Flexible tools for tying and holding things together, and thin tools for maneuvering, have always been a part of our lives. Now, we recognize the flexible tools as rope, twine, wire, yarn, and so forth. We also recognize the thin tools as rakes, poles, plungers, needles, etc.
Crochet, and other forms of needlework, are considered a sign of advanced civilization. We went from rope and tools, to needlework for practical purposes (clothing, sacks, sails), to needlework for decorative purposes (embroidery, lace, patterns). This level of leisure is associated with systems in place that give most, if not all, residents a time for relaxation and creation.
The History of Crochet: Different Threads
It is quite easy to tell when a piece is crocheted. The piece would be made of closed stitches from the start to the finish, unlike knitting for example, which has multiple stitches open at a time. This is how the oldest forms of crocheting were discovered.
There is one clear starting point for the spread and use of crochet, but the theories of its origin are hazy. So let’s take a look at the most known theories and where each one comes from.
The East Asian thread
Many believe that the earliest form of crochet was to hook thread through fabric, and close the stitch before using the loop of the closed stitch to start another stitch. In that sense, it was an embroidery stitch. A stitch similar to that originated from needlework in China, where silk embroidery was a large industry.
As trends do, the stitch worked its way South and West to India, across the Persian empire, into Turkey, and even down to North Africa. It was still known as an embroidery stitch at the time, and still done on fabric.
Another East Asian thread also starts in China, and works its way East and South to Japan. Crocheted stuffed dolls were discovered in China, and said to come from China’s Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.E.). China always had a major influence on Japan, but it is thought that the art of crochet crossed over during Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1868 C.E.). This is when amigurumi, or the art of making small crocheted dolls, took hold and spread in Japan, until today. This is the clearest link we have to crochet’s possible origins in China.
The Arabian thread
This one is a bit trickier to trace. For certain, Arabia had extensive trade routes that stretched all the way from Asia to Europe. There were also multiple trading centers and civilizations across its long history that allowed for leisure and the spread of ideas and techniques, needlework among them.
However, if we’re speaking specifically about needlework, some of the oldest forms of lace- and pattern-making come from Anatolia, an ancient region that is now part of modern-day Turkey. Called “Turkish lace” in later Europe, it was long known as oya to the women of that region.
Oya was specifically used to create lace edging for everything from headdresses to scarves to furniture coverings, carpets, and wall tapestries. It is traced to as early as 800 B.C.E., made by the Phrygians of Anatolia. The civilization of Anatolia morphed into the Turkish region. Turkey, as the heart of the Ottoman Empire in later years, would reach practically all of Asia and Europe through trade. It is not impossible for oya edging to make its way into other nations from there, and evolve into the form of crocheting that we know it to be today.
The Latin American thread
If the Arabian thread is tricky to trace, the Latin American one is frayed from the start to the end. While it has become a tradition for some Latin American tribes to bring crocheted and embroidered works with them as part of their puberty rites, there is no proof that there were crocheted works in Latin America before the arrival of nuns and missionaries in the 15th century. However, it does tell us that there was definitely crocheting in Europe as early as this time.
The European thread
It is believed that the European form of crocheting came from the East Asian thread, through Chinese embroidery needlework. The principles are the same: to push a hook through fabric and close the stitch. The earliest known European word for this stitch is tambouring, which comes from the French word tambour, or drum.
The fabric was stretched taut (much like for embroidery frames today) over a round hoop, and looked like a drum. However, someone discovered that you can actually use a hook and yard to create and close stitches independently of fabric, and crochet was born from the French word croche, or hook. This began the history of crochet as we know it today.
The History of Crochet
The known history of crochet starts with the publishing of a book of crochet patterns in 1824. A lady named Mlle. Riego de la Branchardiere was also responsible for a large part of the popularity crocheting enjoyed at this time. She took the needlework and embroidery patterns people already knew, and turned them into crochet patterns so that women could still create the patterns they liked with hook and thread.
Ireland’s special relationship with crochet
For Ireland, the explosion of interest in crocheted works came just in time. In 1845, the Irish Potato Famine, or the Great Hunger, began. A great number of tenant farmers depended on their potato crops for both food and livelihood. When the Phytophthora infestans spread through the crops, it devastated 50% of them. One million died of starvation and related diseases in 7 years.
Because numerous Irishwomen already knew how to do needlework, they began to rely on it for their livelihood. Using a combination of the crochet stitches from France and Venetian point lace from Italy, they created what is now known as Irish crochet—a very fine lace that could be sewn as collars and cuffs on the clothing of European nobility and gentry. It was key to the survival of many families throughout the famine.
Queen Victoria set an example for many of the nobility by prizing and buying Irish crochet lace, to help them. She even learned how to crochet herself, giving scarves as gifts to South African veterans. This ensured that crochet did not die out soon in the United Kingdom.
When the Irish fled their country to save themselves and their families, millions went to America between 1845 and 1900. They brought their crocheting skills with them.
The history of crochet in America
Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957), pioneer and author, describes how she crocheted a nubia, a lace headdress, for her older sister Mary. There are also replicas of crocheted things she made at Rocky Ridge Farm, her last home with her husband Almanzo. By this and other historical evidence, we know that crochet was a part of the regular needlework American girls knew in the 1800s onwards.
World War II and crochet
In World War II, crochet had a number of different purposes. One was to calm women down, as they lived and worked on the Home Front. Another was to save money, so they made many of the rugs, clothing, and other household needs themselves. A third was to provide soldiers with sweaters, scarves, and other similar things they might need. It was also considered defense work.
Crochet in the 1970s
The 1960s in America was a time of social upheaval, from civil rights marches to Vietnam War protesters. This upheaval created a willingness to defy norms in every sector, and crochet was equally affected. Crochet pattern books became more freeform, more daring, and this interest in breaking the norm also generated more interest in different new ways to crochet. Crochet has the richness and diverse history it does today partly because of the norm-breaking of the 1970s.
Other resources on the history of crochet:
- The Crochet History tag by Crochet Concupiscence
- The Complete Book of Crochet Stitch Designs: 500 Classic & Original Patterns by Linda P. Schapper