite in the traditional manner is the image labeled “Crewel work in various stitches“. One would fancy at first sight that the work was almost entirely in crewel-stitch. As a matter of fact, there is little which answers to the name, as an examination of the back of the work shows plainly enough. What the stitches are it is not easy to say.
The mystery of many a stitch is to be unraveled only by literally picking out the threads, which one is not always at liberty to do, although, in the ardour of research, a keen embroidress will do it—not without remorse in the case of beautiful work, but relentlessly all the same.
The only piece of embroidery entirely in crewel-stitch which I could find is worked, as it happens, in silk; nor was the worker aware that in so working she was doing anything out of the common.