Crochet Comes of Age in the Victorian Era

One of my favorite things about the crochet community is its endless curiosity. We love learning new things like techniques, but we also like learning about our craft’s history. In 2016, Interweave Crochet designer and author Dora Ohrenstein wrote a brilliant series of articles on the history of crochet. She started with a deep dive into the roots of the craft in the Spring 2016 issue, then continued in the Summer 2016 issue with the following piece on crochet in the Victorian era. If you love learning about the history of crochet, read on!

The first crochet publications—the Dutch magazine Penelope of 1824 and English manuals of the 1840s—show the early seeds of lace crochet, and the decades that followed document its astonishing growth into a giant organism with many intertwining branches. Over the remainder of the century, hundreds of pattern books were published throughout Europe as the craft mounted in popularity.

Crocheted lace made a grand debut in 1851 at the Great Exhibition in London, a massive showcase for every imaginable object of manufacture, both machine- and handmade. Only a handful of entries were submitted in the category of crochet, and a prize was given for a lace dress created by Mlle Eleonore Riego de la Branchardiere, a leading designer, teacher, and promoter of the needle arts based in London.

A masterpiece of lace design, the dress features many small medallions enclosing branching leaves with flowers, no two of them alike, around a center panel of freeform floral design. Note that just five years earlier Miss Lambert wrote in The Handbook of Needlework that crochet had only a limited repertoire of stitches. The quality of this dress shows that, in the hands of an artist like Mlle Riego, crochet could achieve extraordinary beauty.

The World Where Crochet Grew

Many factors came together at the middle of the nineteenth century to nurture this crochet moment. It was an era of increasing industrialization and urbanization, with a much enlarged middle class eager to acquire all the trappings of prosperity. The demand spurred tremendous growth in the manufacturing of decorative objects for the home, available at prices that middle class families could afford.

history of crochet

Honiton Lace Border. Weldon’s Practical Crochet Series 17 in Weldon’s Practical Needlework Volume 7 (1892; facsimile ed., Loveland, Colorado: Interweave, 2002).

One might think that the traditional feminine handcrafts were bound to be neglected when finished consumer goods of all kinds were so readily available,” Thad Logan writes in The Victorian Parlour: A Cultural Study (2006). “This was, however, rather spectacularly not the case: all kinds of handcrafts flourished during this period, to an extent not seen before or since.

Multicolored threads and yarn were widely manufactured and sold to be used for embroidery, crochet, knitting, Berlin work, beadwork, appliqué, tatting, macramé, and braidwork. In the Victorian parlor, textiles—rich and flowing, highly decorated, embroidered, often beaded— were very much a part of the desired effect. Deeply padded and pillowed sofas and chairs were made even cozier by draping them with shawls, and hanging baskets were layered over with plush satin and pompom tassels. The result was a cocoon-like environment that, perhaps, offered protection from the increasingly noisy, dirty urban world outside the door.
Lace was immensely popular, both as a manufactured textile and, increasingly over the course of the nineteenth century, as the preferred type of “fancy work” done by well-brought-up ladies in the form of crochet.

Torchon Border in a Diamond Pattern. Weldon’s Practical Crochet Series 17 in Weldon’s Practical Needlework Volume 7 (1892; facsimile ed., Loveland, Colorado: Interweave, 2002).

The tambour hook was the tool that made it possible to work crochet in a whole new way, and it arrived on the scene at just the right moment. Lace crochet’s evolution can be traced to the arrival of the tambour hook in western Europe in the latter part of the eighteenth century.

When colonial activity and international trade increased during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, lavishly trimmed goods often were imported in great quantities from . . . China, Japan, India and Turkey,” write Sharon Sadako Takeda and Kay Durland Spilker, in Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail (2010). “Once Europeans developed a taste for these imported items they began to imitate materials and techniques blending exotic fashions with their own. For example, the art of embroidering with a hooked needle was popular in India and Turkey long before it worked its way into European craft production by the 1760s (when it became known as tambour work).

The History of Crochet, Ever Evolving

Late-eighteenth-century fashions were festooned with trimmings of net, braiding, and embroidery called passementerie. Professional artisans made these elaborate garments, and in their studios, techniques and tools were always evolving. Passementerie incorporated chain stitches worked with a hook—translated in French as crochet, described in a 1750 French dictionary as a small iron tool of three to four inches with a wooden handle and hooked end.

history of crochet

Narrow Passementerie Dress Trimming. Weldon’s Practical Crochet Series 14 in Weldon’s Practical Needlework Volume 6 (1891; facsimile ed., Loveland, Colorado: Interweave, 2002).

These chain-stitch embellishments can be seen as another significant stepping-stone for crochet. The tambour hook was used to make embroidered chain stitches on fabric. In passementerie, linked chains were made without a fabric base. Once the tambour hook came into the hands of textile artisans, it wouldn’t take long for them to notice that freestanding chain stitches could be worked with it, using more delicate threads.

Some time after the tambour hook’s arrival in the west and the first printed patterns in 1824, taller crochet stitches were developed. It’s also possible they arose in other places where crochet and tambour were known—Turkey, eastern Europe, and Eurasia. In any case, we know from early publications that by the nineteenth century’s first quarter, the basic stitches had grown to include chain stitch, slip stitch, single crochet, half double, and double crochet.

To read more about the Victorian history of crochet, buy the Summer 2016 issue of Interweave Crochet! (Or to get the whole series, buy the Spring, Summer, and Fall 2016 and Winter 2017 issues.) It’s part of our $1.99 magazine sale, so you’ll get this fantastic article plus 22 brilliant projects for less than you’d pay for a cup of coffee. And while you’re perusing the store, check out our other print issues from 2015 and 2016—this month, they’re all just $1.99!


Dig into the many facets of the history of crochet.

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