While crocheting started as a practical activity, today millions of avid amateur crocheters flock to craft shops and fill the yarn aisles. Many times we want to try a new project for ourselves, often we crochet to create a unique gift for someone else, and sometimes we crochet just to hear the quiet click of our hooks after a long day.
The renewed popularity of the art of crochet has also led to a renewed interest in its history. The word ‘crochet’ is derived from the French word ‘croche’ which means ‘hook.’ While the true origins of the craft go back farther, the origins of modern crochet are commonly attributed to France and the introduction of hooks to the centuries-old art of embroidery called tambour.
Tambour is also a French word and means ‘drum.’ It is called such because of the drum-like quality of stretching a fabric over a frame. Tambour also has a long and unique history, and one that by association takes the origins of crocheting even farther back in time. The earliest similar form of needlework began in China hundreds of years ago where it was used to create decorative embroidery.
This art spread along ancient trade routes to the rest of Asia and eventually to Africa. It was here that European traders first encountered examples of the needlework and from them tambour was developed in the 18th Century. Tambour would continue to evolve in Europe until nearly one hundred years later, when seamstresses would do away with the fabric and just stitch directly against the frame. This was the first true form of crochet.
The earliest remaining reference we have to crochet comes from a knitting book published in 1812. The first patterns appeared a decade later in 1824. Not long after, entire pattern books were being sold as well as crochet how-to guides.
Though crochet began as a decorative pastime for wealthy European women, by the mid-1800’s it had spread to the middle and lower classes as a more cost-effective substitute for lace. Initially, the upper class ladies were distraught to see their elegant handiwork being mimicked by the less fortunate, but the working class women held tight to their new hobby, and soon crochet was a worldwide phenomenon.
Not long after, crochet evolved again and became a bona fide industry as Irish women whose families had been devastated by war sought new ways to earn an income from home. Even Queen Victoria collected their wares.
By the turn of the century, society was changing and crochet along with it. As new machines made practical crochet a thing of the past, it shifted toward decoration again and patterns became increasingly intricate and complex. During the Victorian era, crochet doilies were hugely popular as an elegant means of protecting wooden furniture and even as a status symbol among ladies. It has even been said that a young lady’s doilies were a mark of her maturity and preparation for marriage, and that she was ready to wed once she had completed at least ten, which she would take with her to her new home.
After the First World War, crocheting became less popular as women focused their time and energies elsewhere, but by the Second World War, crocheting and crafts in general experienced a return to popularity. Today, there are thousands of crochet patterns, hundreds of types of yarn, and dozens of publications serving a community of crocheters that numbers in the millions.