Embroidery Heroines : Erica Wilson.
Recently I have been delighted to re-claim my needlework library which has been in boxes for a couple of years but a few books were too precious to ever be consigned to a box and have been my constant and trusted reference throughout my sewing career. Strangely however, it has only been in their unpacking as a whole, that I have looked back at the importance of those books which had been spared the burial, and sewing authoresses with whom I had built a relationship over pages and through the assistance of stitch diagrams and decided that I would dedicate a couple of Blog articles to them.
Erica Wilson has been my inspiration from the start. I picked up my first of her books, ‘Erica on Embroidery’(first pub. 1975 when I was just 5!) in a charity shop. Her large, clear stitch diagrams, and easy explanations became the foundation of my own kits and as a newcomer to the art back then, so she taught me to understand exactly what was needed to help and inspire other new embroiderers.
Born in 1928 in Tidworth, Wiltshire(a place I know so well!), Erica was born into an itinerant high ranking army lifestyle and after spending her infant years in Bermuda, returned to be raised in England and Scotland. It is Erica’s far sighted mother we have to thank for seeing her daughters aptitude with a needle and so it was that Erica became a star graduate from The Royal School of Needlework. During her time afterwards as a teacher there, she accepted an offer to set up a needlework school in Millbrook, New York. She flew off in 1954 and what was meant to be a year, turned into a marriage to an equally talented designer of furniture, Vladimir Kagan, in 1957. Amid a life of bohemian creativity with her books numbering on the best sellers lists, several shops, regular columns and a BBC television series, she raised 3 children and lived and worked next to Vladimir in the same upper Park Avenue apartment in New York for over 40 years before her death in 2011 at the age of 83.
I had never found any of this out until now and was intrigued to find her television appearances on You Tube! It was the oddest of experiences; she looked younger than her 40 plus years, tall, elegantly dressed, perfectly coiffured hair and with a still impeccable aristocratic English accent combined with the odd charming American word or terminology. I found her mesmerising; Oh! That I could manoeuvre a lap frame with such poise and grace! Yet as she was in the flesh, so are her books. There is, or rather, was, nothing of ‘stiffness’ about her. Her mind-set, for all her formality of breeding or training was that if you have a piece of cloth – any cloth – and a piece of thread – any thread – and a needle, then you have the capability to sew.
I get the impression that Erica saw her riches of her enormous success as a happy accident. Her passion to translate what can be a very exacting and formal art, into a widespread pleasure for anyone to undertake, came in an era when bold colours and large designs could be worked and adapted with much less convention. She made Embroidery popular but not crass or tacky and she encouraged those she touched via her books or on the television to be their own designer. Her books are full of love ; love of her family (her children frequently feature as both models and anecdotes , and her work is often combined with her husband’s amazing furniture), love of history, art and nature inspired in her designs, love of design and pattern, and love of her art and her wish to bring it to everyone. She never mentions specific brands of thread and fabric can be an old bit of ticking, pillow case or pair of jeans. Her embroidery is utterly egalitarian which given it is regularly quoted that she and her husband saw themselves in later years as ‘old hippies’ makes me think the ethics were always there!
Further research brought me to the last of Erica’s shops which still remains in Nantucket and is run by her daughter, Vanessa. Her other daughter, Jessica is a jewellery designer and her son, Illya is an artist. Sadly Vladimir passed away just this month. The Facebook (links via www.ericawilson.com) page for the shop is full of charming pictures and tributes to Erica and it is lovely that not just me, but all new generations of embroiderers can find out about this remarkable lady – who knows – we may one day see her books re-published.
Her books can be found on Ebay and Etsy although her newer books from the 80’s are generally only available in America.
Crewel Embroidery 1962
The craft of Crewel Embroidery 1971
The craft of Silk and Gold thread Embroidery 1973
Erica Wilson’s Embroidery Book 1973
Erica on Embroidery (Alsocalled NeedlePlay)1975
Ask Erica : About the ABC’s of Embroidery 1977
16 Needlepoint designs from the new world of plastic canvas 1977
More Needleplay 1979
Erica Wilson’s Needlework to Wear 1982
Erica Wilson’s Smocking 1983
Erica Wilson’s Children’s World 1983
Erica Wilson’s Knitting Book 1988
Erica Wilsons Brides Book 1989
Erica Wilsons Needlepoint 1995