The embroidery influence of Erica Wilson lingers on

Recently, I learned that Erica Wilson, the doyenne of wool embroidery, died Dec. 13 at age 83. An English-born embroidery designer who lived in New York City, she was the woman who brought the venerable art of crewel embroidery back into the land of the living with the publication of her book “Crewel Embroidery” in 1962.

I first encountered Wilson’s designs in the pages of McCall’s Needlework magazine. The thing that hooked me into the Wilson way was that she said it was OK to tie a knot in the end of the thread — other sources of instruction frowned on knotted ends. She also wrote that how the back of the work looked was not so important, though she did caution that care should be taken to keep the back neat. Who wouldn’t want to worship at the feet of a needlework guru with attitudes like that? With those two statements alone, she made stitching safe and desirable for a whole new generation embroiderers.

I knew basic embroidery stitches at that point in my life, but with a copy of Wilson’s book in hand I learned a whole lot more. Right away I was drawn to coral stitch which could be used as a single line of stitching or, I discovered, in rows to fill areas and create a nice texture. Then I got all tangled up in the Cretan stitch and the Van Dyke stitch because they made such lovely leaf shapes. The stitch diagrams in Wilson’s book were easy to follow and I found that encouraging.

The only stitch I never took to was long and short stitch, used to create lovely tonal shading. And therein lay my downfall as a practitioner of crewel embroidery. But, I reasoned, if knots tied at the end of the thread were OK, and a not-perfectly-neat reverse side of the work was acceptable, then perhaps Erica would forgive me if I avoided working patterns that called for long and short stitch.

The other thing Erica Wilson did was inject fun into crewel embroidery. Included in her book, among drawings of formal, highly detailed crewel designs that adhered to a tradition that had been around for more than 200 years, was her owl design done on burlap (not finely woven linen!) and stitched in two shades of hot pink using only three stitches — fishbone, satin and weaving. Those big, staring, slightly demented eyes, those creepy claws and that benign-looking background of a jumble of brownish-green leaves done in fishbone stitch! This was embroidery the hippie generation could understand!

What made Erica Wilson a household word among those who stitched, or who aspired to, was “Needleplay,” a public television series she hosted in the 1970s and 1980s. Suddenly, Erica Wilson designs were everywhere: in kits, in magazine articles and in several more books. Maybe it’s time for some of those shows to be rebroadcast now that we have yet another generation poised to learn the joys of needlework, plus several generations of my vintage who could use a refresher course in the Erica Wilson way of stitching.

I will always be grateful to Erica Wilson for giving me permission to have fun with embroidery, for showing me that needlework belongs in the realm of art and for bringing needlework into my everyday life with ideas that included embroidering blue jeans, peasant blouses and potholders.

For information about Erica Wilson needlework kits, visit

The Maine Spinners Registry annual meeting will be held 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, April 28, at the Norridgewock Grade School, Mercer Road (Route 2), in Norridgewock. The organization is working on a charity knitting and crochet project — unisex adult chemo caps in unisex colors — and will collect finished items that day. For information about the event or the
charity project, visit

The Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor will host a children’s ash basket workshop with Pam Cunningham 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, April 28, at the museum, 26 Mount Desert St. Children age 6 through 18 will learn how to weave a simple ash basket. The cost of the workshop is $30 museum members, $40 others. Advance registration is required by calling 288-3519 or email Raney Bench at

FARMS, or Focus on Agriculture in Rural Maine Schools, and the Morris Farm Trust need help sewing aprons for children in the Farm-to-School Project at AOS 93 schools in Damariscotta, Bristol and Jefferson, and at Wiscasset Primary School. The apron making project will take place 9 a.m.-noon Wednesday, May 2, in the Learning Center at Morris Farm, 156 Gardiner Road, Wiscasset. Fabric and patterns will be provided. Bring a sewing machine. For information, call Kim at 882-4080, email or visit

Maine Quilt Shop Hop’s 12th annual shop hop will run through April 30. Quilters will travel to as many of the 32 participating shops as they can. The event draws approximately 800 participants from Maine and surrounding states. Maine Quilt Shop Hop was launched 12 years ago in an effort to create an event that would promote the art of quilting. Participants have the opportunity to win more than $14,000 in prizes, including five sewing machines. Each shop hopper will receive a free batik 5-inch fabric square that can be used to make the free downloadable project designed exclusively for Maine Quilt Shop Hop by Maine designer Carol McLeod of Aunties Two in Portland. For information, visit

Call Ardeana Hamlin at 990-8153, or email