Scholar Exhibits

Erica Wilson: The Julia Child of Needlework

Erica Moira Susan Wilson (1928-2011) has been called the “Julia Child of Needlework,” and her impact on the field of sewing and craft-related television has arguably been as great as that of Julia Child on the TV cooking program genre. Like Child, who made archaic aspects of French cookery accessible to a popular audience, Wilson revived and modernized old-fashioned needlework techniques with boundless enthusiasm. In Wilson’s obituary in The Guardian, Veronica Horwell wrote, “Wilson shared some of Child's enthusiastic style and all of her ambition to demystify and democratize what had become arcane skills.” This essay explores Erica Wilson’s work and her tremendous impacts both on needlework and on public television, as evidenced through the lens of Erica, a program produced by WGBH in 1971-72 and 1975-6 and broadcast on PBS stations nationally.

Erica Moira Susan Wilson (1928-2011) has been called the “Julia Child of Needlework,” and her impact on the field of sewing and craft-related television has arguably been as great as that of Julia Child on the TV cooking program genre.1 Like Child, who made archaic aspects of French cookery accessible to a popular audience, Wilson revived and modernized old-fashioned needlework techniques with boundless enthusiasm. In Wilson’s obituary in The Guardian, Veronica Horwell wrote, “Wilson shared some of Child's enthusiastic style and all of her ambition to demystify and democratise what had become arcane skills.”2,3 This essay explores Erica Wilson’s work and her tremendous impacts both on needlework and on public television, as evidenced through the lens of Erica, a program produced by WGBH in 1971-72 and 1975-6 and broadcast on PBS stations nationally.

The Julia Child of Needlework

Erica Wilson was born in Wiltshire, England, and raised in England, Scotland, and Bermuda. She graduated from the Royal School of Needlework4 in London, a school that had a tremendous impact on American needlework in the 1870s when works by its faculty were exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Their embroidery work done in red thread gave rise to a Redwork5 craze among needle artists in the United States. Wilson emigrated from the United Kingdom in 1954 and quickly began giving needlework courses in New York City at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. She was featured in print media, and her 1962 book Crewel Embroidery made her a household name as “America’s First Lady of Stitchery.”6 Wilson eventually hosted a needlework program, Erica, produced by WGBH beginning in 1971. Through not only her popular TV programs (which were also broadcast in the United Kingdom by the BBC and in Australia),7 but also her needlework design, her books, correspondence courses, and stores in New York City and Nantucket,8 Erica Wilson helped to revive several needlework traditions which had gone out of style, such as bargello,9 crewel work,10 and turkey work.11

To Demystify and Democratize Arcane Skills

Wilson’s approach to the needle and fabric arts was simultaneously rooted in the past and strikingly modern. At the beginning of most episodes of Erica, Wilson discussed museum pieces, often from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, or the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, which she herself had used for inspiration. Wilson appreciated the beauty and quality of work in these museum pieces, but also urged viewers to find the humor in them as well. She delighted in reading out cheeky messages in needlework samplers, such as “This was done by Mary Pitt, who hated every stitch of it” (episode #120, “Sentiments in Stitches”).

While she usually took her historical inspiration from 17th, 18th, or 19th century American or British textiles (she was particularly fond of the Jacobean and Victorian periods), Wilson also introduced viewers to textile traditions from a variety of non-Western cultures,12 including shisha13 work from India and Pakistan (episode #117, “Shisha Work”) and couched work with gold thread from China (episode #121, “Oriental Gold”). She also delighted in historic textiles made through cross-cultural exchange. In the first episode of Erica (episode #101, “Ticking Sampler14”), for example, Wilson took inspiration from a cross-stitch sampler done by students of a British missionary in South Africa.

Though she frequently looked to the past for inspiration, most of the projects that she demonstrated on Erica were quite contemporary. Her projects generally utilized the color palette fashionable in the clothing and interior design of the 1970s—bright oranges, acid yellows, and pea greens—as well as popular motifs of the decade, such as owls and mushrooms. Of an owl in embroidery that she executed in episode #114, “Thinking Bigger,” Wilson noted, “I simply adore owls. She might be a female, so I called her ‘Belinda.’” Her usage of large scale designs in heavy rug wool and new, synthetic crafting materials such as plastic canvas (episode #106, “Space Age Canvas”) and Lurex15 (“Oriental Gold”) also marked a conscious departure from the textiles of the past.

