Crochet’s secret history is a fascinating journey that spans centuries and cultures.
And today we are talking about this craft that involves creating fabric by interlocking loops of yarn or thread with a hooked needle.
While its exact origins are difficult to pinpoint, we will dive into its rich history and discover stories that will change how you see our craft from this point forward.
Crochet’s Secret History
Hi! I’m Elise from Elise Rose Crochet and I’ve been a history lover since the 6th grade at Lincoln Middle School in Gainesville, FL. We all called the school Stinkin’ Lincoln. I still remember sitting in class in 1986, with my Miami Vice style shirt on hearing for the first time about the ancient Egyptians. I was captivated and I’ve had an interest in history ever since.
While doing the research for this video I found so many interesting resources and I will link them all in throughout the post so that you can check them out for yourself.
The exact origins of crochet are unclear, but it is believed to have developed independently in various cultures. Some historians trace its roots back to ancient China, Egypt, and South America, where similar techniques of interlocking loops with a hook were used.
As cultures began to trade with one another more, they shared the skills that they had developed with each other. “Both knitting and Crochet were born from a technique called Nålebinding, which literally means “binding with a needle” in Danish. The oldest known example of Nålebinding is believed to date back to 6500 BC. Today the women of the Nanti Tribe (an indigenous people of the Camisea region of Peru) still practice it. The technique also remains popular in Scandinavia and the Balkans.” Silk Purse Guild.com.
At the same time crochet like techniques were being seen in other parts of the world. “In east Asia, crocheting was used to create dolls dating as far back as China’s Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.E.).” Res Ipsa USA
European Development 16th – 18th Centuries
Crochet as we know it today started to take shape in Europe during the 16th century (but it still wasn’t what we would recognize as crochet yet). It was originally known as “nun’s work” or “nun’s lace” due to its association with religious orders. Italy was the epicenter of handmade lacework for church textiles and exported for royalty and nobility in Europe. And Venetian lace was considered the finest quality, this was extremely delicate work done with a needle and the finest of thread.
The lace eventually made its way to France with the help of King Louis 14th. But his finance minister was concerned about the money that was being sent to Italy for all the lace, so he banned the importation to France. He brought in Venetian lace makers to teach locals in Normandy the art of lace making. The French eventually made it their own by changing some of the techniques and then they became the superior lace makers in Europe. It was eventually called “The Lace of Queens”. French lace making has been passed down the generations through the Benedictine Monastery Notre Dame D’Argentan Abbey to this day! I’ll leave a link where you can see the stunning lace the nuns continue to make.
Then in 1823 the Dutch magazine, Penelope, published the first known pattern for 3 crocheted purses, beginning with a simple purse design to a slightly more complex version. There were three stitches, simple open crochet basic stitch, a semi open crochet basic stitch and the double crochet stitch.
The first mention of crochet in Britain was in the book The Memoirs of a Highland Lady. In it, the author describes using a shepherd’s hook, similar to a fish hook, to crochet a garment. The magazine Penelope, which we just talked about, also described what we now call a crochet hook, as a shepherd’s hook and recommended using a coarser yarn.
Eleonore Riego de la Banchadiere Crochet Pioneer
But In 1846 Eleonore Riego de la Branchardiere wrote the book Knitting Crochet and Netting, which you can still find a copy of at gutenberg.org. Eleonore, who was only 18 at the time of the publication, took needle and bobbin lace making and taught readers how to make it with a crochet hook. She even went on to publish 72 books of crochet in all.
This was a significant moment in crochet’s secret history because of 1. its timing and 2. because it made lace making accessible to the ordinary person.
Crochet came to Ireland in the late 1700’s and “wives of fishermen and laborers did small amounts of crocheting to supplement family income.” Tampa Bay Times.
The publication of Knitting, Crochet and Netting came during a difficult time in the history of the Irish people. Men, women and even children began crocheting lace for the elite of England. This provided an income for them during the Potato Famine from 1845 – 1851, which would eventually take the lives of approximately 1 million Irish people from starvation and disease. The famine also led to another million people leaving Ireland for places like the United States. My own ancestors were Irish and I’ve always wondered if this was the reason they left to come to America.
Crochet schools opened up across Ireland to teach people how to crochet lace because it was a sustainable source of income. It helped them to keep their families fed during a time of crisis. This also led to new crochet designs and many consider crochet one of the reasons the Irish economy survived.
Crochet experienced a surge in popularity during the Victorian era which was from 1837 – 1901. It was used to create delicate garments, accessories, and home decor items. When you see Victorian architecture for example, you’ll notice all the ornate decoration. Home interiors and fashion during that time were also drenched in gorgeous detail like crocheted lace.
