Where did crochet originate from?
Crochet originated as a modern art form in the mid 1820s, becoming most popular in England. Its direct precursor was “shepherd’s knitting,” practiced in Denmark. The other precursor was tambour embroidery, which originated in China.
The art of crochet as we know it today did not become known as “crochet” in the English speaking world until 1837 in Britain. A book of knitting instructions, called The Ladies’ Knitting and Netting Book (you can read it here!), first used the term “crochet” in a purse pattern. Although the entire book is written in English and gives patterns for all sorts of knit accessories and home decor items, there is one crochet pattern written in French for a purse.
English translation (by me):
“Instructions for creating a purse with a crochet hook in double stitch.
You must begin with 8 stitches; in the first round, you must increase in each stitch until you finish with 16 stitches. The rule is to increase 8 stitches in each round: for a medium length, increase until there are 100 stitches; for a shorter one 80 stitches. Always work one round plain between each increase round.”
As you can see, the pattern itself is very simple. The art of crochet flourished in England, though its French name became rapidly entrenched despite the fact that it was not very widespread in France at the time. The only appearance of the word “crochet” is when the pattern specifies using a hook (the word for hook in French is “crochet”).
By the time that English crochet patterns were published in 1840 by Jane Gaugain, each crochet stitch was called a “crochet” or alternatively, a “tambour” (more on that later).
Around this time, crochet became a fully fledged and multi faceted art form in England, when previously it was practiced in a limited way as shepherd’s knitting and tambour embroidery.
Both of these precursors to the modern art of crochet involve some sort of a hook, which also end up being named a crochet, given that the French word for hook is a crochet.
Shepherd’s knitting used what is known today as the slip stitch technique to make purses, small rugs, vests, and leggings. It also used a distinctive flat hook, which could be wider or thinner as a way to control stitch tension. Below, you can see examples of different flat hooks, labeled Figure C and D.
Although shepherd’s knitting was fairly common in Europe in the late 1700s and early 1800s, an article describing the craft states that the flat hook is poorly suited to work with thread, and gloves knit with a hook are ‘inferior to those made on a needle.’
An account of shepherd’s knitting in Germany states that the fabric parts of winter shoes and boots were made in Leipzig “in many hundreds of pairs, knit from white ordinary sheep wool yarn with a hook that was commonly made from the handle of a spoon to save expense… These knitted shoe uppers are then dyed black, fitted with soles and heels, lined with coarse felt, and shipped far and wide.” (3)
These earlier accounts still called this craft “hooked knitting” or “knitting with a hook.” Later on, flat hooks were used for more than just a slip stitch technique, and began to be used for creating borders, flowers, and accessories, much like crochet today.
Instruction books on flat-hook knitting were published at least into the mid-1820s, and a French translation of these books in 1802 used the word crochet for the flat hook, but still called the craft a form of knitting (la tricotage avec une aiguille à crochet; knitting with a crochet needle). (4)
At the same time as the development of shepherd’s knitting, tambour knitting also flourished in Europe.
In the early 1760s, a technique of creating chain-stitch embroidery more rapidly using a small hooked needle was introduced from China.
This was known as tambour embroidery and is the second precursor of modern crochet that existed in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
The small hooked needles were also used to create “chains in the air,” moving away from the embroidery context that it originated from.
These hooked needles were also sometimes referred to as a crochet, and the main purpose of these became to create long chains for lace, mesh, and decorative trimming on hats, cloaks, and dresses.
Here is an illustration of the crochet used to create chain stitch lace:
Here is an example of the chain stitch lace that the hooks above might be used for. This piece is from the eighteenth century.
In the example from the first section of the first crochet pattern published in England, it now becomes clear why an alternative term for a stitch is a “tambour,” since this was one of the common ways a small hook was used to create a stitch.
Convergence of shepherd’s knitting and tambour embroidery
By the 1820s in Europe, crochet began to be explicitly named as an art, first in a Dutch monthly publication called Penélopé. These first instructions in the 1821 volume called for a tambour needle in its materials list, with a purse design that included slip stitches like the ones used in shepherd’s knitting as well as chains and single crochet stitches.