The needlework revival led by Wilson parallels the “Quilt Revival”16 that so dominated American sewing and crafts in the 1970s. Women (and men) in the ‘70s, a decade marked by the colonial nostalgia of the Bicentennial, looked to figures like Erica Wilson to learn traditional techniques long lost to the average American. Season One of Erica (1971-2) instructed viewers in several needlework techniques common in both the United States and America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with episodes such as #101 “Ticking Sampler,” #104 “Bargello,” #107 “Turkey Work,” and #116 “Crewel Point.” In Season Two (1975-6), Wilson branched out to quiltmaking techniques, with episodes on patchwork17 (episode #201) and appliqué18 (episode #215), staking her claim as part of the Quilt Revival. The antique quilt turning that she does in episode #201 is really quite spectacular, as is a quilt made of appliquéd velvet on silk made in Belfast, Maine in 1840 that she showcases in episode #215. While she did not devote a whole episode to it, Wilson also investigated whitework in the second season, displaying a white on white Federal eagle quilt from the early nineteenth century and reflecting, “Well I think whitework19 is one of my favorite things. It’s so beautifully frosty (episode #213, “Creatures Great and Small”).” Wilson also explores “quiltpoint”20 in Season Two (episode #209, “New Points in Needlepoint”), designing a Lone Star21 pattern in needlepoint.22

Further evidence of Wilson’s interest in the American Bicentennial, in spite of (or perhaps because of) her status a British expatriate, was the use of colonial American imagery in projects demonstrated on Erica. The most salient of these images is a needlepoint picture done for episode #213, “Creatures Great and Small” (1976) depicting the Beatrix Potter character, Mrs. Tittlemouse,23 in the guise of Betsy Ross, sewing the American flag. One might well read this picture, with its juxtaposition of the colonial and the Edwardian, the American and the British pasts, as a sort of self-portrait of Wilson herself. Wilson seems to be using, here, the figure of Mrs. Tittlemouse to navigate her British roots and newfound role as one of the pre-eminent figures in American needlework.

Animals were dear to Wilson, and she devoted episode #213, “Creatures Great and Small,”24 to depicting animals in needlework, from (predictably) Beatrix Potter characters to big cats captured in wildlife photography. Virginia Vis, now Curatorial Assistant at the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum, Washington, D.C., remembers watching Erica in college.25 Vis created a hand-dyed, free embroidery wall hanging of various critters after watching “Creatures Great and Small” in 1976. This episode, interestingly, is perhaps the only episode of Erica in which Wilson could be described as having made a (albeit vague) political statement. She noted, “We’re all very concerned nowadays about the natural environment, and how crowded it’s getting.”

Wilson returned to the influences of her British childhood, and particularly her love of Beatrix Potter, throughout the series. Wilson executed several needlepoints and stuffed dolls of Beatrix Potter characters—Hunca Munca,26 Peter Rabbit, Johnny Townmouse, and Squirrel Nutkin among them—in the course of the series. Ultimately, however, Wilson seemed very much to embrace her status as a British expatriate who had made a home and an identity for herself in New England. She frequently referred to the American past as “our past” on Erica, for example in episode #201, “Patchwork,” Wilson described quilt patterns such as Robbing Peter to Pay Paul, Sunshine and Shadow, and Trip Around the World as “old patterns from our American ancestors.”

Some of Child's Enthusiastic Style

While Wilson’s legacy in the fields of needlework, sewing, and quilting is immense, so too is her legacy in the realm of public television. Wilson was clearly aware early on the potential of public television and of her role in shaping the future of the fledgling Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), which was founded by Hartford N. Gunn Jr. of WGBH as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in October of 1970, less than a year before Erica first aired. In a 1971 episode of Erica on textual graphics and monograms in needlework (#105), for example, Wilson began by referencing Sesame Street (which premiered in 1969), announcing, “Today’s program is presented by the letters ‘E’ and ‘W’.”

Erica was truly a pioneering program, providing a model format that countless other craft shows would follow, notably Emma Amos and Beth Gutcheon’s 1977-79 program, Show of Hands, which was also produced by WGBH and featured many of the same production crew as Erica. Today, PBS devotes an entire channel, Create TV, to cooking, arts & crafts, gardening, home improvement, and travel programming. The craft program format pioneered by Erica Wilson and WGBH on PBS was so popular, of course, that commercial television, such as the Home & Garden Television network (HGTV), later adopted the genre.

