Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A History of Crochet, Part 1

The word crochet is derived from the French word, croche, meaning hook.  Early on it was almost entirely a convent art, classified as nun’s work.  The exact origin and date of crochet is in great doubt.  Some believe it goes back to before the time of Christ, but there is no record of this form of needle art before the 1800’s and it was not until the 1840’s that written instructions were published.

Hand-turned hook from author’s collection

Archeologists believe the Israelites were familiar with crochet during the time of Solomon, before the first millennium BC when they left Egypt.  Heinz Edgar Kiewe, in his book titled The Sacred History of Knitting, concluded that crochet hooks were probably implements of that time. He refers to the story of one of Jesus’ followers, Akida Ben Joseph who was said to have used a crochet hook so that he might spend his time as a shepherd more usefully.

Crochet has been handed down from generation to generation through family and friends without written patterns.  It was very common to work directly from a picture of the finished work or from a sample of crochet.  Needlework was taught to the young women in school from the early 1800’s through the early 1900’s.  The needle workers never sat down with idle hands; they were also so in love with what they did that they found joy of making it.

Crochet sampler from author's collection dating from 1885
Before patterns were widely published crochet sample books provided a way to record favorite patterns and to share them with relatives and friends.  A crocheter added to her collection by exchanging samples with friends and relatives or by copying them.

Whether for commercial or personal use, sample books of this period, with their 100’s of carefully preserved patterns, document lifetimes of work by women dedicated to their craft. 

If you sit and quietly reflect, you can imagine the quiet hours spent, peacefully creating with crochet hook and thread.  It is as if the life of this needle worker is contained within the pages.  All the thoughts she had, problems she solved and pleasure she enjoyed during the many hours of stitching are contained there as well. To read the entire story of my sampler in Piecework magazine, 2001.

Monica Ferris in her mystery novel, Crewel World, wrote “If she could get into the rhythm of the needlework, she would find peace.  That’s why she loved needlepoint-it worked like meditation.  It was better than meditation, actually, because after a while you found you had both peace of mind and a work of art.”  

In the 1890’s women had no vote and could own no property.  The feminine ideal was to be a wife, mother and if healthy, she was considered property. In Victorian times words like “proper” and “well-to-do” described the status of women and their needlework.  Around the Turn of the Century, young girls sewed crochet edgings to towels, sheets, tablecloths and napkins and put them away in their hope chests for future use.

1900-1920 - “From Hard Work to Handwork”-Early in the 20th Century, the world was changing.  With the end of Queen Victoria’s reign and the 1893-97 Depression, colors and outlooks were appearing brighter.

In 1907 women were freed from the arm-wrenching laundry with the advent of the electric washing machine.  In rare moments of leisure, women did needlework.  Well-educated young ladies learned to crochet edgings and filet crochet adorned dressers and chairs.

Filet crochet chair back: "Take a Seat My Dear" and embroidery table runner
Fashion evolved rapidly from 1915-1920 when the Great War changed forever the role of women in society.  A continuing love of feminine details and an increasing need for practically in dress came together in the graceful lines of the Armistice Blouse and was enhanced by a soft delicate fabric and lace trim.

1920-45 - “The Thrifty Homemaker”
Women were flaunting their new-found liberation.  They more freely powdered their noses and advertised the fact by carrying elegant silver compacts and fancy compact holders.

Replica of an Irish Crochet compact cover -  
used by the author to teach beginning crochet 

Sewing machines and refrigerators allowed mom less time for housework and more time for handwork.  Home d├ęcor became the priority:  matched linen sets, bedspreads, curtains embellished with flowers.  Handwork catalogs offered handwork options like crocheted edgings and bedspreads.

The Depression forced thrifty homemakers to stretch their resources even thinner.  Mom crocheted and darned socks as the family listened around the radio to FDR’s encouraging words.  Crafts like table cloths emphasized practicality.

Making a pair of socks is certainly not something we have to do when we can buy a pair of socks for much less than $5.00, but a nostalgic step back brings us satisfaction.  Crocheting our own socks and learning techniques for to achieve fit and drape has proven to be wildly popular today. The very first pattern published by the Crochet Guild of America pattern series was a sock designed by Jackie Young.



When World War II broke out, thousands of women learned to crochet and knit socks, scarves and sweaters for care packages to the solders overseas.  As big band music blared, college girls crocheted purses and re-sewed gabardine skirts inside out to extend their wear.

Wartime left young brides at home filling their time making soap, sewing pillows and dreaming of a house with a picket fence. My best birthday present ever from my mom was two boxes of someone’s crochet work that she bought at a garage sale.  Department store shirt boxes served to contain samples of stitches and motifs along with a very kitschy crocheted hen and turtle.  I have always kept those boxes intact; I couldn’t bear to break up the legacy created by this anonymous needle worker.

Best Gift Ever

Turtle Soap Cover

To continue through the history of crochet to modern times, read my next post, The History of Crochet, Part 2!

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