Crochet Origins: An Enigmatic Tale

An ancient grave site with a skeleton clutching a primitive hook and bits of crochet fabric—it’s a crochet historian’s dream. Sadly, it’s unlikely to come true. Claims of crochet’s antiquity have frequently been made, probably in no more influential a source than the Caulfield and Saward’s Encyclopedia of Victorian Needlework, published in 1882 and still much read today.

The authors say they believe that crochet was done by sixteenth-century nuns, but that the craft had no name of its own and little circulation beyond the nunnery. In fact, there’s no evidence to support crochet’s existence at such an early date. Puzzling out just how and where crochet was born is no easy task. One of the very few serious studies, Lis Paludan’s Crochet: History & Technique (Interweave, 1995, originally published in Danish in 1986), establishes that crochet pieces reliably dated before the nineteenth century are scarce. Paludan visited museums and textile collections in much of northern Europe, and corresponded with many more across the continent. Not a single piece of crochet from before the nineteenth century could be documented. A single study can’t be termed definitive, but since crochet gets little attention from textile scholars, we are left with scant records and many unanswered questions.

With so few concrete examples, how can we begin to build a timeline for the development of crochet? To understand how crochet evolved, we need to consider what textile arts are crochet’s likely ancestors, which are its contemporaries, and what techniques and tools were needed. We also want to explore the cultural, social, and economic environment that fostered crochet’s growth and allowed it to flourish.

Slip-Stitch Origins

The oldest form of crochet is slip-stitch crochet, but that is a term we give it today. It was known as “shepherd’s knitting” in the British Isles and pjoining in Denmark, and had other names in other languages. Traditionally worked in the round by pulling one loop through another, slip stitch has its roots in a far older technique called nalbinding.

In nalbinding, the crafter makes a loop with thread or yarn and pulls another loop through it. This technique uses small lengths of string, and may well have evolved before the practice of spinning was widely known, in the Neolithic era. The tool used is a needle with an eye, made of bone, wood, or animal horn. Examples have been found all over the globe; among the oldest surviving pieces are Egyptian socks, with a divided toe, from the third or fourth century, at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, which can be seen in their online collection at www.bit.ly/divided-sock.

Nalbinding, sometimes called “looping,” was known to the Vikings, who left samples in the bogs of northern Europe that are dated 800–1066. Archaeologists who first found nalbinding samples in Egyptian graves and Danish bogs often misidentified them as knitting, which it can resemble. Proper knitting, however, evolved some time later, the earliest surviving pieces dating from thirteenth-century Egypt and southern Spain.

Ivory “shepherd’s knitting” hook with 1-inch gauge. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Nehring)

Slip-stitch crochet is an even more obvious descendant of nalbinding, since the same looping technique could be used. Paludan finds evidence that slip-stitch crochet was done in Scotland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Estonia, Romania, and the Balkans. It was worked with simple handmade hooks, or perhaps even with fingers. The hooks were flat, not cylindrical, with sharp points and a widening handle. In a famous passage from Memoirs of a Highland Lady, published in 1912, the author, Elizabeth Grant, recalls her visit with an aging relative in 1812:

Sometimes when he was not well he wore a plaid cloak, and a night-cap, red or white, made by his industrious wife in a stitch she called shepherd’s knitting; it was done with a little hook which she manufactured for herself out of the tooth of an old tortoiseshell comb, and she used to go on looping her home-spun wool as quickly as fingers could move, making not only caps, but drawers and waistcoats for winter wear for the old husband she took such care of.

The passage suggests that shepherd’s knitting was a common, utilitarian craft in Scotland. Paludan heard similar tales in Denmark. Still, we do not know how far back slip-stitch crochet goes. Old samples have not survived because it was a practical craft for making sturdy garments that were worn as long as they held together, then probably recycled. We can say that it developed alongside knitting in many areas of northern Europe, where nalbinding was also a well-established tradition. It’s clear, too, that slip stitch is not the nun’s lace that Caulfield and Saward refer to.

There may be another lineage for slip-stitch crochet, not sufficiently researched, in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, Russia, Turkey, and Central Asia, all places where knitting has deep roots. When I learned about the jurabs, colorwork slip-stitch crochet socks, of Tajikistan, I arranged to visit in 2010. In the remote Pamir region, high in the Himalayan mountains, women made beautifully patterned and colored, thick and heavy socks, prized gifts in a place where people had little. It was clearly an advanced art when Danish explorer Ole Olufsen photographed specimens in the 1890s. Most of his samples are knitted, but there is a suggestion that crochet appears on two of the socks in his collection.

crochet origins

Pamir slip-stitch hook from Dora Ohrenstein’s collection.

The Pamir hooks are homemade, come in one size only, and are flat, not cylindrical, with a hook shape unlike Western hooks. Pamir culture is unique in that its language, music, and dance are closely tied to ancient Persia. The remote location and harsh environment has preserved practices that have long vanished elsewhere. How did crochet reach this place? Was there a separate tradition of slip-stitch crochet and colorwork that originated in the Arab world? Colorful socks are knit all over Turkey, the Mediterranean, and the Balkans, where slip-stitch socks, though rarer, have been found. Hooks were common in these areas, which were important centers of rug making. It may well be that the arts of knitting and crochet were siblings in many cultures.

