Kilts, fish’n’chips and needlework are among the most popular exports from Britain to the United States. There’s no question about the first two, of course, but many American women mistakenly think of needlework as a domestic invention, as Yankee as pot roast (which is English too, for that matter). But the art of sewing designs on cloth with brightly colored threads is not homegrown, and neither is its most famous proponent in this country.
She is Erica Wilson, 48, who has helped turn needlework into a multimillion-dollar empire of stores, books and kits. Even before her accent gives her away, it’s clear that Erica could be nothing but British. Her complexion is pink and flawless, the sort of look that’s supposed to result from soft fog, strong tea and cucumber sandwiches. She is as gentle as she looks; her composure unravels as seldom as her crewel.
Putting together a business as big as Erica Wilson Inc. is not possible without an occasional show of temperament, however. These are supplied by Wilson’s husband, Vladimir Kagan, 50, a German-born interior and furniture designer who devotes much of his time to merchandising his wife. When his anger blows, usually over a minor misunderstanding or her placidity (he complains, “Everything is collapsing and she’s so-o-o calm…”), the tantrum subsides quickly. Erica calls it “a thunderstorm. Once over, that’s it. He never sulks or broods.”
The couple met at a costume party in New York in 1955—she was dressed as a black poodle and he as a dandy in a striped jacket and straw boater. “He asked for a date,” Wilson recalls. “I suspect he wanted to see what I really looked like.” Married in 1957, they have three daughters, Jessica, 19, Vanessa, 10, and Illya, 8.
Wilson became interested in needlepoint as a child and still has a sampler—wool on organdy of a lady wearing a poke bonnet and crinoline—that she created when she was only 6. By her late teens, wanting to learn more about stitchery, she enrolled in the Royal School of Needlework in London. She stayed on as an instructor there and in 1954 accepted an invitation to teach needlework in the U.S.
Wilson likes to work late into the night, creating new patterns. Her favorite spot is the living room of their 10-room Park Avenue apartment, furnished with a blend of heirlooms and Kagan’s contemporary designs. She spills a tangle of brilliant wools onto the floor and converts drawings into designs that soon will be stitched onto millions of pillows, curtains, chair coverings and screens. “I go on until 2 or 3 in the morning,” she says. “I don’t care how late I work when I’m at home.”
Masters at self-promotion, husband and wife focus their considerable energies on selling the image of Erica Wilson, Needlework Queen. Since 1971 the corporation has quadrupled in size, its gross income soaring from about $250,000 to an estimated $1 million annually. Much of it comes from her how-to books. Scribner’s has published most of the dozen that Wilson has written since 1962 when Crewel Embroidery, her first best-seller (500,000 copies so far), appeared. The Wilson line also includes more than 100 needlework kits, linens, a syndicated newspaper column, two public-TV lecture series, personal appearances for which she charges $1,500 to $2,000, retail shops in New York, Southampton and Nantucket and, most recently and imaginatively, needlework cruises.
The third of these sailed aboard the S.S. Rotterdam last month, a seven-day trip to the Bahamas featuring enough education in needlework through lectures, slides and supervised stitching to satisfy the most demanding devotee. The cruise cost $625 and 16 women signed up.
Her hectic schedule is often difficult for Wilson. “I can’t keep more in my mind than two moves ahead,” she says, comparing her life to a chess game. Kagan has no such problems. His long-range plans include expanding Wilson’s sphere of influence to all needle-and-thread skills—knitting, quilting and even weaving. There is talk of Erica Wilson franchises—studios that would make her teaching methods available nationwide. Next summer Wilson will conduct a two-week tour of British castles and stately homes, teaching needlework based on coats of arms, floral studies and Elizabethan tapestries. (The freight for this trip will be $2,000, and Erica gets 15 percent.)
Whenever possible, she and Kagan schedule her lectures so that she is gone for only a day or two. On visits to major department stores where hundreds of admirers are expected, Kagan himself goes along to make sure the films and slides work, the press is notified, the samples, kits and books are ready for sale afterward. (He even gave the lecture himself in Cleveland when Erica came down with the flu.) For them, this sort of togetherness has worked for 20 years, and if the itinerary ever threatens their marriage, Erica says emphatically, “We’ll just change the schedule.”
In 1958, when she began sending out mimeographed directions on crewel embroidery to her first customers, Kagan persuaded her to enlarge the project into a full-fledged correspondence course. “That’s where it all began,” she says, adding that she owes her success to her husband’s drive, timing and business sense.
Kagan agrees. “And to think,” he says, “she might still be giving lessons for $3 an hour…”