Crochet is enjoying a well-deserved revival at the moment, with many people learning the technique, or buying beautiful crocheted items such as boutique baby clothes. But how did this type of knitwear rise from its humble origins to become a popular and fashionable choice for everything from booties to dog collars?
What exactly is crochet?
Most people probably think crochet is just a style of knitting, but there is much more to it than that, as anyone who has learned to crochet will tell you! In a nutshell, it is the art of creating a fabric from yarn or another strand of material, using a crochet hook. The yarn is worked together in loops, following a pattern of stitch.
Beginners will work with the basic single, double, half double, and triple crochet stitches. More advanced practitioners will use more complex techniques such as the Tunisian, bobble, and shell stitches.
Where did crochet originate?
The name crochet is derived from the French word for ‘small hook.’ However, it seems no one is exactly sure when the first crocheted items were made. The best guess appears to be that the technique developed from Chinese needlework, which was widespread in Turkey, India, Persia and North Africa.
The first examples of European crochet are thought be from around 1700, when it was known as ‘tambouring’ from the French word for drum. This is because early methods of crocheting involved stretching a background fabric taut over a frame, and drawing a fine needle and thread up through the fabric.
By the late 18th century, this method seems to have been discarded for ‘crochet in the air’, which works the stitch without a frame, as is common practice today. In the early 19th century, crochet grew in popularity in Britain, where it was known as ‘shepherd’s knitting.’ This is a reference to the curved end of the needle, resembling a shepherd’s crook.
Why are the Irish noted for crochet?
During the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1849, crochet lace work became a life-saving way for the poverty-stricken population to earn money. The Irish people were soon able to produce delicate lace crochet which was sought after abroad, helping families to survive and even save up for a new life in the future.
Many Irish people decided to emigrate to North America after the harsh experience of the famine, taking their crochet skills with them. It is thought that by 1900, four million Irish were living in the USA, and this helped to introduce crocheting to keen knitters and quilters abroad.
When did crochet become popular the UK?
By the 1920’s and 30’s, crochet was shaking off its image as a cheap alternative to lace, and was used to create whole garments, from hats to gowns. During the 1940’s crochet evolved again into a home craft, and it flourished with a profusion of new patterns, designs, and colours, which were used for dolls and toys, as well as garments and accessories.
By the 1970’s, crochet items were taken to an artform, and sculptures, tapestries, and rugs can be found with ambitious abstract and realistic designs. Crochet was also used for more prosaic items such as tea cosies, traveling rugs, cushions, and hot-water bottle covers.
The vogue for the ‘granny square’ which was a simple square of crocheted fabric that could be stitched together to make an endless variety of clothes, bags, blankets, and so on, helped to make crochet a fun and accessible pastime for anyone.
Making crochet items for charities has also become commonplace, going back to wartime roots when people would form groups to make blankets and warm garments for soldiers. These days, charity groups exist to make crocheted items for all kinds of purposes, from newborn baby clothes to nursing homes and homeless shelters in need of resources.
What is modern crochet all about?
After a period of decline during the late 20th century, crochet is once more enjoying a resurgence. There has been a more widespread revival of home craft skills, which was gathering momentum in recent years in response to the economic and climate crises, and has of course been accelerated by the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.
During lockdown, many people took up crochet to give them a sense of accomplishment, and also to help soothe anxiety and low spirits as the world was in a state of upheaval. Crochet items are also currently at the height of fashion, as people discover the colourful and quirky patterns are just the tonic for a summer mood-booster.