A couple decades later, the first crochet pattern would be published in England, which we saw above.
How did crochet get its name?
The word crochet comes from the French word crochet, which means hook. This term was used for the implements in French lacemaking as well as Scottish shepherd’s knitting, both of which are precursors to modern crochet.
Even though modern crochet did not fully develop in France, during the mid 1800s crochet was evolving in various forms in different countries, whether through shepherd’s knitting or tambour embroidery.
Tambour embroidery also has a name from French origins (tambour means drum in French, which refers to the embroidery hoop that pulls the fabric tight), and the name used to refer to the hooked needle was a aiguille à crochet (crochet needle, or hooked needle).
This was likely one of the factors that led to the term crochet being used for the crochet hook, and eventually the craft, as tambour embroidery evolved in England and elsewhere to become the full fledged art we know today.
Where did the crochet hook originate from?
The modern crochet hook originated in the 1830s in England, where the modern art of crochet was perfected. Previous iterations of the crochet hook included the flat hook used in shepherd’s knitting and the hooked needle in tambour embroidery, both of which had existed for a long time.
As discussed above, the main precursors to the modern crochet hook are the flat hook that was commonly used in shepherd’s knitting, and the hooked needle for creating chain lace.
However, neither of these are that similar in form to the modern hook that exists today, which has a handle, circular cross sections, and about the size of a hand.
In the 1840s, the flat hook began to evolve and crochet hooks began to emerge primarily in England that were made of ivory and said to be more suitable for yarn. These “ivory hooks” were different from flat hooks because of their much more shallow taper, smaller head, and round cross section along its entire length.
This hook is much more similar to the crochet hooks that we have today (similar to Furls’ hooks)
These hooks appeared during the rapid rise of crochet’s popularity in England and were frequently recommended to beginners of the craft for whom tambour needles might be too small.
When did Irish crochet originate?
Irish crochet originated in the 1840s in Ireland as a quicker and easier method of imitating Venetian needlepoint lace. Although it had existed at a small scale in Ireland prior, it gained mainstream popularity during the Irish Potato Famine as a way for young women to earn a living.
You’ve probably heard some variation of the story that “Irish crochet saved the country from the Potato Famine.” Much of this story is true — Irish crochet did become much more widely produced during the Great Hunger, which lasted from 1842 to 1854.
However, many narrations of the story gloss over the political and social implications of the sudden popularity of lace during that time, and how it has reverberated through history.
Irish textiles like lace (worked with a crochet hook) and linen have long taken on a political quality, mostly because of the relationship between Ireland as a colony of England from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries.
During this time, England restricted native textile industries in Ireland, so much so that Irish “poets were condemning the native adoption of English clothing as acquiescence to colonization.” (5)
Later on, when the linen export trade was allowed to flourish, it largely benefitted the already prosperous Ulster province, whose demographic was predominantly those who had emigrated from England, and later became Northern Ireland after the Irish Civil War.
This created a divide between the relatively impoverished lower classes that produced linen and lace and the Ulster province of upper class elites that exploited them, profited from, and wore the lace. This dynamic of the charged pairing between an elite patroness and a peasant craftswoman captures the loaded connotations that Irish crochet and lace carried into the 20th century.
During the Irish Potato Famine, the lace industry flourished and many schools were created to teach poor girls needlework. However, according to scholar J.M. Synge’s estimation, the newfound lace industry “merely funded further emigration [to the United States] rather than improving the local economy in any meaningful way.” (6)
By 1907, a Charity Lace Ball attended by Irish and British elite was built on the labor of barefoot women in “unlit, unclean cottages,” whose beautiful lace works were exclusively worn by fashionable elite women.
By the postwar period the colonial associations of Irish lace had become more or less flattened out and depoliticized, ignoring the complexities of how the Irish textile industry had been established. With the rise in social standing of Irish Americans, Irish lace and textiles suddenly became fashionable in mainstream U.S. publications like Vogue and Saturday Evening Post throughout the 1950s.
