Many articles and researches have been written about the origin of crochet as a fiber art. However, to this day there is still no one distinctive evidence as to where and when exactly it was originated.
I personally am less interested in how it all started and more interested in its development over the years and how it was influenced by historical events and characters thought the course of time.
If you would like to know more about it as well, then keep on reading and find out all about it!
The Roots of hand-made lace-making
All evidence show, that crochet at its early stages was mainly used to make different kinds of lace work. In 16th century Italy it was known as 'nun's work' or 'nun's lace' and was mainly made in monasteries for use in church textiles.
This form of lace-making then migrated from Italy to France with the help of King Louis the 14th. At the time, most lace was imported to France from Italy. Concerned with the outflow of money, the king’s finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert banned its import and brought skilled teachers from Venice to Normandy to instruct locals on how to create a distinct handmade lace known as Point de France. France then rose to fame as the producer of the world’s finest handmade lace, which was often referred to as “the lace of queens”.
During the 19th century, many of Normandy’s lace artisans were killed or fled France, yet the craft was preserved with a lacemaking school at a Benedictine monastery in the village of Argentan, where a secluded cloister of French nuns continues making it the old way to this day. Although running a needle lace atelier is not profitable, the sisters are determined to preserve this old and delicate tradition.
French Lace Fragment, early 18th Century
Crochet lace-work saves the Irish people
In the mid 19th century, the Irish people were suffering tremendously of the potato famine. Enter Eleonore Riego de la Branchardière - This young talented lady published her first book in 1846 at the early age of 18! Her book titled "Knitting, Crochet and Netting" revolutionized the world of crochet and influenced the fashion of the Victorian era. This ground breaking book was the first of 72 written by the skilled designer, who was best known for her ability to take old-style needle and bobbin lace designs and turn them into crochet patterns that could easily be duplicated.
Following her book, Irish men and women (and even children!) were able to create in-demand fashion for England's ladies, which proved a reliable source of income for many Irish families during the harsh crisis. Irish workers were organized into crochet cooperatives. Schools were formed to teach the skill and teachers were trained and sent all over Ireland. Before you knew it, the workers were soon creating new patterns of their own.
The Irish economy survived due to this unexpected development. In fact, to this day, lace-work crochet is best known worldwide as 'Irish Crochet'.
Antique Irish Crochet Lace
Crochet takes its rightful place
Having been invented as a method for producing a cheaper substitute for traditional lace, crochet struggled to shake off its reputation as an inferior craft. However, that changed when Queen Victoria gave it the royal seal of approval by buying crocheted lace made by Irish women who were struggling to make a living after the potato famine. The Queen even learned to crochet herself and made eight scarves for veterans of the South African War.
Out of those eight scarves, four were earmarked for members of colonial units, with one each going to "the most distinguished private soldier" serving in the forces of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa (with the primary qualification being gallant conduct in the field). The other four went to members of the British regular army. The scarf itself carried no particular rank and was not formally a form of decoration in the British army. However, to have received a scarf from the Queen would have no doubt been a great honor.
Questions have been raised as to whether or not Queen Victoria had crocheted the scarves herself. It was reported that during the presentation of the scarf in Australia by The Duke of York (later King George V), the Duchess of York (later Queen Mary) had informed one recipient that she had helped the eighty-two year old Queen when she had dropped stitches whilst making the scarves.
You can still see some of the eight scarves today! There is one on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Canada, and another is on permanent display at the Australian War Memorial in Campbell, Australia.
Queen Victoria taking on this form of craft finally put crochet in its rightful place. Being fit for a queen, the ladies of the kingdom were eager to learn it. By the end of her reign, England was, as you might say, hooked!
Alfred Du Frayer wearing Queen Victoria's hand-crocheted scarf
Crochet became part of the wartime effort on both the first and second world war. Women on the home front could contribute by hooking up items for the troops.
In order to recruit “armies of knitters”, relief organizations published posters, fliers, and patterns; and sponsored activities such as knitting parties, knit-ins, and parades. They even sponsored and advertised contests for the most prolific knitters: those who produced record-numbers of knitted and crocheted “comforts.”
Yarn and needlework-pattern companies were also committed to supporting the cause. They published booklets including - and sometimes exclusively devoted to - patterns for fighting men and war victims.
All this propaganda was extremely effective. The popularity of knitting and crocheting was spiking. Crocheting in public was a display of patriotism, as it was immediately assumed that you were making items which are to be sent to the front.
There are many stories and testimonies of thankful warriors and victims, sometimes writing thank you notes, a few of which made it back to the makers of the donated items. The campaign, and the propaganda that fueled it, proved to be successful all around: for the warriors, the wounded, the displaced, and even the knitters and crocheters themselves.
