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16 Jan 2019

A crewel encounter

Written by Jo Riley
An embroidered panel shows a floral design, found at Crathes Castle.
The largest of the three crewel work panels discovered at Crathes Castle
Beautifully embroidered crewel work panels have been discovered at Crathes Castle. Establishing the date when they were created tells a narrative of stitching that spans a millennium.

Opening a drawer in the Great Hall at Crathes Castle revealed some hidden gems: three pieces of linen, beautifully embroidered in the Jacobean style. It’s likely that these pieces of cloth would once have been part of bed hangings. The embroidery technique used is crewel work. ‘Crewel’ is the old Welsh word for wool, with which the stitches are made. Ascribing a date to these panels required thinking about the history of crewel work embroidery.

Threading through time

The earliest and most well-known example of crewel work is the Bayeux Tapestry, although the technique would have had earlier, more humble beginnings. The technique became extremely popular in the period of Elizabeth I, and went on to gain even more popularity during the reign of James VI. His formal title of Jacobus Brittaniae Rex was adopted for the embroidery style of the time, and this is when crewel work and Jacobean work became synonymous.

Many grand houses were built and furnished in the 17th century. Fabric, imported by the (English) East India Company, was rich in colour and exotic in design. These imported fabrics provided inspiration for needlework, as embroideries incorporated images of elaborate flowers, birds and animals, flowing branches and foliage.

Jacobean bed covers in the Laird’s Bedroom at Crathes Castle. The floral pattern is stitched on a white background and runs from the pillow to the foot of the bed.
Jacobean bed covers in the Laird’s Bedroom at Crathes Castle

Early Jacobean embroideries were monochromatic and used a limited number of stitches. As the availability of dyes grew, the embroideries included more colour in an attempt to emulate the imported fabrics. As the designs and use of colour became more complex, so did the content of stitches. Opulent embroidered cloths were used for bed hangings, curtains, cushions and upholstery.

Towards the end of the 17th century crewel work designs moved away from all-over patterns and instead featured a collection of motifs. The stitching became less varied and more delicate. The flowers depicted within the designs tended to be inspired by native plants, rather than the exotic.

With the dawn of the 18th century the popularity of crewel work diminished and silk became the favoured thread. Embroideries became more naturalistic, and shading with yarns became popular. Sophisticated aspirations, often inspired by paintings, challenged the skills of most needlewomen. The 19th century saw a revival in more simplistic crewel work techniques, fuelled by the work of designers such as William Morris.

The clues are in the content

The pieces of embroidery discovered at Crathes Castle include, in a number of places, three holly leaves. This provides a clear link to the Burnett family, who have these three leaves in their crest.

Elsewhere, large, curled leaves are included, typical of the Jacobean style. These have been broken down and stitched with a number of infilling stitches, an approach developed and popular in the 17th century.

However, apart from this inclusion, the content of the panels suggest that they were created closer to the 19th century. The range of stitching in the pieces is relatively limited; the embroidery has been predominantly worked in chain stitch. This was often used as an alternative to the more complicated long-and-short, or Kensington, stitch, which became popular in the 18th century, following the desire to replicate natural forms accurately rather than produce stylized representations. Through working rows of chain stitching in different tones of colour, semi-striped shading could be achieved simply. There’s very little of the stem stitch that’s ubiquitous in earlier crewel work. Infilling stitches have been worked but not the exquisite range that dominated the Jacobean designs of the 17th century.

The design features an eclectic mix of plants and flowers, entwined with branches. This style of motif work and meandering stems is more indicative of later crewel work, compared to the heavily stitched, earlier Jacobean designs, which incorporated hummocks and elaborate patterns covering the entire ground cloth. The pieces include many native and garden flowers, which again link to designs of the 19th century.

On close inspection, the stitched work of the embroideries is competent and accomplished but not fine. These panels are likely to be an example of amateur work. They appear to have been inspired by the elaborate Jacobean works within the castle, but are also influenced by the later era in which they were stitched. The embroideries provide a fascinating example of how social history can be revealed through understanding the process of creation.

Project Reveal is a Trust-wide collections digitisation project. It will result in an updated database with high-quality images and unique object numbers for every item in the National Trust for Scotland material culture collections. Six regionally based project teams, supported by experienced project managers, will work across all our properties with collections to complete the inventory in 24 months from July 2017 until July 2019.

Project Reveal

Find out more about this Trust-wide collections digitisation project.

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