Crewel embroidery and TV wrestling tag-teamed the first three years of my marriage.
We lived in a two-room basement apartment in the Bronx with a minimum of furniture – a double bed facing a TV, and in the kitchen a hide-a-bed across the room from the kitchen sink.
In the evenings my husband stretched out on the bed to watch wrestling; I sat beside him perfecting basic embroidery stitches gleaned from a library book that illustrated 240. Whenever Antonino Rocca flew off the ropes to flatten some strutting competitor, my husband – and the bed – bounced with excitement. So did the sharp needle in my hand. Thank goodness we didn’t have a waterbed. To avoid puncturing my fingers, I had to pause my stitching until the referee ended the count and things calmed down.
Before 1961 my knowledge of embroidery stitches included cross, blanket, chain, and daisy. I had never heard of or seen crewel with its variety and versatility until I discovered crewel (or Jacobean) in a colour page of Woman’s Day. Talk of love at first sight.
I loved the sturdiness of the ecru fabric it’s typically worked on, the random mix of swirly designs, the substantial wool threads much thicker than cotton embroidery thread, and their muted colours. A blunt, not a sharp, needle is used.
My first step was a trip to the nearby New York library for a few illustrated books. In those days public libraries had shelves of embroidery how-to books, many with coloured photographic plates. Even the Terrace library 35 years ago had an array of such books, including one by Erica Wilson now listed on Amazon with a price tag of $193. In weight, it rivalled Susan Musgrave’s “A Taste of Haida Gwaii”.
After practising various stitches over many wrestling matches, I purchased the Erica Wilson wall panel from Woman’s Day. The 35 x 20 inch fabric panel came stamped with the design of a branching tree supporting many leaves, a squirrel, and an owl perched on one branch. The kit cost $35, a third of my week’s pay as a medical secretary.
Working the intricate design took me months. In conclusion, bowing to a moment of whimsy, I accessorized the owl’s sombre plumage with a rakish Fred Astaire top hat and a cane tucked under one wing. But no tap shoes.
For years, the panel hung on one wall in our home suspended by a fabric cord with tasselled ends attached to a wooden dowel. Sadly the only representation of my meticulous work still in existence is a cushion top I gave to my sister as a birthday gift.
In all, I worked stitch samplers, several cushion tops and two 54 inch tablecloths before I sidelined my craft to raise a family and build a business. Now one young woman has asked me to teach her the basic stitches. I look forward to introducing her to crewel.
Terrace’s Creative Zone offers everything we’ll need to get started from specialty linen yardage to DMC crewel wools and hoops to embroidery kits pre-stamped with crewel designs. The kits are in the $35 range.
The local library’s selection of embroidery texts has been winnowed to a few but a wider selection is available to borrow from surrounding B.C. libraries.
Amazon sells a variety of illustrated “manuals,” some of them printed in the 1930s when needlework was an everyday pursuit. (A Newfoundland school is teaching knitting during lunch breaks.) Pinterest website shows a dazzling array of illustrated texts, downloadable patterns and other enticements that make me want to resume the pastime … without background wrestling.
Today’s young women with their nimble texting fingers should adapt to embroidery with ease.