Part of what made the Erica format such great television was Wilson’s mastery of stitchery, which allowed her to create projects, seemingly on the fly, for the camera. One of the cornerstones of the program was her instructional demonstration of various stitches, both common stitches such as backstitch, cross-stitch, satin stitch, and tent stitch, and more advanced stitches such as Burden stitch27 and Gobelin stitch.28 Her needlework prowess was so immense that the show could have been off-putting, but her enthusiasm and encouragement made the show eminently watchable, even for those with the most rudimentary (or completely absent) needlework skills. In episode #112, “Geometric Needlepoint,” for example, Wilson encouraged viewers to be bold, “I’ve selected pretty strong colors. You can be a lot bolder than you think,” while reassuring viewers that, “Designing needlepoint is the easiest thing in the world.” Often, it was not what Erica Wilson said, but how she said it, that made the Erica show so accessible. On the subject of bargello, Erica noted that, “It’s like eating peanuts. You can’t stop once you begin. (#104),” and when speaking of choosing fabrics for a patchwork quilt, Erica used a similarly alimentary simile, “The first thing you have to do, of course, is choose the fabrics, and that’s really just like eating candies (#201).”

Humor is another quality, now crucial to craft and how-to programs, which Wilson pioneered in Erica. Ever so discreetly comparing needlework to sex, she saucily quipped, “You can do it in the car, in bed, even in the bath, if you like (#124, “Needle Painting”).” Wilson also presented a very humble persona on Erica. She could readily laugh at her own chief shortcoming as an embroideress, namely, the very untidy quality of the reverse sides of her work. “Turning to the wrong side of the embroidery… it’s a terrible sin. It’s a waste of time, you see (#114),” she said. “You’re not supposed to turn the frame to the wrong side, because that’s terribly unprofessional (#115).” All of this is not to say that, however, that Wilson and WGBH perfected the television craft program format from the pilot episode of Erica. Especially in the first few episodes of the first season of Erica, the series is checkered with what are, by twenty-first century viewing standards, some quaint, even downright naïve, production choices—such as an awkwardly loud gong to signal the end of the episode and to signal Wilson to utter her catch phrase in a harried manner, “Too many stitches, too little time,” as well as the frequent scene of Wilson whizzing past a window in the set as the credits rolled.

Related to the quaint naïveté of the show, one major element of the Erica show that largely was not adopted by television presenters who followed her footsteps was costume. Wilson sometimes wore normal street clothes when presenting Erica, but equally often, she appeared in a fanciful costume that echoed the theme of the episode. In episode #211, “Native American Treasures,” for example, Wilson wore buckskin pants decorated with Tlingit totems.29 While she often used the element of costume to showcase the dress of non-Western cultures, she sometimes wore family heirlooms as costume pieces as well. In episode #110, “Satin Stitch,” Wilson wore her great-grandmother’s skirt, which she stated came from the Paris Exhibition of 185130 and was decorated with padded satin stitch in silks and cottons. She sheepishly noted that while her great-grandmother had had an 18-inch waist (due to the use of a corset), Wilson had had to let out the garment considerably in order to be able to wear it. In another instance (episode #209, “New Points in Needlepoint”), Wilson donned a kilt for a discussion of how to imitate Scottish plaid in needlepoint, but noted that she was not wearing her own family’s tartan “because it was much too plain.”

Family was a recurring theme on Erica, and Wilson frequented mentioned making projects for or with her husband, furniture designer Vladimir Kagan, and their three children, daughters Vanessa and Jessica, and son Ilya. In episode #120, “Sentiments in Stitches,” for example, Wilson showed pillows on the theme of “Love,” a modern version that her husband had designed and her daughter’s Victorian version, noting that, “Love is acceptable at any time of the year.” The mention of family has become an important aspect of how-to programs, making the host seem more down-to-earth and relatable to the average viewer. Today, programs from P. Allen Smith’s Garden Home to Lydia’s Italy frequently use mention of the presenter’s family.

While family has become a mainstay of the genre, the role of the domestic wife and mother is much more accentuated in Erica than in more contemporary programs. Wilson generally, despite her use of her maiden name rather than her married name, reinforces the prevailing gender roles of the period, presenting herself as the ideal wife and mother in the series. At the conclusion of several episodes in Season One, for example, Wilson noted that she had to leave “to put dinner in the oven.” This is in stark contrast to Amos and Gutcheon’s Show of Hands series on WGBH in the late 1970s, which had a decidedly feminist feel.

One could argue, however, that for Wilson, crafting and cooking were both a reflection of a woman’s domestic autonomy, rather than of her subjugation, and that cookery and the kitchen were but another source of inspiration for the needle art. In episode #115, “Designs from China,” Wilson discussed using designs from decorated porcelain, such as the Willow pattern, blue and white Delftware, and an eighteenth century Worcester plate decorated with mushrooms (one of her favorite motifs), as sources of inspiration for embroidery. At the end of that episode, Wilson proudly states, “So next time you go to the kitchen, I expect you’ll be stitching instead of cooking.” Ultimately, Erica Wilson claimed the kitchen, Julia Child’s realm, as a space not for cookery, but for needlework.

