Crochet · History · Tunisian crochet

Scottish knitting

Frances Lambert was the first English author to discuss the history of crochet. She made a summary presentation in 1842 that she expanded two years later:

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 work of a similar nature.

Another three years later she takes credit for the pioneering aspect of her texts:

The writer claims the merit—should any exist—of introducing to general notice the art of Crochet, and being the first who described the method of working it. Heretofore, Crochet had been practiced in its most primitive shape—as a species of knitting; the stitch now recognized as Crochet, being but little known. From that period—now ten years since—Crochet has gradually progressed.

She may, indeed, have been the first to publish detailed tutorial (and historical) information about the craft in English, but Jane Gaugain began publishing “receipts” for crocheted items in 1840. If we look to other languages, the earliest instructions yet noted for crochet in the current sense appeared in Dutch in 1823.

Detailed illustrated instructions for the “primitive” crochet that had been regarded as a form of knitting until the late 1830s were published in French in 1785 and German in 1800. This is now generally called slip stitch crochet but the earlier English texts use the term “shepherd’s knitting,” and the French and German texts also describe it as knitting.

The first explicit reference to shepherd’s knitting was in a journal entry from 1812 describing its practice in the Scottish Highlands, and the craft retained a strong association with Scotland throughout. Texts from later in the 19th century also refer to it as Scottish knitting. I had initially assumed that to be a conflation of shepherd’s knitting with the more recent Tunisian crochet, the many names for which include Tricot Ecossais (lit. Scottish knitting), but now realize that the distinction may not have been that clearly cut.

Mlle. Riego de la Branchardière used the name tricot écossais in 1859 to designate the craft that was most commonly called “tricot crochet” (also using that more prosaic designation, herself).  Although there was nothing unusual about Victorian authors coining their own aliases for it, Riego’s choice is somewhat puzzling. She had used the term “Shepherd crochet” to designate a slip stitch in 1846 and would certainly have been aware of her competitor Lambert’s 1844 description of knitting with a shepherd’s hook in Scotland. The term tricot écossais thus seems a reasonable designation for shepherd’s knitting but not the best label for a distinctive new craft.

This ambiguity is compounded by the shepherd’s hook having a flat strongly tapered shape that precludes its use for even the shortest row of tricot stitches. The similarly characteristic long cylindrical tricot hook can, however, be used for slip stitch or any other form of crochet. Riego’s Tricot Ecossais can therefore plausibly have been a translated name for an established variety of crochet practiced in Scotland—as a “species of knitting”—using a long hook.

Such implements are identical to single-pointed knitting needles with hooked rather than smooth tips. Their use for knitting is attested in Northern Europe at the outset of the 19th century and there is an illustration that is likely to show one being used for some form of crochet in Scotland before 1839.

I’ll discuss this in detail in the next post (and will provide the full bibliographic details of the source documents quoted above in lengthier essays that I’ll be linking to this blog).

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