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Crewel work is the old-fashioned name for wool embroidery. It is essentially English in origin, but there is the unmistakable note of the East in the designs developed during the reigns of the Stuarts in the seventeenth century and in that of Queen Anne in the first part of the eighteenth. The most significant design of this period came out of the contact with the East when the East India Company was granted its charter in 1600. How soon after the Chinese "tree of life" design came into use as a motif in these handembroidered hangings is a disputed point, but today these fantastic flowers and leaves on gracefully twisting stems, interspersed with quaint animals and gorgeous birds, recall the beauty and luxury of the Jacobean period.
It is true that these embroidered designs of wool which so gayly decorate our furniture today are not worked by English hands as once they were. The embroidery stitches have been simplified and mechanical aids are used. Some of the fabrics are made in this country, but the best come from India, whence came three centuries ago the Eastern character of the designs. The artistry of the native Easterner is still needed in making these highly conventionalized curious plants and flowers.
Jacobean crewel embroideries are now used in upholstery and are also employed for portieres. As wall hangings, pieces made for that purpose with the tree of life springing from a base of deep colored wools representing the earth are highly decorative.
Most of the designs are on ecru backgrounds of cotton twill, but varied shades of green, a faded red and an old blue may be obtained. In the color scheme of the designs themselves, varied in details, there is a wide range. One on an ecru background shows a fantastically wavering branch springing upward with the leaf, bud, flower and fruit of the pomegranate embroidered in blues, yellows, orange, reds and delicate greens.
Animals formed an important part of these old designs. In the branches of the tree of life gorgeous parrots and birds of paradise perched, while peacocks strutted on the ground. The contact with the East, which meant much to English life in every way, brought in these brilliantly coored birds, and it was but natural that they should have a place in the embroidery designs which reflected so many of the new things of the day.
Squirrels and rabbits and the fleeing hart and pursuing hounds not only were embroidered on the little humpy hills representing the ground, but might also be found scattered amid the general pattern.
Because of the variety of their color schemes an arrangement harmonizing with almost any interior may be made with these old-time designs. In the later period of Queen Anne delicate and playful designs were developed. In these patterns the exotic tree of life is absent and single sprays take its place, but they keep the glamour of Eastern color harmony and of the strange forms of familiar flowers.
Examples of antique hand-worked crewel embroidery may still be found. These are too precious to use for upholstery, but they make admirable wall hangings. As a gentlewoman's occupation in both this country and in England, the making of a bedspread and hangings for a fourposter tester bed, for example, took an immense amount of time. Into the design was worked all the flowers and fruits known and loved by the one who did the embroidery. Harebells and marigolds, grapes, cherries and often some especially favored but perhaps little known flower appeared.
The use of flowers and animals as symbols was a usual practice. The tree form, as standing for the "tree of life,"was only building on the old English motif of the tree as symbolizing the Garden of Eden tale. The carnation and caterpillar seen in many of the embroidery designs of the time were Stuart symbols, as was also the rose and the oak. When the strawberry was introduced in England it soon appeared in embroidery as a quaint conceit and reflection of up-to-date-ness on the part of the needlewoman who worked the piece.