Friday, March 11, 2016

The History of Crochet

Elizabeth I in Lace Ruff, 1585 *
So how old is crochet?  It turns out that is a controversial question.

During the 1500s and into the 1600s, lace neck ruffs were all the rage. They started out small, but became larger and more outrageous over time.  Is it possible that the English "chain lace" mentioned in the 1500s is actually crochet, developed as a poor-man's lace - a faster and easier way to copy court fashion?

Making lace is a slow task, whereas crocheting is much quicker, and crocheted lace can look so similar to true lace that they can be difficult to tell apart.  The basic difference is that lace is made with multiple threads, while crochet is made by connecting loops of a single thread.  (For a more detailed explanation of lace vs. crochet click here).

There are no patterns or surviving examples of chain lace from the 1500s, so was it truly crochet?  Authorities on the history of crochet disagree.  Annie Louise Potter, author of "A Living Mystery, the International Art & History of Crochet" argues that the chain lace of the 1500s was indeed true crochet, but most authors, including Lis Paludan, author of "Crochet History & Technique" claim that crochet first appears in the 19th century.  As for me, I'm going to be like Switzerland and claim neutrality.

Gorgeous lace collar, undersleeves and cuffs, 1857 **
But whether they were crocheting in the 1500s or not, crochet appeared with a vengeance in the 1800s.

The earliest known crochet pattern was printed in 1824 in a Dutch book, "Penelope."  However, it was not yet popular, and Miss Lambert, in her 1846 "Decorative Needlework" very firmly states that crochet "did not attract particular attention until within the last seven years." 

What really made crochet take off was the combination of the Irish Potato Famine, the fashion fad of wearing lace collars and cuffs, and the work of Mademoiselle Riego de la Blanchardiere.

Between 1845 and 1852 the Irish Potato Famine killed about one million people in Ireland.  Desperate for survival, many Irish turned to crochet (which they called Shepherd's Knitting), with men, women and children all selling their beautiful crochet work to support their families.  Fortunately for the Irish (or perhaps because of the Irish), lace collars and cuffs were very fashionable in the 1840s and 1850s, and since crochet was so much faster than making lace, crocheted lace-like collars were a popular substitute.  Queen Victoria herself is said to have bought crocheted collars and cuffs from Irish crocheters.

Irish Crochet Lace Collar, 1850 - 1853, V&A Museum ***
At the same time Mademoiselle Riego de la Blanchardiere published her first book in 1846, the first of 72 books she would write on various needle arts.  She had a particular knack for reproducing old world lace in crochet, which made lace-like trims available to any woman with a crochet hook.

By the 1860s the fad for lace collars and cuffs was gone, but the passion for crochet has remained, and while crochet began as a poor-man's version of lace, it very quickly became a respected art in its own right.  Queen Victoria herself was a crocheter, and one of eight scarfs she crocheted in 1900 to be presented to distinguished solders is on display at the at the Canadian War Museum.

Irish Crochet, 1850-1860 ***
Side Note:  If Queen Victoria could crochet herself, why did she buy collars and cuffs from Irish crocheters?  Giving money to the poor was discouraged in the 19th century, but wealthy women were commended for purchasing hand-made items from poor women as a way to provide them money without encouraging idleness.

Another Side Note:  Crochet was a way to reproduce the tedious handwork required in lace making, but today lace making can be easily done by machines, and most of the lace we buy today is machine made lace.  However, crochet can not be duplicated by machine, so if you buy a crocheted item today you can be certain it was hand-made.

River Stones Wristlets
Are you up for some crocheting?  Try the recently released (and very easy to read) crochet pattern River Stones Wristlets written by FiberWild's own Amy Zimmerman (who you may know by her shop nickname, Vera).  The River Stones Wristlets pattern is free with the purchase of Zen Yarn Garden's Serenity DK.

Want more crochet history?  Check out the Crochet Guild of America's history page here.

Happy Crocheting . . . . Scout

* The top portrait is "The Ermine Portrait of Elizabeth I of England" painted in 1585 by William Segar.  The original is in a private collection.  

** The photograph of the lady with the gorgeous lace collar, undersleeves and cuffs is Antonie Halberstadt as a bride in 1857.  The original is at, a German digital library.  

*** Both of the Irish Crochet Lace photos are from the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum - and they have many more examples as well.

1 comment:

Syd T. said...

Thank you for another wonderful historical piece. I have several crocheter friend that will find this interesting.

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