One thing that frustrates me greatly is that no one seems to be able to answer the question ‘who invented crochet?’.
When I’m really into something, I like to know everything about it. If I read a really amazing book, the first thing I do is jump on the author’s website and start researching it. I want to know how long it took to be published, the history of the characters and author, and whether or not there’s going to be a sequel to the particular book. I’m a research junkie.
Naturally, I’ve done quite a lot of research on the invention of crochet and frustratingly I’ve come up very short on straight answers. There’s a variety of places where it could have originated but its development was so organic it’s hard to pinpoint exactly. Despite my frustration at being unable to get the answers I want, I kind of love the mystery behind it. It seemed to appear out of nowhere, jumping continents and slowly developing from an ancient embroidery technique into the craft we know it as today.
So, who invented crochet? Here are a few theories.
Was it Queen Victoria?
Probably not but she was certainly an early admirer of the craft. She popularized crochet by purchasing Irish crochet instead of expensive lace, helping women make a decent living during the potato famine when their family farms weren’t producing an income. She also learned to crochet herself and made eight scarves for select members of her forces fighting in South Africa. It’s unclear exactly what these scarves represented but it was an enormous honor to receive one. Although Queen Victoria didn’t invent crochet, she made it fashionable at a time when it was seen as an inferior craft.
Was it France?
The word ‘crochet’ comes from the French word ‘croche’, meaning, ‘hook’. The French own the naming rights to crochet but there’s little evidence they played a bigger part than any other culture in the development of the skill of crochet. It is a shame though because I think everyone has a little bit of Francophile (a person who loves France) in all of us, and I would have loved for my beloved crochet to have been a traditional French craft, but nope, just the name will have to do.
Was it China?
The most solid theory that I’ve stumbled across is that crochet came from a Chinese style of needlework called ‘tambouring.’ It’s pretty similar to crochet except that it’s worked on to a fabric background, similar to embroidery, but you use a fine needle with a hook on the end.
Tambouring was also present in Turkey, India, Persia and North Africa during the early 1700s. Tambouring reached Europe in the 1700s and it was around this time that someone discovered the stitches had enough structural integrity to survive without the fabric background. This was the first time that crochet really existed in it’s recongizable, modern form. The tambour hook was still used and according to the French, it became known as ‘crochet in the air’, like ‘hook’ in the air. This is why I’ve heard that most people prefer crocheting over knitting. Knitting feels very grounded and it is said that some knitters feel very “physically attached” to their projects because there are so many live loops, where as with crochet there aren’t as many loops. It is also said that you can even lay down while crocheting! Although I’ve never tried this, it seems to me that it would maybe help with the painful shoulder syndrome many crocheters go through…
Was it Ireland?
Now, let’s go back to Queen Vic and her love for Irish crochet. For those of you who don’t know, Irish crochet is a style of using Irish lace to make products. It was in the 1800s that the potato famine sent many farming families into poverty who depended on that farming income. It was about this time that a woman named Mademoiselle Riego de la Blanchardiere started to teach the farmers wives a new trade that was Irish crochet. The craft was perfect for famine times as it was made from easily accessible materials, could be made in any conditions (droughts, floods, harsh winters), and the final product was coveted by higher society. Crochet had the look of lace which was very fashionable at the time, but Irish crochet was much quicker to produce, so it became popular very quickly.
Mademoiselle Reigo figured out how to crochet lace that resembled Venetian needlepoint but instead of take 200 hours to make (as needlepoint would), the labor would be reduced to 20 hours with crochet. This suited mass production because Irish crochet is not worked in rows, instead it consists of motifs that are made individually and then joined with fans or mesh. This meant that Irish crochet creators worked like factories; workers would specialize in a particular area according to their abilities. In fact, rare and unique Irish lace designs ‘belonged’ to certain families and the construction of said motifs was a closely guarded secret as the families relied upon it for their income.
Mademoiselle Riego was the first person to publish a pattern book of Irish crochet in 1846.
Was it the Shepherds?
In the 1800s, a style of crochet known as shepherd’s knitting appeared. It was worked with a larger, flatter hook and was designed for use with thicker yarns. It made a dense fabric, made up of only slip stitches but it was almost impossible to achieve the taller stitches with this style of hook. It was about this time that we saw crochet hooks start to taper into the hooks we recognize today.
The 1920s and 1930s
Crochet in the 20s and 30s was all about mercerized cotton and tiny, tiny crochet hooks. Lace was still a big hit and filet crochet was starting to rise in popularity. The 30s saw the first appearance of popcorn and bobble stitches towards the end of the decade too. The most popular items to crochet were home decor items like dressing table sets and runners, edgings for curtains and blankets, and children’s hats and accessory sets. It was also around this time that religious crochet patterns started to appear with prayer shawls starting to come into fashion.
Crochet in the 1940s was used for mending and embellishing existing clothing. It was used for making scarves and hats to send to soldiers at war as well. It was a make-do-and-mend era so crochet was mostly used as a tool to extend the life of existing clothing or repurpose yarn from worn out knits.
This was the era when crochet patterns and DIYs would appear regularly in women’s magazines. Designers were almost unheard of as patterns were bought from designers and published through yarn companies as an incentive for people to buy their yarn, they could also go through magazines which would charge a mail order fee for a pattern. Crochet also moved with the fashion times and there were lots of Dior-esque shapes in crochet patterns of this era.
The 1960s and 1970s
The granny square hit the height of its popularity in the 60s and 70s, as well as crochet hitting mainstream fashion. Crochet vests, dresses, and headwear were favored by the youth of the era. Crochet homewares also became popular. Macrame, a form of textile produced using knotting techniques, also hit its stride in the 70s with hanging baskets and wall art adorning many walls.
Crochet took a dip in popularity in the 90s but weirdly crochet itself was quite fashionable. Crochet tops, vests and slouchy grunge style sweaters were a popular look for kids of the 90s but it was mostly fast fashion that provided these items, so crochet makers focused on blankets and homewares.
In the last 20 years, crochet has become extremely popular with modern designers creating functional and stylish patterns for homewares, clothing and toys.
To wrap it all up, there really is no answer to the question of ‘who invented crochet?’.But even though there is no direct answer, I’m so glad I picked up crocheting. My life has definitely changed for the better!