If you have never heard of Erica Wilson, surely you will recognize her work. Erica Moira Susan Wilson — ‘America’s First Lady of stitchery’ — was a talented, creative, prolific designer, artist, and businesswoman whose needlework kits ‘covered acres of the surfaces of American houses’ in the last half of the 20th century. Now, an online exhibition from Winterthur — along with a book — bring the life, work and legacy of Erica Wilson and her far-reaching contributions to the decorative arts to life.
Erica Wilson collection donated to Winterthur
Wilson’s family donated a selection of embroideries and inspirational items from Wilson’s life to Winterthur after her death. This exhibit showcases some of the most important and extraordinary of these, along with other important items still in the Wilson/Kagan family.
The exhibit is curated by Linda Eaton & Anne Hilker, co-authors of a book of the same name, Erica Wilson: A Life in Stitches, (affiliate link) published by Winterthur Museum Publications (December 1, 2020). Eaton is the recently retired John L. and Marjorie P. McGraw director of collections and senior curator of textiles at Winterthur. While working on her Master’s Degree, Hilker researched and helped archive Wilson’s work over a span of seven years — Wilson’s archives contained more than 3,000 pieces.
The introduction to the exhibit sets the scene:
Erica Wilson (1928-2011) was arguably the most successful embroidery designer, teacher, and entrepreneur in America during the second half of the 20th century. Her highly successful business included books, kits, a television program, and retail shops. Erica’s presence as the expert on all things needlework was larger than life, and her embroidery designs were well suited to the sensibilities of the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.
Erica Wilson: A Life in Stitches delves into the life and work of the “Julia Child of needlework.” Wilson’s successful 1970s television program that taught needlework was one component of business ventures that included embroidery kits, books, newspaper and magazine columns, public appearances, and a store bearing her name on New York’s Madison Avenue.
The exhibition is the first to look closely at Wilson’s extraordinary career and life and to document an extensive collection of her work—from the colors, textures, and looks of homes and clothing in the 1960s and 70s, adorned with charming and sometimes outrageous needlework, to the 1980s and 90s, when Wilson used new media to reach younger embroiderers. Drawing on an extensive collection of items donated to Winterthur Museum and borrowed from Wilson’s family, the exhibition features an eclectic range of Wilson’s more contemporary designs, including her bargello go-go boots and embellished clothing. Erica Wilson celebrates her love of craft, her success as an entrepreneur, and her work that continues to inspire makers of today.
“Acres of Wilson needlepoint covered the surfaces in American houses”
The exhibit is chock full of images and information about the woman whose handiwork enterprise meant that “acres of Wilson needlepoint covered the surfaces in American houses.“
There are seven, easy-to-read parts to the exhibit:
- Who Was Erica Wilson? — See the famous Red Owl! Wilson came to America in 1954, when she sailed The Queen Mary to teach for a year at Margaret Parshall’s new embroidery school in Millbrook, New York. She then moved to Manhattan, where she taught at the Cooper Union. She met her husband Vladimir Kagan — the famed designer of mid century modern furniture — at a costume party where she was dressed as a poodle. A costume that she made herself. Of course. 🙂 After they married in 1957, Kagan became an integral partner in and promoter of her business — and an occasional illustrator of her books. Erica Wilson + Vladimir Kagan ==> had to be one of the most significant designing-power-couples of the 20th century!
- Learning Her Craft — Like many of women of the same era, I suspect, Wilson was taught to embroider by the women in her family. She had a flair for it, to say the least. English by birth, she trained at that Royal School of Needlework from 1945-1948. While there, her class mined the Victoria & Albert Museum for inspiration that endured for the rest of her life. She also completed training with the City and Guilds of London Institute. Wilson kept her very earliest works from these influential years and some of them are shared in this online exhibit — SO AMAZING to see the needlework that set the stage for Wilson’s superstar success yet to come.
- Sharing Her Craft — Oh my goodness, this section of the exhibit is a wonderful read — and oh my, the historical Wilson pieces shown here! Wilson started as a teacher first at the Royal School of Needlework in London and then in the U.S. Her business, which ultimately grew to a million-dollar enterprise, was a multi-media and multi-product extravaganza. Teaching morphed into a correspondence course, then newsletter, books, magazine articles, public appearances, needlework kits, and her PBS Series — filmed at WGBH in Boston in the studio next door to Julia Child. Double extra bonus points for your hunt: Her husband Vladimir Kagan drew the illustrations for her correspondence course and her books Crewel Embroidery and Erica Wilson’s Embroidery Book.
