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The origins of crewel will probably always be lost. There is some evidence that the Greeks and the Romans used wool to embroidery with. Fragments have been found in North Mongolia showing a face of a nomad warrior, dating to about the 1st. Century BC. Biblical references are made to curtains, altar clothes, and other hangings. These were embellished with wool embroidery that decorated Jewish tabernacles. Crewel was popular in England from 400 AD to 1400 AD.
It seems wool embroidery has been around for centuries. However, the word crewel or cruell referred to the wool yarn and not the style of embroidery Crewel is an old Welsh word meaning "wool." Traditionally heavy wools were used, but today there is a wide variety of yarns to choose from, depending upon the desired effect.
At one time crewels were a two-ply, tightly twisted or worsted wool yarns. Fine embroideries were worked and manufactured during the Middle Ages. Silk on silk, linen, wool and linen canvas was very popular at the time of Elizabeth I. Very little was worked with wool alone.
It wasn't until the reign of James I, the first quarter of the 17th Century, that much of the exotic designs we know today were created and refined. Some evidence shows this was caused by the increase in trade between East India company of India and England.
Much of the traditional style of crewel also came from the manufacturing of steel needles in England. Even though steel needles had been used in Germany for 150 years, it was the greater supply of less expensive needles, in England that greatly contributed to the wide spread popularity of crewel in this era. Most popular were wall and bed hangings. The unheated stone castles and wood structures of that time were cold, drafty, and basically unpleasant to the eye. Anything that would add to the warmth and charm of the home was greatly appreciated. Many other items were embroidered and cherished as well; table carpets, seat covers, bed spreads.
Queen Elizabeth was a highly regarded embroideress and did much to formalize embroidery. During the Elizabethan times most embroiders came from the highest social circles. In 1561 Queen Elizabeth granted a charter to the Broiderers' Co., also known as the "Keepers and Wardens and Society of the Art and Mistery of the Broderers of the City of London." These craftsmen(yes, they were all men) were the broiderers of some of the great pieces from this time period. At the completion of each piece it was presented to the Guild Hall for inspection to receive the guild's seal of approval. If the piece did not meet the rigid requirements, it was cut up and burned!
James I came into power in the early seventeenth century. In the formal Latin tradition of that day, he was called Jocobus Brittaniae Rex. From this name crewel became known as "Jacobean Embroidery." Most of the 17th century was lavished with crewel embroidery. However, near the end of this century the favor of silk embroideries took precedence over wool. Crewel was of little interest in the 18th century.
In America, embroidery was for the wealthy only. The settlers had other priorities in developing this new land. There was farming, spinning, weaving, sewing, candle and soap making were only some of the basics that took much of their time. It was necessary to work pieces that were more for the home rather than to wear.
Pieces much as rugs and quilts were in higher demand. From this time grew a new era of embroider, it was known as the "Blue and White" era. The woman had to card, spin, weave, and dye their own flax. Supplies were not readily available so these women had to grow their own indigo plants to dye the wool.