Many crochet patterns and instruction books were published during this time, making the craft more accessible to a wider audience.
Queen Victoria was recorded as buying Irish lace and even became a crocheter herself. There are several photos of her enjoying crocheting. If you notice she was a pencil hold crocheter. She also crocheted eight scarves for her soldiers of the South African war, which are now known as the Queen’s scarf. Her daughter-in-law Princess Mary, Duchess of Cornwall said that she assisted in crocheting the scarves when Queen Victoria dropped a stitch. They were received as a great honor by the soldiers who were awarded them. They were worn, not like the way we would wear a scarf, but like a sash across the body. If you look closely you can see her initials were embroidered in red. Two of the scarves remain and are on display in Canadian and Australian museums.
War Time Crochet
During World Wars 1 & 2 women who were left at home had a need to fill. War effort organizations encouraged crocheted items for soldiers fighting in Europe. Although knitted patterns were in abundance, there were US crochet patterns like a trench cap, ear protectors, wristlets, helmets, scarves, mine sweeper gloves ( I’m not sure how a crocheted glove would protect someones hand from a mine…) socks, mufflers, blankets and even hospital stockings. Crochet war efforts were also popular amongst the French as well as seen in these patriotic images.
My own grandmother was a World War II bride and just after the war they had my mom. She crocheted this beautiful baptismal gown for my mother, which to this day hangs in my mother’s bedroom. I wish my grandmother was around so that I could ask her about her war time crocheting efforts.
While crochet continued to evolve, which we will soon talk about. I do believe it’s important to now discuss the role synthetic fibers played in the popularity of crochet.
Development of Synthetic Yarns
I found a fascinating article from Roving Crafters which details the beginnings of synthetic fibers which dates all the way back to the 1660’s. Robert Hooke was an English scientist who was looking for a way to create synthetic silk. His reason was that the fabric created by silk worms in the far East was incredibly expensive and he set out to develop a synthetic version. He ultimately failed, but apparently he is also known for a famous fight he had with Sir Isaac Newton!
A Light Bulb Moment in the History of Crochet
But in 1880 a man by the name of Sir Joseph Swan created the first synthetic fiber. He made the fiber for the newly invented light bulb, “True, he was making it to use in his new fangled electrical gadgets but (but!) he did recognize its use as a textile. I’ve found several mentions of an exhibit he put out in 1885 in London of several pieces his wife crocheted with this new fiber. Sadly I can’t find any description of what she made much less a sketch or pattern. But Mrs. Swan had the distinction of being the first crafter to use synthetic yarn.” Roving Crafters.
About a decade later Count Hilaire de Chardonnet built the first rayon factory in France. Rayon was considered a synthetic substitute for silk and at half the cost, it gained in popularity. By 1920 it had reached the United States and was doing very well for itself.
In the 1930s and 40s Germany and the United States were in a race to create a new synthetic fiber that we call acrylic. It wasn’t until just after World War II, in 1946 that the first patent for acrylic was filed in Germany. 7 days later it was filed by Dupont in the United States.
Acrylic yarns opened up a whole new world to crocheters because it was a fiber that could withstand lots of wearing, washing and drying. It also did not attract moths and it was affordable for the everyday crafter.
Also the development of standardized crochet hooks and the adoption of crochet terminology helped make the craft more accessible and organized.
Crochet Revival Late 20th Century – Present Day
In the mid-20th century, crochet experienced a resurgence in popularity. The 1960s and 1970s saw a “hippie” crochet trend, with colorful, bohemian-style garments and accessories. Not only was crochet a fashion forward trend, but it was popular for making home decor items as well.
Granny squares became a very popular trend at this time.
In the 1980’s and 90’s the craft was still quite popular, but wasn’t as trendy as it had been in the 60’s and 70’s.
There continued to be crochet publications and new yarns were popping up in local craft stores.
In recent decades, crochet has continued to adapt to changing trends and styles, with contemporary artists and designers pushing the boundaries of the craft.
Online Communities and Modern Resources
The internet and social media have played a significant role in connecting crocheters worldwide. Online communities, blogs, and video tutorials have made it easier for people to learn and share their crochet projects.
Crochet continues to adapt and what a person can do with yarn and a crochet hook now is incredible. Crochet still includes garments and blankets, but now we are making 3 dimensional projects like amigurumi, which are crocheted toys (I have a whole separate post about the history of amigurumi)
Crochet’s Secret History
Today, crochet is a thriving craft enjoyed by people of all ages and backgrounds. It offers a creative outlet for making a wide range of items, from clothing and home decor to amigurumi and beyond. The rich history of crochet reflects its enduring appeal and adaptability as a versatile and beloved fiber art.