- A Crewel World — I was born in 1959, and agree wholeheartedly that the 1960s and 1970s were a period where home crafts of all sorts BOOMED. In the world of needlepoint, embroidery, and crewel — Erica Wilson reigned supreme. The New York Times remembered her for leading “a rebirth of needleworking.” This section of the exhibit features more of her works and explains where her ideas came from. Dig the 6 foot by 4 foot “Think Big” wall panel!
- Sources of Inspiration — Deep into the exhibit, it is clear that Erica Wilson was a prolific creator with great imagination and scope. Really incredible. Here we get to see her grandmother’s 1800s dress… another darling illustration from husband Vladi… and more iconic works from over the years. Wilson’s last collaboration was designing crewel kits for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, based on works in their collection, in 1995.
- Embroidered Objects — Now comes One of My Favorite Things Ever: Red + hot pink +orange bargello needlepoint go-go boots that Wilson wore on her show in 1971. Yes: Go-go boots. Go-go right over to the website quick to see them and be amazed. There’s a dress pattern for Vogue, too.
- Sentiments in Stitches — America’s newfound focus on environmentalism made it into Wilson’s work, in Wilson’s own sunny way. Look for “The Ecology Tree” on ebay (affiliate link) – delightful!
A big sampler of products created by Erica Wilson
So now that I’ve plowed through the entire exhibition — and done some more online research — let me count all the types of products that Erica Wilson created over the years:
- Correspondence course, in collaboration with Colonial Williamsburg, 1959.
- Early self-marketed needlework kits branded under “EW Society” and “Creative Needlework Society.” These used Appleton yarns, which she had used at the Royal School and which she sold in her shops. She continued making these kits including through the Columbia-Minerva years.
- On ebay, I’m also seeing kits from “Hiawatha Creative”. There’s a pig in Sold Items that looks quite like the Red Owl :), someone snapped it up.
- Columbia-Minerva needlework kits to promote their Persian yarns, 1962.
- Kits (from the variety of brands) included: wall art, pillows, little mouse pillows, handbags, doorstop covers, bell pulls, Christmas stockings, Christmas ornaments, napkins, tape measure, rugs, dolls, baby’s bibbs, coasters, book covers — even sandals!
- Her books show many more ways that needlework could be incorporated into your life — jewelry, placemats, hats, table covers, cabinet inserts, seat cushions, men’s cumberbunds….
- Her first book, Crewel Embroidery, 1962, published by Scribners was a best-seller, and it was followed by 20 more books, for a total of 21.
- Mail order catalog, 1965.
- TV show with WGBH-Boston, 1971-1972 and 1975-1976, broadcast nationwide in the U.S., the U.K., and Australia
- Quarterly newsletter, The Creative Needle.
- A store, Erica Wilson Needle Works, on at 63rd and Madison in Manhattan, 1972-2005. At one point the Manhattan store also taught group lessons twice a day.
- She also had shops in Palm Beach, Southampton, and Nantucket. The Nantucket store remains today, and still sells handpainted needlepoint canvases designed by Wilson.
- Weeklong needlework seminars (1974-1984) in Nantucket, and seminars in other places like Hilton Head and Chautauqua.
- Needleworking cruises to places like the Bahamas, advertised in The New Yorker; a stitching and study tour to China.
- Bedding e.g. The Americana Collection, with Bibb, 1970s
- A syndicated newspaper column, Needleplay, 1980s.
- Vogue smocked dress pattern, 1982, and other Vogue patterns.
- Wallpaper collection for GTR wallpapers, 1983
- Miniature plates for the Franklin Mint, 1984.
- VHS tapes, 1986.
- Kits for pillows, rugs, maybe more, with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995.
Now don’t you want to jump on ebay and get some Erica Wilson books right away? And some Erica Wilson kits — or a piece that someone else has finished! Or — see all Erica Wilson here. (Note: ebay affiliate links.)
Yes — to own a piece designed by Erica Wilson is to own a bona-fide piece of 20th century culture — and to stitch one up, a new family heirloom!
- Erica Wilson: A Life in Stitches — online exhibition at Winterthur
- Lovely writeup on Wilson and the exhibit at Antiques & the Arts Weekly
- And don’t forget the book! (affiliate link)
- My original biography of Wilson, with links to more good stories and photos online.
- All my stories about Erica Wilson.
- Vladimir Kagan, too!