The origin of the word crewel is unknown but is thought to come from an ancient word describing the curl in the staple, the single hair of the wool. Crewel wool has a long staple; it is fine and can be strongly twisted. Modern crewel wool is a fine, 2-ply or 1-ply yarn available in many different colours.
The outlines of the design to be worked are often screen printed onto the fabric or can be transferred to plain fabric using modern transfer pens, containing water soluble ink, or iron-on designs applied using transfer sheets. The old fashioned "pinprick and chalk" or "prick and pounce" methods also work well. This is where the design outlines on paper are pricked with a needle to produce perforations along the lines. Powdered chalk or pounce material is then forced through the holes onto the fabric using a felt pad in order to replicate the design on the material.
Designs range from the traditional to more contemporary patterns. The traditional design styles are often referred to as Jacobean embroidery featuring highly stylised floral and animal designs with flowing vines and leaves.
Many different embroidery stitches are used in crewelwork to create a textured and colourful effect. Unlike silk or cotton embroidery threads, crewel wool is thicker and creates a raised, dimensional feel to the work. Some of the techniques and stitches include:
Crewel embroidery is most often used to decorate cushions, curtains, clothing and wall hangings.
Unlike canvass work, Crewel embroidery requires the use of an embroidery hoop or frame on which the material is stretched taut and secured prior to stitching. This ensures an even amount of tension in the stiches, so that designs do not become distorted. Although nowadays, crewel and free embroidery is generally executed with a small portable hoop, early embroidery was executed on large free standing frames. Such free standing frames were common parlor furniture in most homes. The rectangular canvas mount could tilt and pivot over so that the needleworker could also access the back of the canvas with ease.