Embroidery using woolen yarns, often called crewel embroidery, is one of my favorite ways to explore the wonderful diversity of sheep breeds and wool types we have easy access to today. It can be so wonderfully indulgent to take a lock from a freshly washed fleece or just a bit of fiber from a newly procured handpainted top and go straight to my wheel, just to see what it feels like as fibers meet twist. From silky longwool locks to crimpy Corriedale, embroidery is a great way to play with wool using small dabs of yarn.
I have heard spinners say that their handspun yarns are not fine or consistent enough for embroidery. However, some of my favorite embroidered pieces include textured handspun yarns in gauges larger than the quintessential crewel thread or embroidery floss. Incorporating handspun yarns that include corespun elements, tailspun locks, and slubs into embroidery gives a thoroughly modern look, but the addition of large or stiff yarns into embroidered works is not new.
Yarns that are too large, too rigid, or too precious to be embroidered using stitches that pass through the fabric and appear on the back of the work can be couched (tacked to the fabric using a second thread). Any style of yarn can be incorporated into your work. There is no single recipe when spinning for stitching. Fiber type, preparation, spinning method, and finishing can impact your yarns. You can be as intentional or carefree with your spinning as you can be with your embroidery.
Wool character can vary greatly between breeds of sheep, among sheep within the same flock, or even within a single fleece. How do these characteristics impact our stitches?
Fleeces from breeds that are often referred to as primitive can have both long, silky fibers and short, fine fibers within the same lock. Sometimes this difference is very obvious, sometimes not. The strongly multicoated fleeces can usually be separated quite easily by pulling the tip and cut end of a lock in opposite directions. When spun, yarns from the longer fibers are typically smooth and dense, and the shorter fibers are full and soft.
The Icelandic lock at left was separated into short fibers and long fibers, creating two very different yarns. The long, smooth fibers work well for stem stitch.
The longwool family covers quite a range of fleeces, from the coarse end of Lincoln Longwool with its bold, defined curls to the much finer and shorter Bluefaced Leicester. The coarser longwool fleeces will often be the most lustrous when spun, looking similar to tussah silk when embroidered. Because longwool fleeces have fewer crimps per inch than most finer fleeces, they tend to yield a smooth, dense yarn when spun.
Tailspun yarns such as the one at left are great for couching.
Down fleeces have a helical, or spiral, crimp pattern. This gives the fibers a bounce and spring that, when spun, creates a yarn that contains quite a lot of air. In embroidery, this airy yarn allows more of the ground fabric to show through the yarn, uniting the colors and pulling them together nicely.
This crimpy wool is full, yet supple—great for chain stitch.
We spinners have an abundance of fine, luxurious wools available to us as never before. Fine wools tend to be more delicate, but when spun into fine yarns for embroidery, they are supple and soft yet dense enough to show vibrant colors in our stitches.
The fine fibers spin easily into a defined yarn that is soft and supple, making it great for buttonhole stitch.
If you are looking for balance of wool characteristics, consider the medium group of wools. They tend to be soft, but not fragile, and can be spun into a versatile embroidery yarn. With a medium twist, they retain their loft, but the yarn is dense enough to give vibrant colors.
The long staple and organized crimp work well for satin stitch.
Spinning for Embroidery
Most examples of woolen embroidery yarns found in museum collections and in use around the world today have much in common. They tend to be fine gauge, smooth, and consistent. They are usually two-, three-, or four-ply, depending on the style of embroidery they are for, with two-ply the most common for crewel embroidery. However, as handspinners, we can make any yarn we please.
Because yarns used in most embroidery stitches pass through the ground cloth repeatedly, a fairly smooth, strong yarn is typically used. Worsted preparations in which the fibers are aligned and combed work very well. When spun with a worsted draw, keeping the twist out of the drafting zone, they can make a smooth, dense yarn that will create distinct, uniform embroidery stitches.
Washing your yarns before use is a good practice. Washing allows any shrinkage to take place before the yarn is used and creates a more cohesive yarn. I often give my worsted-spun embroidery yarns a cold rinse after soaking in hot, soapy water for a slight temperature shock. This doesn’t create a fuzzy surface, as agitation would, but allows for a little felting to increase the durability of the yarn.
Carded fibers and short fibers can work well for embroidery, too. When the yarn passes through the ground cloth, a fuzzy or soft yarn can become abraded. This can be managed in several ways. Woolen-spun yarns, spun with twist in the drafting zone, can be made stronger by adding more twist. You can also add durability by fulling: after spinning, wash your yarn with extra agitation and use temperature change by alternating hot and cold water to slightly felt the fibers. When finishing your yarns this way, remember that felting is forever—so do a sample first.
Many yarns fall into an “other” category, such as semiworsted yarns (for example, carded fiber that was spun with a worsted draw) or blends of fibers with different staple lengths. A Merino and yak blend works nicely for embroidery, but when combining in a worsted preparation with a worsted draw, the longer Merino fibers will behave as a worsted yarn, while the shorter yak fibers will bloom more like a woolen yarn. Silk and cashmere, Merino and silk—there are wonderful blends available today. Experiment with different spinning styles and finishes to see what you like.
Higher-twist yarns will be more defined and give a crisp edge to stitches. They are rounder and, because the fibers are pushed close together, the color is more distinct, with no background color showing through the yarn. These yarns also tend to be durable and have a smooth surface. Lower-twist yarns are suppler and give a flatter appearance to embroidered stitches because the yarn is less rigid. Very low-twist yarns can have more halo (a fuzzy surface) and are less dense, allowing more of the background color to show through the stitches and unifying the overall piece. These yarns can be less durable, depending on the stitches used and how the yarn was finished.
We can design our yarns to create different effects in our stitches. A two-ply yarn will tend to lie flat against the ground fabric when embroidered, while three- and four-ply yarns are rounder and add more relief to the stitch. A two-ply yarn is also suppler, which can be important when working stitches that require tight turns, such as chain stitch (opposite). In examples of Norwegian embroidery using woolen yarns from the end of the nineteenth century and after, a very soft three- or four-ply yarn was popular for filling in large areas with satin stitch. Softly spun, crimpy wool covers a large area with fewer stitches. When spun with low to moderate twist, the plies are less distinct, giving a more matte appearance to the motif.
More complex yarn structures, such as spiral, cable, and bouclé, often work best as a laid or couched yarn. Couching can be done with many different materials but is often used for embroidering metalized threads and wire. Couching was used to secure gold-wrapped threads on Byzantine ecclesiastical vestments, in Saami pewter-wire embroidery in Scandinavia, and in textiles from many other places around the world.
The choice of ground material greatly impacts how we use textured yarns in embroidery. The tighter and denser the ground material, the more stress is placed on the yarn as it is pulled through. Densely woven linen twill increases the abrasion to the yarn surface more than an open handwoven woolen cloth. Weaving or knitting the ground material yourself allows you to further adapt your project and explore new ways to use your handspun yarns.