Don’t Be Crewel: Erica Wilson, William the Conqueror, and Me

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when everybody was “into” crafts and needlework, Erica Wilson’s crewel embroidery kits were all over the place. I remember that they were pricey and very attractive, bordering on cute—lots of bouquets of flowers, with some fauna thrown in. The finished products, which could be framed as wall art or made into pillows, differed from the cross-stitched sampler sort of embroidery by using woolen yarns rather than silk or cotton to produce a still life that was both highly textured and highly decorative. Erica Wilson was an Englishwoman who came to the United States to teach needlework technique; she intended to stay for only a year but soon turned herself into the Julia Child of the needle arts. She owned a house on Nantucket, and I believe her Nantucket boutique is still going strong. (Wilson died in 2011.)

During the needlework renaissance, I was living in San Francisco and not making very much money. I considered the Erica Wilson kits beyond my means, and anyway my crafts of choice were spinning and weaving, although I also experimented with tie-dye—who didn’t?—and sewing. Tie-dye required boxes of Rit, but in my spinning and weaving class I was learning how to use natural dyes like saffron, madder, and cochineal. I never attempted indigo, which was much more complicated and required large amounts of urine as, I think, a fixative, although I did admire the pretty color it produced. We did our spinning on drop spindles and learned how to make frame looms from pieces of lumber and wing nuts. It was fun, and while I never became a weaver I retained an appreciation for the techniques of the great tapestry workshops of the Middle Ages and for the beauty of the work they produced.

When I read that the Bayeux Tapestry was not technically a tapestry at all but instead a large piece of crewel embroidery, I was horrified. The Bayeux Tapestry was supposed to tell a story of many chapters, and the crewel embroidery I remembered was certainly appropriate only for stories of single paragraphs, sort of like flash fiction. But I learned that crewel embroidery is at least a thousand years old and had its heyday in 17th-century England, long before Erica Wilson was born. What makes it “crewel” is the wool embroidery yarn, whether thickly plied or single strand, and the embroidery stitches in the Bayeux Tapestry are very fine so that, for example, the stitch used to fill in the color of the horses doesn’t call attention to itself. The horses look like horses, not like woolen concoctions. The natural dyes that were used—madder, weld, and woad—are still vibrant. (Indigo had not yet been imported from the East.) The tapestry contains 626 people, 202 horses, and 41 ships. It is truly a book of many chapters.

How does any of this involve me? William the Conqueror, the hero of the Bayeux Tapestry, was, I believe, one of my ancestors. That’s not a big deal. The old kings and queens were fruitful and multiplied, and most of us are descended from at least one of them. It is unlikely that I have inherited so much as a micro-smidgeon of William’s DNA, but I feel that I have a stake in the tapestry. This is my great-grandpa we’re talking about, after all. In one panel, William’s army is clearing land to use as a battlefield. A house is in the way, so they burn it down. We see a woman and child escaping the flames. In another scene, William’s army attacks the enemy soldiers by hacking off the heads of their horses. I would like to think that no animals were harmed in the making of this tapestry, and no people, either. But this is history, crewel and cruel, and we can’t go back and change it.