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Erica Wilson, 83; launched needlework revival via TV, books

Erica Wilson at the Wharf Rat Club on Nantucket on July 28.
Erica Wilson at the Wharf Rat Club on Nantucket on July 28. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

NEW YORK - Erica Wilson, the Julia Child of needlework, died Tuesday in Manhattan. She was 83. The cause was a stroke, her family said.

Ms. Wilson brought the gentle art of crewel - as well as cross-stitch, needlepoint, and other traditional embroidery techniques - to an international audience through her books, television shows, correspondence courses, syndicated column, and retail shops,

British by birth, she had lived in the United States since arriving in 1954 for what was supposed to be a yearlong teaching assignment. Since then, without ever really intending to, she built a public career as a teacher of the domestic arts that paralleled Child’s and in many respects anticipated Martha Stewart’s.

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Ms. Wilson, who wrote more than a dozen instructional books, was the host of “Erica,’’ a public television program produced by WGBH in Boston in the early 1970s and broadcast nationally.

Her Upper East Side flagship store, Erica Wilson Needle Works, offered classes in a range of needle arts and sold kits designed by Ms. Wilson for needlepoint pillows and the like.

The store was a neighborhood fixture for decades until it closed in 2006, a casualty of rising commercial rents and the urban knitting boom. Ms. Wilson also had shops on Nantucket; in Palm Beach, Fla.; and in Southampton, N.Y., on Long Island. The shop on Nantucket remains in business.

Trained in London at the Royal School of Needlework, Ms. Wilson arrived in the United States at a propitious moment. American women, flush with postwar prosperity but without careers, had time and disposable income on their hands.

Ms. Wilson put those hands to work. As a result, she was largely responsible for the midcentury American renaissance of hand embroidery, which had waned amid the rise of machine sewing.

Under her guidance, women (and some men) learned centuries-old needle arts like cross-stitch, a technique, often seen on American Colonial samplers, in which patterns are formed by arrangements of embroidered X’s; crewel embroidery, in which floral or other motifs are filled in with wool, leaving the background bare; and needlepoint, in which stitches fill the entire canvas, giving the look of tapestry.

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Erica Moira Susan Wilson was born in Tidworth, England, near Stonehenge. Her father was a colonel in the British Army, and she spent her first five years in Bermuda. After that she grew up in England and Scotland.

Ms. Wilson found her vocation almost by default.

“She was going to make a lousy secretary, and she wasn’t very keen on mathematics,’’ her husband, the prominent furniture designer Vladimir Kagan, said in an interview Tuesday.

In 1954, she was recruited by a visiting American, a well-to-do woman who wanted to start a needlework school in Millbrook, N.Y.

Ms. Wilson set out bravely for her American adventure, suitably armed.

“I brought a big trunk of my own wool, thinking I was going to Indian Country, where such things wouldn’t be available,’’ she told The News and Courier of Charleston, S.C., in 1973.

Before long, she had settled in Manhattan, where she taught at the Cooper Union. She also held workshops in her apartment, and the mimeographed handouts she gave her students soon blossomed into a full-fledged correspondence course.

That course, which over time enrolled thousands of students, led to her books and the television show, filmed in the studio next to Child’s.

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Ms. Wilson, who had homes in Manhattan, Palm Beach, and on Nantucket, also appeared on television in Britain and Australia. Her syndicated column, “Needleplay,’’ appeared in US newspapers in the 1980s.

Besides her husband, whom she married in 1957, she leaves two daughters, Vanessa Diserio, who runs the Nantucket shop, and Jessica Kagan Cushman, a jewelry and accessories designer; a son, Illya, an artist; and six grandchildren.

All of them grew skilled at holding their hands aloft for long periods, letting Ms. Wilson wind all the wool she needed in a single sitting.