Adelice Lewys, sixteen-year-old protagonist and narrator, passes a test she was bred to fail. As a result, this night will be the last that she spends with her family before being taken away forever. In Arrys, a world created to replace Earth after years of war ruined the planet, all girls must be tested on their sixteenth birthday. Those who pass the test are sent to the Coventry to train as Spinsters, the women who weave reality itself in Arras. Spinsters are never allowed to marry and must remain separated from their families once they are chosen.
Aware of these facts and deeply suspicious of Arras' male-run government called The Guild, Adelice's parents, Benn and Meria Lewys, fight tirelessly to mask Adelice's weaving skills once they learn of her gift. They train her to be clumsy and encourage her to mask her exceptional weaving skills. Nevertheless, on the last day of testing, Adelice is unable to hide her talents any longer. She reveals herself to be an expert weaver and is selected for training as a Spinster. But instead of telling her family, Adelice decides to spend her last few hours in the comforts of normalcy until forced to confront the consequences of her mistake.
Adelice walks to pick up Amie, her little sister, from school and relishes in the normalcy of this routine on a late summer's day. The two walk home to their bungalow in Romen, a town in the Wesern Sector of Arrys, where they find their mother cooking a celebratory pot roast in honor of Adelice's successful failure. Adelice recalls a conversation she once had with her mother about having another child. Young Adelice wanted a baby brother but Adelice’s parents could not deliver for two reasons: first, because The Guild, Arras’ government, did not permit them to have more than two children and second, because boys and girls could not grow up in the same homes. This recollection provides another peek into the tightly ordered and controlled society in Arras. During dinner the family explains the negative side of being a Spinster to Amie who imagines that the Spinster life is a glamorous one and does not understand why her parents are so happy that Adelice wasn't chosen. Benn and Meria, believing Adelice has escaped selection for Spinsterhood, also discuss their future plans for her; her mother promises to teach her how to use her 'cosmetic tokens' and her father announces he will arrange courtship appointments soon since all girls who are not chosen to become Spinsters must be married by age eighteen.
Adelice chokes back tears throughout the dinner knowing that none of her parents’ plans for her will actually ever occur. Indeed, soon after cutting into the frosted white cake purchased as part of the celebration, Guild officials arrive to take Adelice away. Instead of complying with their orders, Benn and Meria rush their daughters to the basement and attempt escape through two hidden passageways. Meria and Amie go down one tunnel and Adelice down another while Benn remains in the basement to stall the officials. Just before sending Adelice away, Benn brands her with an image of an hourglass and tells her that it will help her to remember who she is. Adelice forces herself to move further down the tunnel and deeper into the darkness, not knowing where it leads. Her journey ends when a metal claw catches her ankle, dragging her back to the basement and into the clutches of the Guild officials.
Every retrieval of an 'Eligible', or girl chosen to train to be a Spinster, is broadcast to the entirety of Arras on 'The Stream', Arras' version of television. In an effort to hide the events occurring inside the Lewys home from the public, officials work quickly to erase any signs of struggle. Under the orders of Cormac Patton, Coventry Ambassador, officials sedate Adelice and clean up her face. Patton tells Adelice that he has one of her family members in custody and that she must look thrilled for the cameras or else he will have that family member killed. Adelice is not sure whether her mother or her sister is the one in custody but agrees to put on smile for the Stream. As officials lead Adelice toward the door, she slips on what appears to be blood in the dining room and spots a body bag on the floor. Adelice cannot tear her eyes from the bag, fearing that it contains her father's body, but must focus on acting thrilled for the crowd so she doesn't lose another family member. Adelice feigns joy for the crowd and boards the motorcarriage with Patton.
