Interior Design Glossary: Crewel Embroidery

Austin Interior Designer Amity Worrel Reviews the Definition, History, Uses, and Revival of Crewel Embroidery


Crewel embroidery calls to mind fanciful fruit, leaf, and nature patterns adorning the curtains and plush furnishings of countryside cottages and beach bungalows. I’ve always loved the art of crewelwork, and I’ve noticed my Austin interior design firm clients expressing a renewed interest in the age-old textile trend. I think it’s time to look back to see just how lovely it is to be crewel. In this Interior Design Glossary entry, I review the definition, history, uses, and revival of crewel embroidery in the home. 

What is Crewel Embroidery? 

Crewel Embroidery

Crewel embroidery, also known as crewelwork, is a fiber art embroidery style using thick wool yarn and a variety of stitch techniques. Crewel comes from the old Welsh word for wool, and the art dates back centuries. Unlike other types of embroidery, crewelwork employs freestyle stitching using multiple techniques in a single pattern, including everything from French knots to satin and chain stitches. Due to the thickness of the wool yarn, crewel embroidery is best reserved for larger-scale patterns. It’s used everywhere, from furniture upholstery to draperies to wall hangs. 

My Personal Experience with Crewel Embroidery

They say love is crewel. I fell in love with crewel embroidery years ago, in the early days of my interior design career. After some years of success and making a reasonable income, I found myself living alone in a large two-bedroom apartment on the 6th floor of an 1890s building in Washington Heights. Until then, all of my New York City accommodations came with a roommate, limited square footage, and only the need to furnish a small bedroom and maybe split the cost of an IKEA dining set.  

This new chapter presented the challenge of furnishing what felt like a massive space all on my own. While I was working in interior design and knew where to shop, affording furniture on my NYC budget was another story. So, I began hitting all the vintage thrift stores I could during my lunch breaks in the hopes of getting lucky. I’d go to at least four a day, all within a short walk of my Gramercy Park office. 

Crewel Embroidery Couch

One day, I came across the most fantastic sofa on my third visit to the Housing Works thrift shop on 23rd Street. The crewelwork upholstery is what caught my eye as I made my rounds through the shop. The delicate pattern of creams, greens, and blues looked like something you’d find in an old coastal home in Maine — a land of cold winters bundled inside and summer naps on the screen porch. It might be apparent to you by now that I have a habit of romanticizing furniture, making up a long backstory for every piece and becoming inseparably attached. 

The piece was 9 feet long, down stuffed, and only 75 dollars. I was sold. Of course, the delivery to my 6th-floor apartment was more than double the sofa itself. I didn’t let the logistics deter me. This crewelwork sofa and I were meant to be. 

Unfortunately, this love story came to an end. It’s been over 20 years since I left that sofa behind in NYC. I regret it to this day. However, I think of it fondly, especially as crewel embroidery has been making its comeback over the last few years. I’ve been happy including it in client projects and watching them fall in love as I did. 

A Brief History of Crewel Embroidery 

The art of crewel embroidery dates back all the way to 1077. The oldest known work is the Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts the Battle of Hastings that took place a decade before its creation. The piece includes 58 embroidered scenes of medieval-era life, from chainmail armor to Viking ships. The work is so impressive it warrants having its own dedicated museum! 


With one of the earliest examples of crewelwork depicting a significant moment in English history, it’s no surprise the art found a steadfast place in British design. In the mid-1500s, Queen Elizabeth I established the Keepers or Wardens and Company of the Arte and Mystery of the Broderers of the City of London, an embroidery guild that would go on to create the standard for high-quality crewelwork. Crewel embroideries were popular home accents for finer residences in the Elizabethan and Stuart Periods, creating brilliant displays of floral motifs in blues, greens, and reds. 


Schumacher Embroidery
Colonial American Inspired Crewelwork by Schumacher


Crewel embroidery came to Colonial America with a few variations. Due to a lack of resources, Colonial Era crewel was much simpler. Works featured a limited color palette of indigo blue and revealed more of the natural fiber backings. Many designs mirrored that of England as patterns were brought over and closely followed. Eventually, the popularity of crewelwork declined by the 19th century to be replaced with lace and other textiles. However, the 60s and 70s saw a resurgence along with other fiber arts like macrame. The colors became brighter and more fun, featuring groovy yellows, greens, pinks, and blues. 


Schumacher Embroidery 2
Retro 70s Inspired Crewelwork by Schumacher


Crewel Embroidery is Trending Again in Homes

Many 70s and 80s interior design trends are back, including wood paneling, brass hardware, and even crewel embroidery. One company here in Austin, Texas, contributing to the embroidery revival is Fort Lonesome. Specializing in “Cosmic Western Wear” and chain stitch, this group has also partnered with Counterpart Studios on a home wallpaper and fabric line that embodies the 70s spirit paired with some classic all-American design. We used the Moon Snake fabric and wallpaper pattern to completely cover the dining room in our South Austin project for a truly bewitching result. It just goes to show, you can teach some old crewel new tricks. 


South Austin Project feat. Moon Snake by Fort Lonesome x Counterpart Studios

Ways to Use Crewel Embroidery in Interiors 

There are many ways to incorporate crewel embroidery in the home. Some of the most common include draperies and furniture upholstery. These have been tried and true for centuries, from the English countryside to the shores of the Northeast. Additionally, you could go bold like we did in our South Austin project and upholster walls with crewelwork. This is an especially cozy option for bedrooms and a great way to flood a space with pattern and decoration

Anything But Crewel 

Crewel embroidery is beautiful, unique, and makes for a quite durable textile. I fell in love with it in a Manhattan thrift store and have been dreaming of the days spent lounging on that sofa ever since. I am beyond thrilled that this historic and vibrant art is picking up steam, both as an interior accent and a pastime. 


You see, being crewel is quite lovely. 

Austin Interior Designer