Unlike the much more renowned Julia Child, Erica Wilson’s contribution and legacy have been neglected for far too long. Wilson’s program, Erica, produced by WGBH Boston, led to a Renaissance of the needle arts in America, and provided a model for future television craft programs to follow. It is my hope that this essay, and the accompanying collection of episodes of Erica and later quiltmaking and needlework programs from WGBH, inspires scholars representing a variety of disciplines—from textile studies to history to media studies—to further the study of Wilson’s legacy in stitches and on television.

Endnotes

1Interestingly, Erica was filmed in the studio next to the one that Julia Child used. Child’s own program, The French Chef, debuted on WGBH in 1963.

2Veronica Horwell, “Erica Wilson obituary,” The Guardian, 2 January 2012.

3Emphasis added.

4The school was known as the Royal School of Art Needlework until 1922, when the word “art” was dropped from its name.

5Redwork is red pictorial needlework on a white ground. True Redwork is done with “turkey red” dyed thread, which comes from the madder plant and is so named because it originated in the Middle East. Flora and fauna, nursery rhymes, and Japanese motifs were typical subjects depicted in Redwork.

6Valerie J. Nelson, “Erica Wilson, ‘America’s first lady of stitchery,’ dies at 83,” The Washington Post, 19 December 2011.

7Horwell.

8See http://www.ericawilson.com for the Erica Wilson Nantucket Boutique.

9Bargello is a type of embroidery traditionally done in wool on canvas. It is named after the Bargello palace in Florence, which became known for its chairs colorfully and geometrically decorated with flame stitch.

10Crewelwork is a free-style method of surface embroidery utilizing wool thread and various embroidery stitches.

11Turkey work is a form of knotted or tufted embroidery popular in England in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries.

12Notably these were almost entirely all countries that had been colonized or otherwise subjugated by the British Empire. Wilson’s father was a colonel in the British military, and she had been born at a time when Britain still held most of its imperial possessions.

13Shisha, pronounced with a short ‘i,’ as in ship, is the art of embroidering small mirrors onto fabric.

14A sampler is a piece of embroidery created to demonstrate one’s competence in various stitches. They were often done by young girls as a part of both their domestic and moral education.

15Lurex is the trademark name for a metallic-looking yarn.

16The Quilt Revival refers to a period of intense interest in quilts and quiltmaking in the 1970s and after following a relative disinterest in quiltmaking in the 1950s and ‘60s.

17Patchwork is the sewing together of numerous pieces of fabric to form a whole, often incorporating colorful patterns.

18Appliqué is the art of sewing small, cut pieces of fabric onto a larger fabric ground to form a design.

19Whitework quilts are white wholecloth quilts, in which the only decoration is white embroidery. This white on white effect was fashionable during the neo-classical Federal period, as all things Greek and Roman were in vogue at the time and people (wrongly) believed that the ancients had not painted their marble statues and architecture, but rather, had simply left them white.

20Quiltpoint” is the replication of traditional quilt patterns in needlepoint.

21The Lone Star, or Star of Bethlehem, is a traditional quilt pattern popular in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The pattern is created by piecing together numerous diamond-shaped cutouts of fabric on point to create the effect of one large star. The star is then appliquéd onto the quilt top.

22Needlepoint is a counted form of embroidery in which yarn is stitched, usually using tent stitch, onto canvas.

23Mrs. Tittlemouse, a wood mouse who lives in a “funny house,” is the title character of the Beatrix Potter story The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse (1910).

24The episode title is a reference to the popular books and BBC television series All Creatures Great and Small, featuring British country veterinarian James Herriot.

25Email exchange with Virginia Vis.

26Hunca Munca is a Beatrix Potter character that appears in The Tale of Two Bad Mice (1904).

27Burden stitch is a geometric stitch for filling in needlepoint canvas that was developed by William Burden, who worked in the studio of William Morris (the founder of the English Arts and Crafts Movement in the 1860s).

28Gobelin stitch is a needlework stitch that emulates the look of woven tapestries traditionally produced at Gobelins in France.

29The Tlingit people live in present-day Alaska and British Columbia and are known for their ornate heraldic crests, which usually appear on totem poles.

30Wilson may mean here that her great-grandmother acquired the skirt at the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851, as Paris did not host an Exposition Universelle in that year. France did have, however, have an exhibit at London’s Great Exhibition.