Granny-A-Go-Go: History of Crochet Granny Squares

The following article is an excerpt from Crochetscene 2014.

Granny squares—folks tend to love them or loathe them. I waver between the two extremes myself. When the colors of the square motifs really glow, they can be luscious. But when there’s too much of a good thing, we may get granny overload. The granny square has been popular for a long time, and as an avid crochet historian, I wondered just how far back it could be traced.

The Woman’s Day Book of Granny Squares (Fawcett, 1975), a collection of granny-based designs, notes that grannies have been around for “as long as anyone can remember… Making colorful afghans by joining small squares,” the book’s introduction states, “is one of the most traditional and American forms of crochet.” So strongly was this style of crochet identified with the United States that in Europe, say the book’s editors, it was called American crochet. They attribute the popularity of grannies to their portability, simplicity, and the fact that they’re excellent vehicles for using up scraps of yarn and for experimenting with color combinations.

Granny Squares

Surely, the combination of simplicity and the seductive power of color exploration is what keeps granny squares ever dear to the hearts of crocheters. Fleisher’s Afghans (1930; Iva Rose Vintage Reproductions, 2008) includes an example of an afghan with multicolored squares in bright colors with a black border around each of the squares and the entire afghan. No doubt, in the Depression era, patterns that allowed people to use scrap yarns to create a lively home decor item were very welcome. The ubiquitous black border serves as a unifying feature that can tie many colors together. An even earlier example can be found in The Art of Crochet, published by the Butterick Publishing Company, New York and London, in 1891. (Thanks to my friend and design colleague Vashti Braha for directing me to The Art of Crochet.) The book describes a granny style for making “robes”—meaning, in this case, blankets—for babies, quite similar to what we consider the traditional granny:

  • All the odds and ends of fancy colors left over from other crochet work, or small quantities of bright colored Germantown or zephyr wools, generally, are utilized, the object being to make the robe as brilliant as possible. In large robes the outside row of every block is made with black wool, and then the blocks are crocheted together with some bright color—usually yellow… A handsome fringe of black interspersed with bits of all the colors used is generally added to the top and bottom of the robe, and sometimes all around it.

Although no pattern is given for the square, an engraving clearly depicts the granny as we know it. How amazing that the bright colors and black border date back more than a century! And the square seems to have already been a familiar friend.

The granny square remains a staple of many a pattern book and magazine, sometimes morphing into related shapes that feed its continued evolution.

Grannies on the Runway

Granny has caused a ruckus on runway more than once in the twenty-first century. In 2010, Cate Blanchett walked the red carpet in a granny-inspired dress for an opening at the Australian Center for the Moving Image (ACMI). Designed by an Australian design team called Romance Was Born, the dress—rendered in traditional bright colors with black borders—drew out the best and worst in critics. Some dubbed the actress Cate Blanket.

On Ravelry, the response ranged from “It is vile as a dress, and would have been just as vile as a blanket in a cat’s bed” to “I think it’s marvelous and so much more interesting than the same old boring cocktail dresses.” One Raveler wrote, “I suspect the designer intends it to be ironic in using a homely fabric for a glamorous dress and celebrating the renewed interest in traditional crafts.”

Following on the heels of the Cate-troversy, British designer Christopher Kane dove deep into granny-square waters in his 2011 fall runway show, which featured a variety of dresses and skirts rendered in a fabric with oversized grannies in subtle blue and gray hues. Kane seemed to be reaching for a new and exciting way to view this dappled motif, but reactions invariably included references to afghans.

Will the granny ever break free entirely from its association with rugs and sofas? Or is that essential to its appeal? In any case, the modern controversy proves that the one-hundred-plus year- old granny can still pack a punch.

—Dora Ohrenstein

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