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Erica Wilson dies at 83; needlework instructor built embroidery empire

Her 1962 hardcover book, 'Crewel Embroidery,' both popularized the pursuit and helped transform her into 'America's first lady of stitchery.'

December 17, 2011|By Valerie J. Nelson, Los Angeles Times
  • Erica Wilson brought crewel, cross-stitch, needlepoint and other traditional embroidery techniques to an international audience through her books, television shows, correspondence courses, syndicated column and retail shops.
Erica Wilson brought crewel, cross-stitch, needlepoint and other traditional… (Los Angeles Times )

With her first book on stitchery, needlework instructor Erica Wilson revived a craft and helped invent a publishing category.

Her 1962 hardcover book, "Crewel Embroidery," both popularized the pursuit and helped transform her into "America's first lady of stitchery" as she built a multimillion-dollar embroidery empire through her needlework designs, television shows, books and stores.

The volume also marked something of a turning point in publishing. It was the first needlework title released by Scribner's, a surprise smash hit that eventually sold about 1 million copies. As her publisher and others "clambered aboard" the craft-book "bandwagon, it amounted to a literary revolution," Charles Scribner Jr., former chief of the publishing house, wrote in his 1990 memoir.

Wilson, a British immigrant who moved to the U.S. in the 1950s, died Tuesday at her New York City home after suffering a stroke, her family announced. She was 83.

"Her influence is absolutely incalculable," said Marion Scoular, who attended the Royal School of Needlework in London with Wilson and came to the U.S. in 1963 to discover that Wilson was already "the guru of needlework — everyone knew her. She also had a television program later on, before such things were happening."

She is often called the Julia Child of the practical arts. While Child introduced Americans to French cuisine through television, Wilson brought national attention to many styles of stitchery on her public television show, "Erica," that began airing in the early 1970s. She was perhaps best known for her expertise in crewel embroidery, which uses yarn instead of thread.

"In the 1960s, handiwork had kind of died off, then here comes this woman from England, exposing Americans to things they had forgotten about and didn't do anymore," said Cathy Callahan, the Silver Lake author of "Vintage Craft Workshop," a recently published book that includes a profile of Wilson.

Many women in their 30s and 40s who are embracing the needle arts recall reading Wilson's books when they were children, Callahan said.

Jenny Hart, a prominent Los Angeles embroidery artist, met Wilson at a trade show in 2003 after Hart's mother raced over to say: "'Do you know who's over there? Erica Wilson, the most famous needle art designer from my time.'"

Erica Moira Susan Wilson was born Oct. 8, 1928, in Tidworth, England, near Stonehenge, and spent her first five years in Bermuda. Her father was a colonel in the British Army. After her parents divorced, she was raised in England and Scotland.

As a child, she became interested in needlepoint and kept a sampler — wool on organdy of a woman wearing an old-fashioned poke bonnet — that she stitched when she was 6.

Unsure of what to study, she enrolled in the Royal School of Needlework at her mother's suggestion. During the last of her three years there, Wilson and the other students were allowed to make a few stitches on the purple robe that trailed Queen Elizabeth II during her 1953 coronation, Scoular recalled.

Wilson later said her greatest needlework achievement was a white-on-white sampler that she had worked at the Royal School.

After graduating, Wilson stayed on as an instructor until she was recruited in 1954 to teach at a needlework school in upstate New York.

Eventually, she moved to New York City, taught at Cooper Union and met her future husband, noted modern furniture designer Vladimir Kagan, at a costume party in 1955.

In 1958, she was handing out mimeographed directions on crewel embroidery to students she taught at her New York City apartment when her husband persuaded her to turn the effort into a full-fledged correspondence course.

"That's where it all began," Wilson told People magazine in 1977.

She established the first of several needlework shops more than 45 years ago in Nantucket, Mass., where the couple had a summer residence. She also expanded into New York City, Long Island and Palm Beach, but only the Nantucket store remains open.

As early as 1977, Wilson's needlework ventures brought in an estimated $1 million a year, People reported at the time. Much of it came from her how-to books on crewel, embroidery and other needle arts; she eventually published more than a dozen instructional books.

Among other endeavors, she created dozens of needlework kits, including exclusive designs for the Museum of Metropolitan Art; wrote a syndicated newspaper column in the 1980s called "Needleplay"; and taught on cruises dedicated to the craft of stitching.

"Her own personal work was absolutely superb," said Scoular, who has taught needlework around the country. "The Royal School is primarily known for technique. Erica's design skill was inborn."

Wilson gave instruction that "even a young teenager could follow comfortably. Her designs were attractive," she said. "You'd look at it and say, 'I want to do that one.'"

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