History · Looping · Structures · Tools

Crochet isn’t for the birds

Hooks and needles have been around immeasurably longer than any evidence of either being used in the production of looped fabric, and looping without tools all but certainly predates the use of any such implements for that craft. In fact, there’s no way even to determine if our species was the first to figure out how to do any of this.

Tailorbirds know how to draw loose fiber into thread and sew with it.

Weaverbirds know how to gather uniform strips of vegetable fiber and loop and weave them into shaped structures.

A slender pointed beak that can both pierce and grasp is remarkably well suited to the sewing and looping seen here. It is also useful for converting a needle into a hook when needed.

From the perspective of sewing tool design, the dual-purpose awl and tweezers provided by a beak is a more precise implement than the functionally equivalent index finger and opposable thumb on a human hand. There is no reason to assume that these birds developed their needlecraft and toolmaking skills before we started doing similar things but Homo sapiens can’t even claim credit for the oldest known eyed needle.

It’s a fair guess that this needle was used to pierce fabric and pull some kind of fiber through the resulting hole but that doesn’t preclude similar action at the site of the needle’s manufacture or elsewhere with other tools. It would be more of a stretch to see the needle as evidence of tool-based looping but at some point eyed needles clearly did come into use for that purpose.

There is an obvious upshot to all this. Just as there are several basic looping structures that can readily be made without tools and are seen as universal constructs, appearing independently at uncountable times and places, a battery of ubiquitous tools has been available throughout to ease and extend the production and design of looped fabric. However much local applications might diverge and whatever degree of specialized complexity a craft might ultimately acquire, at least in principle, all can be traced back to one or more elements of the same initial set of structures and tools.

In the largest number of cases, the appearance of similar techniques at widely separated times and locations is therefore best treated as coincidental. However, there are situations where corroborating evidence indicates cultural cross-pollinaton, if not the outright transfer of technology. One possible such occurrence can be seen in previous posts about the parallels between Egyptian yarncraft and Viking wirecraft, with tubular knitting appearing in each. A similar parallel is found in the looped yarncraft of the two regions.

The eyed needle was used by both communities when working with yarn but the only evidence of a hook used with that material is Egyptian (for knitting on a peg loom). The Vikings similarly appear likely to have used a hook for knitting wire but, again, there is no indication of their having used such tools to work yarn. That technique does appear in Northern Europe far later as “shepherd’s knitting” (a form of what is now called slip stitch crochet), where it is believed to have developed over an indeterminate period for producing the types of warm utilitarian garments that were also made in the same region by needlebindning.

However, there is at least one instance of shepherd’s knitting in the archaeologically recovered material from Coptic Egypt. This raises a few interesting questions. It is entirely possible that this is simply an isolated occurrence of a fairly obvious method of looping that would become commonplace at a significantly later date, both in North Africa and Northern Europe. On the other hand, if the parallels between the looping techniques in those two regions are a result of cultural interaction — of which there is otherwise ample evidence — it may be possible that the use of a hook to make crochet-type structures was communicated via those channels. I’ll get into the details of this by describing the Coptic object in a subsequent post.

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