I have been reading Crewel Embroidery In England for the past few days. I was going to do a review, but Mary Corbet's Needle'n'Thread has a wonderfully illustrated review already done, and I agree with pretty much everything she says, so go read her thoughts first, if you like.
If you are wondering how such a book, printed in 1975 and with many fewer colour illustrations than are customary these days could hold my attention, I have to say the text was downright ROLLICKING! Vivid, opinionated and thoroughly knowledgable, Joan Edwards's words create the liveliest descriptions of embroidery I have ever come across. She lectured and taught embroidery for the Inner London Education Authority and the V&A Museum, and I bet her lessons must have been a treat.
One of the most interesting parts of the book is the timeline at the back, which parallels the history of British monarchs, events, artists and architecture, and embroidery, tapestry and lace. One can clearly see how trends in textile design followed breakthroughs in technology and exploration over the centuries. Edwards also includes a generous bibliography titled "The pleasures of reading about embroidery."
I love the book's epilogue.
"From time to time there comes to every embroiderer moments of the purest possible pleasure. The particular piece of work on which she has been engaged is finished. She removes it from the frame and spreads it out between her hands, examining every detail with minute attention. It is as though she is seeing it for the first time. Out of her own skill, initiative, and invention she has created something that pleases her. Briefly she allows herself to savour her sense of satisfaction and fulfillment.
Maybe, she concedes, it is not of quite such surpassing excellence as she had hoped to acheive when she made the design, chose the threads, and decided exactly where to place the first stitch, but on balance as good as or even a little better than her previous work.
Will anybody else, she wonders, realise how much thought and care has gone into it? Will it by some happy chance be miraculously preserved, forgotten but not destroyed, eventually to become a treasured family heirloom, and even perhaps to find its way into a great museum, where scholars will document it and embroiderers study it as an interesting example of historical needlework? Surely, she reflects, it is not asking very much to be remembered as a woman who was clever with her needle.
Even as she plays fondly with her pipe dreams, she knows in her heart that its chances of survival are minimal; that although it is here today, pretty, fresh, and colourful, by tomorrow it will be faded and grubby, the threads worn and the colours faded; and that because the present sets very little store by its immediate past, the next generation is as likely to destroy as cherish it. Perhaps she will comfort herself with the thought that, like a garden, much of embroidery's charm lies in the fact that it is completely ephemeral.
But to finish one piece of work is only an excuse to begin another, the idea for which she has been turning over in her mind for a long while. She cannot wait to get on with it for she is irresistibly fascinated by the art of working intricate stitches and by the variety of decorative effects she can obtain with them; by watching a design develop along the lines and in the colours she has chosen for it; and by the knotty little problems she is constantly being called upon to resolve.Absorbed in bringing into focus all her technical expertise, taste, and ingenuity, and balancing them on the point of her needle, she has neither regret nor hesitation. The past and the future may take care of themselves. Time becomes meaningless. Only the embroidery she is engaged upon at the present moment is important."