Crewel embroidery is probably the most versatile of all needlework. What else but crewel could you use for a wing chair, an eyeglass case, a vest, a tote bag or a paneled Chinese screen? Take a favorite pillow or picture design, and imagine it adorning the front of an elegant jacket in pale colors of soft wools, or sweeping across the hemline of a long evening skirt in delicate stitches of silk and gold thread, or in natural colorings of textured yarns on a country tote.
There are no crewel stitches as such -- they are all basic embroidery stitches that may be worked in silk, gold, cotton floss, Persian-type wool, string, knitting yarn and even rope. From the few ancient pieces of needlework that remain today, we can see that most of the basic stitches from all parts of the world have not changed throughout the centuries.
One of the earliest stitches -- found on embroideries in the Egyptian tombs -- was the twining stitch, a close cousin of our stem stitch. Six other stitches can be thought of as "ancestral" -- basic stitches upon which untold variations have been built -- satin chain, cross, back, weaving and filling. However complicated and varied the different embroidery techniques seem to be, all have sprung from these seven basic sources.
Traditional crewel embroidery almost always was done in fine two-ply yarn on linen with very few stitching, but today you can experiment with an abundance of new materials, new approaches to color and stitches, and come up with original masterpieces to hand down as the treasured heirlooms of tomorrow.
Start a sampler of stitches worked in various threads and wools, mixing colors and textures, and see where your creativity takes you. A sampler gives you freedom to experiment with the stitches without having to fit them into a particular design or color scheme. Try the main stitch in different textures, then in all its variations. By taking another twist of the thread, you may even invent a variation of your own.
Get a piece of fabric and start with the stem stitch. You don't need a design. Just weave a single outline of stem stitches over, under and twisted back on itself until you have an intricate mass of shapes like a giant doodle. Then, between the outlines, fill in some of the shapes with row upon row of stem stitch in a solid block, and see the dramatic change in effect. The stem may be worked with the thread held either to the left or right of the needle, but once a line has been started, it should always be held to the same side.
Fill in other shapes on your free-form sampler with split stitch, a close cousin of stem. As its name suggests, the needle splits through the thread instead of coming up to one side of it. The beautiful and complex-looking long and short shading is really a collection of split stitches, arranged so the colors blend softly. So add some shapes filled in with three or four close shades subtly flowing into each other, and your sampler is off to a roaring start.
Chain stitch, one of the oldest and most versatile stitches, doesn't even require fabric or needle -- it can be worked in the air just by drawing loops of thread through one another with your fingers. The resulting chain is the basis of crochet, raised stumpwork stiches and some forms of lace. On your needlework sampler, always work rows of chain stitch in the same direction, since working back and forth produces a different, rougher effect. The well-known buttonhole stitch qualifies as a version of chain because the thread is looped to one side rather than returned to the same hole.
Add some stitches from the satin family to your sampler for areas of bold all-over color. Actually, satin stitch is not a stitch at all, but close threads laid side by side, coming up at one edge of the shape and going down at the other. Nothing could be easier than working these straight stitches, yet nothing could be harder than keeping them meticulously even so that they appear smooth and satiny. A close relative is laid work, which looks identical to satin stitch from the front, but actually uses half the amount of thread. Instead of the stitches being carried across the back, they are worked only on the front surface, leaving very little thread on the reverse side and making this the perfect stitch to use for large areas. This covering of stitches is held in place by working decorative stitches on top afterward.