History of Crochet: The Victorian Crochet Revolution
Have you ever wondered where all our marvelous crochet stitch patterns, edgings, insertions, and motifs came from? The history of crochet is actually unlike that of embroidery, knitting, and other needle arts, all of which developed over centuries, with designs accumulating slowly over time. Crochet exploded like a meteor in a very specific era, spurred by a changing social milieu.
Women had more leisure time, were attaining a greater degree of literacy, and showed a tremendous dedication to the home environment. The art of crochet took shape in the hands of expert Victorian needle artists who invented much of the basic vocabulary of crochet from scratch.
Creating beautiful things with needles, threads, and yarns was one of the chief preoccupations of Victorian women. Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 to 1901, was herself an avid knitter. Most women of the time were multicrafters, adept in embroidery, tatting, knitting, crochet, netting, and macramé. The more proficiency a lady could muster in a variety of genres, the more respect she gained. Yet women’s enthusiasm for needle arts was not simply a matter of status. It was also about the true joy of accomplishment and pleasure in creating beautiful things, an important outlet for self-expression and a source of self-esteem in a time when most women could not prove themselves in the workplace. The beauty of a lady’s home was an important measure of her accomplishments, and by filling it with her own handiwork, she earned both admiration and self-worth.
Crochet’s remarkable leap took place in this setting. Simple stitches were known at an earlier time in the history of crochet, perhaps dating back to the eighteenth century, but crochet was limited to such sturdy items as slippers and mittens, worked in slip stitches. Beginning in the 1840s, demand grew for published patterns, and some talented women were able to provide them. In Britain, the leading figures were Cornelia Mee, Jane Gaugain, Frances Lambert, and Mlle. Riego de la Branchardière, all of whom possessed ample skills, ingenuity, and design savvy. They were not only highly accomplished needle artists, but also authors, self-publishers, teachers, shop owners, and businesswomen.
The patterns in their booklets reflected all the items that Victorian women favored: caps, shawls, collars, cuffs, doilies, antimacassars—cloths placed on sofas and chairs to absorb macassars, or hair dressings—and edgings for house linens. The first generation of crochet designers studied embroidery and needlepoint designs; pictorial delights of filet work and lacis, a knotted and woven mesh lace; the webs of Torchon lace; and the floral motifs of Alençon and Brussels lace. They drew from this rich store and borrowed from the techniques of other needle arts, building up recognizable images out of simple graphs and exploiting geometry, circular construction, and much more.
The Englishwoman Frances Lambert was, according to Richard Rutt’s A History of Hand Knitting, “an erudite woman” who sprinkled her instructions with literary quotations and recipes in French. Her first book, The Hand-Book of Needlework, was published in 1842, and she went on to write The Ladies’ Complete Guide to Needlework and Embroidery, My Crochet Sampler, My Knitting Book, Instructions for Making Miss Lambert’s Registered Crochet Flowers, Practical Hints on Decorative Needlework, and Church Needlework With Practical Remarks on its Arrangement and Preparation, all of which were reprinted many times over.
Little is known about Lambert’s life, other than that she lived in London and was embroideress to Queen Victoria. The introduction to her 1844 book My Crochet Sampler provides some tantalizing history of crochet:
Crochet,—a species of knitting originally practised by the peasants in Scotland, with a small hooked needle called a shepherd’s hook—has, within the last seven years, aided by taste and fashion, obtained the preference over all other ornamental works of a similar nature. . . . This art has attained its highest degree of perfection in England, whence it has been transplanted to France and Germany, and both those countries, although unjustifiably, have claimed the invention.
She goes on to explain how suitable crochet is for shawls, table covers, couvre-pieds (small throws to warm the feet), pillows, ottomans, chairs, rugs, slippers, purses, and caps—all of which she provides patterns for in the book. As for “waistcoats, shawls, knee-caps, sleeves, comforters, mittens gloves, etc,” these, Lambert writes, “may be made, without difficulty in crochet.” No directions are given for these “simple articles, as, when the crochet stitch is acquired, the modes of working such, and a variety of others, in daily use, will readily present themselves.” From this we can infer that plain crochet stitches would be used to make these items, and that women had sufficient knowledge to shape them without patterns. In some publications of the period, creating a paper pattern of the garment was recommended.
This is an excerpt from Interweave Crochet Summer 2009.
Dora Ohrenstein is founder and editor of Crochet Insider. She is the author of The New Tunisian Crochet, and her video Interweave Presents: Tunisian Crochet and webinar Learn to Read Crochet Stitch Diagrams are available for download.
Featured Image: Victorian crocheters made antimacassars—which sounds much more formidable than “doilies.” Image from Weldon’s Practical Crochet Volume 1, Series 1.
Stitch your way through the history of crochet!