However, when Grace Kelly, the posterchild of Irish Americans, married into the royal family of Monoco, she disdained the then fashion of European brides to wearing antique Irish lace. During the period of time when Irish lace was heavily promoted internationally and her Irish ancestry was emphasized, Kelly chose not to wear the antique lace that was almost certainly made under deplorable conditions. This suggests that Kelly had some inkling of the colonial associations of the use of antique Irish lace in royal wedding gowns, or at the very least, some sense of the conditions under which the Irish lace industry arose. (7)
In the 21st century, the tradition of using Irish lace continues in European royal weddings, despite Kelly’s seemingly deliberate effort to break out of the mold. Kate Middleton’s highly anticipated wedding dress, which was partially inspired by Kelly’s, includes lace elements inspired by Limerick and Carrickmacross Irish lace that flourished during the Irish Potato Famine.
When did crochet become popular in America?
Crochet became popular in from the late 1940s onwards, because of the renewed interest in home crafts in the post war period. Crochet designs for more colorful patterns in thicker threads and yarns were in high demand, and the granny square motif took off in the 1970s.
Crocheted laces were popular in the 1910s in America, which were often made of white or pale threads. After World War I, crochet patterns became extremely simplified and there were much fewer of them given the economic austerity during the Great Depression.
However, after World War II, the volume of crochet patterns greatly increase. This coincided with a renewed interest in home crafts and DIY in the post war prosperity, and crochet was especially enjoyed by homemakers of that time.
In the early 1970s, the next generation picked up on the renewed interest in crochet and popularized granny squares, often in bright colors.
Crochet in the modern age
In the 21st century, there has been even more interest in handcrafts and DIY in the US, which huge improvements in the quality and variety of yarn widely available.
Publication of crochet patterns has also greatly increase, with many new pattern books with modern patterns being printed, and many yarn stores offering crochet classes in addition to knitting lessons.
As the hobby gains traction, there are many books you can purchase from bookstores that cater specifically to children, teenagers, and beginners.
There are also lots and lots of crochet blogs (like this one!) on the internet which share crochet patterns, which allows independent crochet designers to gain an audience and spread the craft further.
Tunisian crochet, filet crochet, and amigurumi have also gained a lot of popularity in recent years.
In high fashion, crochet has also seen a revival. Christopher Kane’s Fall 2011 collection made extensive use of the granny square.
Even more recently, Harry Styles’ crochet cardigan from JW Anderson’s 2020 collection sparked a huge wave of interest across the younger generation on social media.
The history of crochet is long with its own complexities, but it continues to astound practitioners of the craft both new and old. What will come next? You decide!
More articles about crochet
- J. Gaugain, The Lady’s Assistant for Executing Useful and Fancy Designs in Knitting, Netting, and Crochet Work (Edinburgh: I. J. Gaugain, 1840), pp. 189–200, https://archive.org/details/krl00394037 (accessed 15 February 2022).
- R. de la Platiere, Encyclopédie méthodique, 1 (Paris: Panckoucke, 1785), pp. 40–41, https://books.google.com/books?id=7TA0ZqhmieAC (accessed 15 February 2022).
- J. F. Netto and F. L. Lehmann, Die Kunst Zu Stricken in ihrem ganzen Umfange (Leipzig: Voss, 1800), p. 38, http://resolver.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de/SBB00009E5800010000 (accessed 16 February 2022).
- J. F. Netto and F. L. Lehmann, L’Art de Tricoter, Développé dans Toute son Étendue (Leipzig: Voss, 1802), http://content.winterthur.org:2011/cdm/compoundobject/collection/Textiles/id/1822 (accessed 16 February 2022).
- Burke, Mary. “Grace Kelly, Philadelphia, and the Politics of Irish Lace.” American Journal of Irish Studies 15 (2019): 31–46. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26859680.
- J. M. Synge, “Possible Remedies,” in Collected Works: Volume II (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), 340, 341.
- Burke, Mary. “Grace Kelly, Philadelphia, and the Politics of Irish Lace.” American Journal of Irish Studies 15 (2019): 31–46. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26859680