Next Steps: Taller Stitches

Yet slip-stitch crochet is not what we think of when we crochet today. The full-blown art of crochet builds decorative designs and patterns out of lines, angles, curves, circles, diamonds, grids, and blocks. To achieve all that, crochet had to undergo several transformations. It needed stitches of different heights to fully realize its potential as a decorative art. What sparked these changes?

One likely step that came after slip stitch is tapestry crochet, a technique for painting imagery with stitches. This colorwork called for the development of a taller stitch than the almost flat slip stitch. Instead of a stitch consisting of a single loop, a taller, square-shaped stitch—the single crochet stitch—was created. The square allowed for grid-based charts, used to plot designs in knitting and embroidery, to be imported into tapestry crochet. With the single crochet stitch as its medium, and the ease of tapping into patterns from other textile sources, tapestry crochet had broad global reach and appeal. It developed in many places where slip-stitch crochet was done, and then spread beyond those regions.

Detail of Korsnas sweater showing crochet yoke, dated 1880. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Nehring)

The captivating Korsnas sweater is a special instance of how crochet is transformed as it travels. Sweden and Denmark had strong tapestry crochet traditions by the nineteenth century, producing colorful garments of all kinds. Finland did not, but similar colorwork was being done in knitted folk sweaters. The region of Ostrobothnia in Finland was settled by Swedes who brought their crochet tradition with them. The mingling of the two traditions resulted in brilliantly colored folk sweaters that are knit in the round from the bottom up, with the intricately colored yoke then worked in tapestry crochet. According to Marketta Luutonen, a scholar of the Korsnas sweater, the oldest samples with a crocheted yoke are from 1820.

Early Publications

We can say with certainty that modern crochet existed by that time. Paludan found the first published crochet patterns in an 1824 Dutch handiwork magazine called Penelope, where crochet is described as something novel and growing in popularity. The new craft is called hekelin, not the Dutch term for crochet today (haeklet), attesting to the craft’s newness. In the first pattern books in English, which appeared in 1840, crochet stitches are called single tambour, double tambour, or plain French tambour, a reference to an embroidery tool, the tambour hook. These tambour hooks were used for crochet before the new craft developed its own tool that was better adapted to its purpose. Miss Lambert, author of the 1846 book titled The Handbook of Needlework, Decorative and Ornamental, writes that crochet –

…did not attract particular attention until within the last seven years. Since that time it has been brought to great perfection and has obtained the preference over all other ornamental works of a similar nature. It is a more simple description of work than knitting; and if the variety and intricacy of the stitches exhibited in the latter, cannot be produced by crochet—the number of stitches being limited—yet most beautiful designs, in various colours, may be worked with the greatest facility. Crochet also admits to the display of a greater degree of taste than knitting, as it may be appropriated to the use of the more costly materials, in addition to those of any ordinary kind.

We learn from this passage that crochet had a limited repertoire of stitches in 1846, at least in England. Many of the early English patterns were tapestry crochet designs, but other stitches soon appeared in pattern books. Like many writers of this time, Lambert remarks on how rapidly crochet is gaining in popularity. Twenty-plus years earlier, crochet was something new and exciting to Dutch readers, and was spreading its reach via tapestry crochet in northern Europe. By midcentury it was taking Britain by storm.

A skeletal framework for how crochet evolved begins to emerge. Across all of Europe, the Mediterranean, Anatolia, and Eurasia, sheep were cultivated for their wool, and well-established traditions of nalbinding existed for making both basic and ornamental textiles. With the coming of spun yarn, the techniques of knitting and crochet were invented, based on different tools. Knitting had an immense reach and dates back to medieval times, but we cannot say just where slip-stitch crochet developed, nor how widespread it was, only that it was done in many of the same places.

By the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, tapestry crochet was practiced widely as well. Crochet was being done with a new tool—the tambour hook—and a broader vocabulary of crochet stitches was rapidly developing. The tambour hook was the vehicle that allowed crochet to move in a new direction and find a sizable audience in a changing world. Unlike the sturdy yarn crochet of earlier times, tambour hooks were used for embroidery worked in much finer threads, often interwoven with precious metals and expensive silks. Working with such materials, and at a finer scale, allowed crochet to take on the characteristics of taste and luxury that Lambert extolls, qualities that appealed to Victorian sensibilities.

The second half of the nineteenth century was a period of immense social change as the Industrial Revolution unfolded. With manufactured clothing commonplace, handiwork became less of a necessity and more of a decorative art. In this setting, crochet broke with yarn traditions and linked itself instead to a very different textile art, that of lacemaking. The result was a remarkably rich and speedy blossoming of stitches, techniques, and designs, and the emergence of crochet as we know it today.


Dora Ohrenstein, a crochet designer and author, has written several articles on crochet around the world, in her ongoing quest to discover the origins of crochet.

All photos shown in header image by Joe Coca. Reproduction of tapestry crochet socks shown rendered by Sarah Read. From Crochet Traditions 2012.


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