World War I Knitting Propaganda
The golden age of crochet
The growing popularity of crochet came to its all time peak during the 60's and 70's. Those were the days when crochet boom really began. Crochet wearables came in all shapes and sizes and were very 'In Fashion' - dresses, vests, sweaters, scarves, skirts, hats and even pants! Crochet homeware and decoration items were a HUGE hit.
The traditional ‘granny square’ even made it into Vogue Magazine. Being a simple design, it could be used to make a huge variety of clothes and accessories. The crochet trend made it into movies and TV series, and celebrities, both men and women, included it into their wardrobe.
Some crochet looks became iconic, such as Cher's 1967 crochet dress in net-like look and 1971 filet crochet top. Clint Eastwood was featured in Playboy's men’s fashion spread wearing a granny square vest (and rocking it, may I say!).
The cultural changes of the 60's - when every type of convention was challenged - stimulated all the arts, crochet included. Crochet broke free from traditional patterns in numerous ways, most notably in the development of what we now call freeform crochet.
For almost two decades, crocheted clothing became a fashion statement. Then, the 80's came and crochet was out of Vouge. The following decades of the 20th century fashion were anything but crochet friendly.
Clint Eastwood in a granny square vest
Amigurumi is the Japanese art of knitting or crocheting small, stuffed yarn creatures. The word is the blend of the words 'ami' and 'nuigurumi', and it means crocheted or knitted stuffed toy or doll.
The specific origins of amigurumi remain unclear to this day, but there is a general conception that the core development of this form of crochet and knitting took place in Japan. Some historians claim that the origin of this art can be found in China, where there are records of crocheted and knitted dolls from the Shang dynasty. The craft started to take hold in Japan with the interaction between China and Japan at the beginning of the 17th century.
In the 19th century, as trading was established between Japan and Europe, the western methods of knitting and crochet migrated to the east along the trade routs. At the beginning of the 20'th century, at the verge of WWI, more and more Japanese women were encouraged to take over the craft and learn the art of western style needle-work. There are actually some records of Japanese crochet patterns for small stuffed animals published in 1927.
The first actual amigurumi doll in the form we know today appeared in the early 1970's. At this time, the kawaii culture emerged - and characters such as 'Hello Kitty' became more and more popular. Alongside the Anime and Manga, which were also at their early stages at the time, these sub-cultures contributed to the development of amigurumi as an art.
The movement gained its actual footing at the early 2000's, when amigurumi finally "hit" the United States of America. The blend of eastern and western cultures embodied in the amigurumi dolls, together with growing popularity of Japanese pop culture in the US, gave amigurumi the final boost and finally brought it to where it is today.
Early 70's amigurumi duck
Public displays of crochet
In the early 2000's, inspired by the popular art of Graffiti, Yarn Bombing was born. This form of street art may vary greatly in style, aesthetics, and meaning. While yarn bombing can be used to make deep meaningful statements about the world around us, in most cases the purpose is simple - to create something fun and beautiful just because it might make someone else's day.
The practice is believed to have originated in the U.S. with Texas knitters trying to find a creative way to use their leftover and unfinished knitting projects. The start of this movement has been attributed to Magda Sayeg from Houston, who said she first got the idea in 2005 when she covered the door handle of her boutique with a custom-made cozy.
In the beginning, it mainly included large pieces of crochet or knit work joined together around trees or street posts. It was fairly random and carried no special meaning. As the movement grew and spread to more and more countries around the world, artists began designing custom items to fit specific places and express a specific meanings or raise specific feelings. The movement moved on from simple 'cozies' with the innovation of the 'stitched story' - a concept which uses handmade amigurumi creatures, characters, and items to tell a narrative or show a theme.
Unlike earlier forms of fiber art, yarn bombing emerged in the time of the internet, which helped it grow rapidly and spread like wildfire. Pretty soon it evolved and some big cities created outside galleries and invited local fiber artists to display their work.
Although still illegal in some places, 'guerilla' yarn bombing is more commonly looked fondly upon. Most laws concerning it refer to the artists responsibility to remove their work and dispose of it in an organized manner before it becomes a hazard or causes a damage to the environment. If left behind, installations can become soggy and synthetic fibers litter the surroundings. Yarn placed around trees for a long period of time can restrict sap production and constrict growth
Today you can find yarn bombing collectives and organized groups in almost every major city. They hold monthly meeting, plan joint events and sometime compete with one another. There's even an international yarn-bombing day - June 11. The first-ever Yarn Bombing Day took place on the 11th of June 2011, and it has been going strong ever since!
Yarn Bombing Day in Buffalo
The next step
It’s never really gone away, but today crochet is having a bit of a renaissance. From Dior to Dolce & Gabbana, it’s a regular feature on the catwalk. I myself am extremely curious to find out what the next big development will be and how it will change the world of our art. Who knows? Somewhere around the world at this very minute, someone might be starting that 'something new' which will soon make its break into our lives. We'll wait and see :)
Crochet on the runway - Dolce & Gabbana spring 2020