Curious readers have written to Crochet World asking about the history of the craft. I’ll save you the trouble of sifting through the nearly 27 million results one can find on Google when the phrase “history of crochet” is typed into the search box.
Depending on the source of information, the origins and age of crochet are conflicting. An article featured on Littlejohn’s Yarn states that “Crochet has a long history, with similar techniques being discovered in Israel as early as 6500 BC. Similar forms of this type of stitch can also be traced back to the Middle Ages when it was used for a wide variety of purposes such as clothing decoration, religious items, and military uniforms.”
Sally Pederson, in her article, History of Crochet , wrote “No one really knows when or how crochet actually came into being. This is because crochet, unlike knitting, was more a needle craft of the people—as opposed to the intricate lace knitting that was fashioned for royalty and the upper class—then later preserved for museums and historians to study.”
(According to the website Makers Mercantile, knitting and its predecessor, nailbinding, are believed to have originated in the Middle East, around 500 A.D. and during the 4th century, respectively. It’s difficult to trace when these crafts began because garments were made of natural fibers that decompose over time. Thanks to archeological finds, written sources and pictorial representations of various kinds, it’s easier to determine the roots of knitting, embroidery and weaving.)
In her 1997 article, “History of Crochet”, Ruthie Marks said that writer/researcher, Lis Paludan of Denmark puts forth three interesting theories: (1) crochet originated in Arabia, spread eastward to Tibet and westward to Spain, from where it followed the Arab trade routes to other Mediterranean countries; (2) earliest evidence of crochet came from South America, where a primitive tribe was said to have used crochet adornments in rites of puberty; and (3) in China, early examples were known of three-dimensional dolls worked in crochet.
Paludan said there is “no convincing evidence as to how old the art of crochet might be or where it came from. It was impossible to find evidence of crochet in Europe before 1800. A great many sources state that crochet has been known as far back as the 1500s in Italy under the name of ‘nun’s work’ or ‘nun’s lace,’ where it was worked by nuns for church textiles.” Her research turned up examples of lace-making and a kind of lace tape, many of which have been preserved, but “all indications are that crochet was not known in Italy as far back as the 16th century” under any name.
Interestingly, Sally Pederson wrote that crochet was a craft for the lower classes, as knitting needles and fine yarns and threads were afforded only by the rich. She cites that “Probably around the 1300’s, people in Turkey, Persia (now Iran), North Africa, China and India began fashioning hooks out of either brass, bone, ivory, or wood.” They began to work in a Chinese technique called “tambour” (from the French word meaning “drum”), that involved crochet-like stitches worked in fabric. Around the 1700’s, tambourine garments made their way to Europe from the Orient. In the latter part of the century, Europeans who became adept in this craft eventually dropped the fabric base and began “crocheting in the air”.
Another form of crochet that developed around the 1700’s is shepherd’s knitting or, in today’s vernacular, slip-stitch crochet. It’s believed to have been worked by shepherds to pass the time while tending to their herds and by fisherman who made nets. Interestingly, there are two key differences between shepherd’s knitting and today’s crochet: the knitting uses a hooked needle to pull a thicker, coarser yarn through a series of loops; crochet usually works with a hook and finer, smoother yarns to create a more dense, compact fabric.
As tambouring gave way to modern crochet, including versions from Italy and Spain, the French standardized crochet and named it from the Middle French word “croc” or “croche”, meaning “hook”.
In the 1800’s, crochet grew in popularity. The first garment patterns were written by the French in 1842. James Hardy cited in his article, A History of Crochet, that “the first printed crochet patterns were from 1824 and were typically luxury patterns for purses of gold and silver silk thread.” He quotes from Ruthie Marks that “These early patterns, which often were not accurate, would drive a modern crocheter crazy. An eight-pointed star, for example, might turn out to possess only six points.”
Hardy continued with “The reader was expected, it turns out, to read the pattern but to use the illustration as the more accurate guide. These patterns still relied on the reader copying from the original image. It relied heavily on the crocheters intuition for stiches [sic] and reading patterns and pictures.”
But it was Mlle. Eléonore Riego de la Branchardière, an aristocratic French-Irish woman, known as the Mother of Crochet, who made crochet accessible to everyone. She is credited with writing and publishing the first crochet pattern book when she was 18 years old. According to Domestika.org, “the simple and inexpensive copy contained 12 clear illustrations to give others an easy explanation of the technique. Her publication had such an impact that Eléonore became the first influencer of knitting. At the height of English Victorian fashion, women wanted to wear their own homemade lace based on her designs, and she gave them plenty of material. After that first book, she would publish 71 more, each time more specific and detailed.
However, the reason Eléonore’s name went down in history in the rest of Europe was not only due to the undeniable beauty of her creations. Her generosity and works transcended social classes and represented a powerful opportunity for thousands of women during a particularly complex historical moment.”
Crochet was not only a hobby, it was a life-saving craft. During the potato famine that ravaged Ireland from 1845-1851, Irish lace, also known then as “guipure lace”, became a source of income for poor Irish. Crocheting became a cottage industry in which men, women and children produced the fine fabric which commanded a high price from wealthy clients. Famine survivors who made lace were able to save enough to emigrate to the United States and introduce their skills to American women.
Interest in Irish lace waned in the 1900s as focus on other crochet designs grew, but was revived mid-century with its inclusion in haute couture clothing and the famous Clones lace designs. At the turn of the last century, the popularity of afghans, rugs, pot holders and cozies emerged. Granny squares date back to the 1890’s; then, as now, was there a better way to use up scrap yarn? During the Depression, the motif was a good way to stretch one’s yarn stash while economically brightening up home décor.
Crochet has evolved beyond simple stitching and patterns. Since the 1960’s, it’s bloomed into an art form that allows freeform creativity. The leap from a single stitch used to make netting to working with all kind of fibers, materials, stitching and color to create sculpture, clothing and functional pieces, portraiture, and other forms of expression has spanned centuries.
—Randy Cavaliere, Guest Blogger, Technical Editor and Designer
For more information, go to these articles and websites:
History of Knitting—A Resource Demystifying the Origins of Knitting
A History of Crochet by James Hardy
Eléonore Riego de la Branchardière: The Mother of Modern Crochet
It All Starts with a Humble Hook by Randy Cavaliere
Olga Starostina & the Timeless Beauty of Irish Crochet by Randy Cavaliere