by: Anne Hilker, co-curator of the exhibition
If what’s appearing on Instagram and other platforms is any indication, stitching has occupied many—young and old, beginner and experienced—during the pandemic. Perhaps there is no better time to revisit the career of Erica Wilson, in an exhibition that reminds us of how she reached out to students through books, magazines, kits, correspondence courses, and television—and perhaps no better way to recognize her innovative approach than through an online exhibition, spearheaded by Linda Eaton, now Senior Textile Curator Emerita at the Winterthur Museum, co-curated by Anne Hilker.
The exhibition, hosted on Winterthur Museum’s website, looks at the life and work of Erica Wilson (1928-2011). Trained at the Royal School of Needlework in London, she arrived in 1954 to teach needlework in a school near New York City. Enthusiastic students coaxed her to the city just as she met and married noted furniture designer Vladimir Kagan. Demand for her courses led to the creation of her correspondence courses in 1959 and the publication of a best-selling book in 1962. Twenty more books, dozens of magazine commissions, and a host of kits issued through yarn company Columbia-Minerva produced a body of designs for all kinds of needlework, best remembered today for those in crewel (embroidery in wool on linen) and needlepoint. She filmed groundbreaking television shows that taught embroidery, aired on WGBH in the 1971 and 1975 seasons. Wilson’s career continued through 1995 with the publication of her last book, featuring designs adapted from objects in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Along the way, she reimagined needlework as projects for clothing, jewelry, toys, chair seats, tissue boxes, and picture frames, and replicated the look of needlework on miniature plates and wallpaper.
The exhibition and accompanying book feature images of Wilson, her works, television sets, store, her family and home, and press, as well as the colorful catalogs and appealing brochures she regularly sent to thousands around the world. Online are images of items loaned from Wilson’s family, including her flame-stitched Bargello go-go boots in blazing magenta, pink, red, and orange. Also shown are many of the works the family donated to the Museum in 2015. High-resolution images allow close observations at her work from the Royal School and later, including the owls she favored as foils for texture and expression; all of her signature “Elizabethan Ladies,” stitched in six different techniques; pillows shaped like mice, featuring large-scale couching on grids of wide-wale corduroy and houndstooth fabric; and woodland and pastoral scenes, which display her use of varied, rather than similar, hues in long-and-short stitching, and her fondness for joining sentiments with embroidery. Other narratives introduce Wilson, her early teaching methods, and the varied sources from which she drew inspiration.
Erica Wilson put crewel and other kinds of needlework into the hands of newcomers and more experienced embroiderers alike, particularly those without family members or community groups to foster their interest. Linda and Anne agree that Erica would have approved of this online pivot—it’s perhaps what she would herself have chosen to reach a wider audience!
Check out the exhibition at Winterthur’s website: Erica Wilson: A Life in Stitches
Anne Hilker, co-author, with Linda Eaton, of Erica Wilson: A Life in Stitches, published by Winterthur Museum, 2020, and co-curator of its online exhibition of the same name. She inventoried the work of Erica Wilson following Erica’s death in 2011. A longtime embroiderer, she first learned crewelwork more than fifty years ago from Erica’s kits. She will receive the Ph.D. in Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center in May.