To the 20th-century lady, the latest "must-have" is a Cuisnart food processor or a microwave oven, but the things to go right to the heart of the 18th-century housewife were a crewel-embroidered bedspread, curtains and valance. How lovely to wake up in a bower of green trees, exotic with lions and dragons or peopled with more familiar animals and colorful with wild flowers.
The Anglo-Saxon name for wool thread -- crewel -- gave this distinctive needlework its name, and ever since, creative stitchers everywhere have enjoyed painting with stitches in this free and imaginative medium.
My crewel dragonfly was designed in Nantucket, where some of the best dragonflies live (of course you realize I'm biased about the island where we spend our summers). Sometimes they dart like silver-green pencils over the ponds and lakes, sometimes they hover with their see-through, iridescent wings. In crewel, the stitches speak for you, so your design can be stylized and the stitch will help you tell your story.
The stitch that best represents the dragonfly's segmented body is padded satin. It develops a lovely sheen whether you work in fine wool or mercerized cotton. If you shade from very pale green at the head, through blue to dark green at the tail, you will get a shimmering effect. If you keep all your colors in the same family (sage green, celadon and clear blues, for instance), the design will be harmonious however carried away you become with your stitches.
Fishbone is wonderful for leaves -- it makes a center vein as you go along. For long, narrow leaves, use rows of split stitch, outlined with stem stitch in a darker green to delineate them. Long and short, that soft blending of shades, is perfect for petals. French knots and seeding are the frosting on the cake, adding special textures here and there.
The fabric you choose for your design depends on the final thing you are going to make, whether it's a tote bag, a framed picture or a pillow -- or even the curtains for a four-poster bed. "The dragonfly design could be a repeat pattern.) For the effect of fine, traditional crewel, you'll be working with one thread of wool on a creamy linen or fine wool fabric or cotton homespun.
But if you would like to make a very special picture for the living room, you could buy antique satin and combine the wool with silks or cotton floss.
For transferring the design, forget that messy carbon, those heavy pencil lines, or tedious basting stitches. The 20th century has brought us the miracle Trace-Erase pen -- it's as revolutionary as Scotch tape. You lay your traced design on a piece of glass or clear plastic, position your fabric on top and ankle a goose-neck or portable lamp underneath. The light shining through will clearly delineate the lines, which you can draw on your fabric with the Trace-Erase pen.