Crochet · Examples · History

Crochet is old hat

I attended the In the Loop at 10 conference at the Winchester School of Art last week and wrapped up my stay in England with a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s textile study facility, The Clothworkers’ Centre. I shifted from event participation to personal exploration mode at the Winchester City Museum where archaeologically-recovered material relevant to the general theme of the excursion was on display.  My friend Dora Ohrenstein was present on all three occasions and discussions with her provided additional useful perspectives on what was seen and heard.

This all left me with a heightened understanding of loopery, to say nothing of fuel for new blog posts. I’m not sure if or how the conference presentations are going to be made publicly available and will wait for clarification before posting anything based on them beyond micro-reviews of the presentations that were most compellingly close to my own interests. These covered things ranging from beknottedness, through cleeking (referenced in passing below), to the perennial favorite — systematological nomenclature.

I’m going to start with an 18th-century English cap that I was kindly permitted to examine at the Clothworkers’ Centre. A photograph with the V&A’s catalog details can be seen here. The September 2016 issue of Slip Knot, the Journal of the Knitting and Crochet Guild, includes a report by Lindy Zubairy of its examination during the KCG’s own visit to the study center earlier the same year.

“…an intriguing little cap, dated somewhere vaguely between 1700 and 1800, yet undoubtedly crochet. There is very little evidence of any crochet being worked before 1800. So is this the earliest known example? Or are the dates wrong? Using a magnifier we were able to make out the back-loop-only treble stitches [UK], a spiralling increase in the round, and evidence of short row shaping.”

As I was expecting, it was immediately apparent that this description is entirely correct. The cap was worked top down in treble crochet (retaining UK terminology throughout this post) with a number of rows worked fully in the round and shaped with increases, followed by several short rows for additional shaping, and continuing to the bottom of the cap with rows successively shortened by cutting the yarn after a decreasing number of stitches.

That technique is not mentioned in the KCG report. The stitches in the cap were worked in the same direction throughout. This means that the yarn was cut at the end of each row that was not crocheted all around. The side selvages were not finished particularly well and numerous yarn ends had loosened, assuming that they were securely fixed to begin with. The lack of proficiency with this detail is in noteworthy contrast to the apparent skill with which the fabric was otherwise worked.

The intended shape of the crown of the cap is similarly unclear. The increases in the spiral rows are too numerous to produce a smooth contour and progressively larger pleats may have been worked deliberately from the sides toward the top of the crown. However, the increases were not distributed with particular symmetrical accuracy, again at variance with the general quality of the crafting. One possible explanation is that the cap was a practice piece for someone skilled in an allied yarn art but less familiar with some of the component techniques of crochet.

The rustic appearance of the hat is consistent with the assessment of its age to sometime in the 1700s. However, the only form of solid-work crochet that is otherwise documented from that date is the slip stitch fabric commonly referred to as “shepherd’s knitting,” described and illustrated in printed sources beginning in the last quarter of the century. On the other hand, treble crochet is not attested until the 1820s. Cutting the yarn at the end of a row rather than turning the fabric, was a recommended practice for double crochet well into the 1840s, and into the 20th century for slip stitch. Working single-loop-only for all stitches remained the standard until at least the middle of the 19th century.

In any case, the stitches in the cap are of too fine a gauge to have been made with the strongly-tapered flat hook that is normally associated with shepherd’s knitting. Nor is such a “shepherd’s hook” (cleek in Scots) well suited for anything other than slip stitch crochet (practiced as cleekit in Scotland at least through the 1950s). So in addition to the KCG’s question about the possibility of this being the oldest known example of crochet (a judgment I suggest deferring until other candidate pieces have been fully evaluated), it can also be wondered if the technical resources of shepherd’s knitting were more nuanced than the slip stitching with which it was equated in the Victorian fancywork literature.

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