Adelice and Patton finally arrive at Nilus Station, a heavily guarded 'rebound station' located in the capital of the Western Sector and prepare to travel to the Coventry where Adelice will begin Spinster training. Rebounding is a mode of transportation in Arras that is usually reserved for businessmen and politicians. Before departing, Patton takes Adelice to the station's restaurant. Stricken with grief, Adelice refuses to eat until Patton promises her information if she agrees to take a few bites. As she begins to eat her lamb chop, Patton tells Adelice that her father is dead, her mother is missing, and her sister is in Guild custody. He also admits to having "cleaned" or altered the memories of her neighbors in Romen so they won't notice the disappearance of the Lewys family. After their meal, the two cut in line and prepare to rebound to the Coventry. Still under heavy scrutiny for her treasonous attempt to escape retrieval, Adelice is locked into her chair for the duration of her trip; upon arriving at the Coventry, she is sedated again.
The prologue of Crewel introduces one of its major themes: deception. Readers quickly learn that in Arras, nothing is as it seems. While most around her would celebrate being such a skilled weaver, Adelice acknowledges that her talent is not a gift but a curse. Indeed, this is how she is taught to regard her incredible weaving ability by her parents, who, acting in what they believe to be their daughter's best interest, train Adelice to pretend to be clumsy and incapable. However, at the very beginning of Crewel, we also see how despite even the greatest deceptions, the truth eventually prevails. Though trained for years to fail testing, Adelice is unable to hide her talent. Though they behave outwardly as abiding citizens, the Lewys family has secret tunnels in their basement suited for a quick escape. And though the government feeds and employs its citizens, it also kills them and alters their memories for the sake of order.
The first chapters also introduce readers to Arras and its strict social order. The Guild, Arras’ ruling group, is all-male and minimizes individual choice by assigning roles to each of its citizens, keeping girls and boys separate from one another, and forcing all girls to marry by age eighteen. There is a definitive hierarchy in Arras, which places men over women, even though society relies on an all female cohort of Spinsters to weave the threads of life. This hierarchy is most evident when Patton and Adelice travel to the Nilus rebounding station. Aside from workers, there are no women on line to rebound, none important enough to be given border clearance. Moreover, when Patton and Adelice go to eat in the station, the server asks for her 'privilege card', an indication that women must have permission to travel whereas men travel freely.
The male-dominant society in Arras is closely related to the themes of order and purity that develop throughout the novel. Purity is a valued quality in girls and women because The Guild suspects that the purer a girl is, the more adept she will be at weaving. This belief is the main motivation for keeping boys and girls separated as they grow up and for prohibiting Spinsters from marrying because the Guild views flirting with and interacting with men as a taint on a woman’s purity. Girls are not even permitted to wear makeup, or 'cosmetic tokens', until after they’ve gone through testing. The Lewys’ treason is viewed as a taint on Adelice’s purity, and at each point on her journey to the Coventry she is regarded as a traitor, yet for reasons revealed later in the novel she, unlike most traitors (including her father), is kept alive.
In addition to purity, order operates to keep women in their proper places in Arras. Women do not choose jobs but rather are assigned them. Moreover, the jobs they can hold are limited. For those not chosen to become Spinsters, job options include being a secretary, nurse, factory worker, or teacher. Meria Lewys dislikes her job as a secretary but the importance of order in Arras prevents her from leaving it. From the beginning, citizens appear to abide by Arras’ order though there are indications that everyone does not necessarily agree with it. These stirrings of unrest become clearer as Adelice begins to understand the truths underlying Arras’ otherwise orderly and peaceful society.
Beyond introducing major themes of the novel, the first chapters also give the reader an understanding of the protagonist, Adelice Lewys. Adelice was never a popular child. She spent much of her life being ridiculed by the other girls and this behavior continues when they begin testing. Adelice remembers the taunts of the other girls calling her “awkward” and “incapable” during testing and her desire to prove them wrong is partially why she does not fail the test as she’d planned (4). Adelice is also characterized as a responsible older sister who cares deeply for her younger sister Amie. The two are close yet quite different. Amie has more friends and does not have the gift of weaving that plagues Adelice. From the moment the officials arrive to take her away, Adelice must decide whether to fight her fate or accept it and whether to trust the government or her parents’ instinctual suspicion of it.