Crewel work is a hand-embroidery technique traditionally done in Kashmir. It uses a hook ("aari") and mostly woolen yarns in single (white or colored) or multicolor shades. Crewel Embroidery done in Kashmir is different in that it is done (mostly) using woolen yarns unlike other places of the world where it may be done using synthetic or cotton yarns and also on a much larger scale which allows it to form an important sector in the local industry. Crewel Embroidery is usually done on bolts of fabric in varying widths - 56" wide "dusooti" cotton manufactured in looms locally in Kashmir being the most common. Fabric bolts may be 20 to 33 yards in length, although custom orders at times require longer yardages per bolt.
Crewel embroidery is of two types:
1-ply embroidery: A single ply woolen yarn is used for this type of embroidery. The lower yarn cost results in a cheaper fabric which allows for more range when selling the product to customers.
2-ply embroidery: Using a more durable 2-ply woolen yarn for embroidery, it is costlier of the two and is known to last decades if cared for properly. The finer wool gives these fabrics a more neat and uncluttered appearance in comparison.
HOW CREWEL IS MADE: The crewel making process begins with the selection of a design - "Tree of Life", "Jacobean" and "Maple" are some of the most commonly used designs by manufacturers in Kashmir. Custom designs whether traditional or modern are also made specific to customer request.
DESIGN: The designer will first make a rough sketch on a 56" wide (or different depending on the width of fabric to be printed) translucent paper long enough to accommodate at least one pattern repeat but wide enough to cover the entire fabric width. Once the process is finished, he will then punch holes in the design, correcting any deviations using skill and experience to perfect the design for the next step.
PRINTING: Once the design is ready, the pattern sheet is placed on an already laid out fabric and an ink soaked cloth (preferably woolen yarn as it soaks less ink) is wiped all over the design so that the ink seeps through the tiny pores in the design sheet to cast a nice and clean imprint on the fabric underneath.
The process is repeated by removing the pattern sheet and placing it just below the end of the earlier print. The designer continues this way until the entire bolt is printed. During this while the designer will soak the cloth multiple times as and when the ink runs out. An average 33 yard bolt may soak upto 200 grams worth of ink. Once the bolt is done printing it is rolled back full width to avoid any (not yet dried) ink from casting duplicate prints on the embroidery side.
EMBROIDERY: The printed fabric will now make its journey to the craftsman where the design will slowly start coming to life. Over the next few weeks, we may see colorful greens, blues, oranges and reds cast their magic and give the fabric a rich, lively and vibrant feel.
Depending on customer requests however, fabrics are also embroidered using just white, one or more shades of blue, red or other colors. Embroidery is the most time-consuming process in the manufacture of crewel fabrics and a 20 yard bolt with a "Tree of Life" design could take anywhere between 8 to 10 weeks to complete excluding delays due to any personal issues of the craftsman (this is after all a human thing).
WASHING: Once a fabric is embroidered, it will be sent for washing to remove all traces of dirt and stains it may have accumulated during the embroidery work. The drying process can take upto a day and once done the fabric is steam ironed in a rotary steam iron (fabric goes in full width) that results in a nice crease-free fabric ready to use.
CARE: Crewel Embroidery is a delicate art and needs to be cared for properly. Over time your fabric may become dirty requiring it to be cleaned. Most crewel fabrics are suggested to be professionally dry cleaned to avoid dye bleeding from the embroidery yarns. White on white fabrics may be hand washed at home safely and spin dried in a washing machine. Ironing out the wrinkles however is something you should consider seriously before deciding to go that way.
Overall it is best to leave the cleaning job to professionals. Although it may be costly but your fabric will look as good as new after the wash.