Crochet · Early instructions · Structures · Techniques

Twists and turns in the development of crochet — Part 1

Instructions for crochet began to appear in the Victorian fancywork press in 1840, presenting it as a more elaborate and fashionable successor to the long-practiced shepherd’s knitting — the slip-stitch fabric made on a flat hook discussed in several previous posts. That stitch appeared in instructions for the new craft but opinions about its utility varied and its role at the urban worktable shifted from the production of fabric to an adjunct technique.

The double crochet (UK) supplanted the slip stitch (aka single crochet) as the workhorse for closed work. However, in contrast to present-day practice where new stitches are normally worked under both legs of the chained loop that caps the corresponding stitch in the preceding row, the Victorian instructions prescribe working through only one leg of that loop. (The current terms “front loop” and “back loop” refer to the respective legs and are better read as “front of the loop” and “back of the loop.”)

Another difference between current and early Victorian practice is that fabric worked flat was not always turned at the end of each row. This technique does appear in the first published instructions (discussed in Part 2) but the alternative of cutting the yarn at the end of each row and starting all new rows from the same edge was generally preferred. The further option of crocheting in alternating directions without turning the work appears also to have been described.

I’m going to proceed by discussing such aspects of Victorian crochet and then move back to details of shepherd’s knitting that have long since disappeared from mainstream practice. Beyond the obvious purpose of describing procedures that have come and gone during the technical development of the craft, I want to call attention to crocheted structures that might not be recognized as such when assessing the method of production of non-woven fabric with an unfamiliar appearance. There are probable instances of this having happened in the analysis of some objects published in the archaeological literature, which I will also go into in detail.

In order to provide an easy path into unaccustomed terminology, I’m going to begin where the current glossary has its clearest roots and work backward from there. Two relevant texts are covered below and others will be considered in the following post.

In her Knitting, crochet, and netting from 1846, Mme. Riego issues the general instruction that:

In crochet that is worked square, at the end of a row, cut the wool off, and draw it through to fasten it; begin at the other end.

The first of the following stitch descriptions is for:

Shepherd or Single Crochet.
This stitch is usually worked round, for Cuffs,
Mufatees, Boots, &c. &c

Make a chain, join it, keep the loop on the needle.
1st round — Put the needle in the 1st chain stitch, draw the wool through; there will now be 2 loops on the needle; draw the last loop through the 1st.
In the 2nd and following rounds, take the 1st part of the chain on the needle.

Riego continues with “Plain, Double, or French Crochet” and then “Treble Crochet.” Despite the familiar labels, there are two significant differences between her single, double, and treble crochet fabrics and their contemporary counterparts. These were discussed above and are the cutting of the yarn at the end of each row worked flat, and routinely crocheting each stitch through one edge only of the chain in the preceding row — i.e., into the loop and not under it.

The latter structure was described with a name of its own by Frances Lambert in The Handbook of Needlework from 1842.

Double stitch crochet.—In this, both meshes of the chain are taken. It is principally employed for the soles of shoes, and where extra thickness is required, but it is not suitable for working patterns.

Lambert uses the term plain crochet or plain single crochet to designate a slip stitch, and plain double crochet again for what became the familiar double crochet. She notes of it that:

This is the crochet stitch generally practised, and that used for working table-covers, etc.

She then describes rows of both the single and double forms of plain crochet being worked in two directions using yet another term that was not taken into common usage.

Plain stitch elastic crochet—is worked alternately in rows backwards and forwards, first taking the upper, and then the under mesh of the chain.

A more detailed description of that process can also be read as reversing the direction of the crocheting at the end of each row without turning the work. However, the indications of direction may also be relative to the front side of the fabric, facing toward and away from the worker in alternate rows (as in contemporary knitting charts).

…a chain of sufficient length is made to serve as the foundation for the article it is intended to make. Pass the needle through the last made loop of this foundation, and, catching the silk, draw it through, repeating the same at every successive loop; then returning along this row, repeat the same to form a second. A repetition of which, alternately backwards and forwards, from right to left, and from left to right, will give the first and easiest lesson.

Lambert abandons working in two directions (however it is executed) in the immediately following first complete instruction, for “a sofa pillow or table cover,” and all others in the same section.

This pattern, be it understood, is merely given as the first and easiest pattern in crochet, for the purpose of teaching the stitch… Instead of working the rows backwards and forwards, as before described, begin each row separately at the same end. When the last stitch of each row is finished, draw the wool through, and cut it off, leaving an end of three or four inches.

There is similar ambiguity in an instruction under a later heading. This indicates that cutting the yarn at the end of every row is the ordinary method. It therefore seems likely that the following snippet should end with a reference to “plain stitch elastic crochet” (as presented above) and not the contradictory “plain crochet.”

Raised, or ribbed crochet is worked in rows from right to left, according to the ordinary method; but the side of the work is reversed at every alternate row, as in plain crochet.

Lambert also recognizes the significance of what is now termed a turning chain.

To make a stitch — at the commencement and end of a row, is to make one stitch of a chain before the first stitch, and after the last, which in the next row are to be crocheted.

This is described in greater detail as an “edge stitch” in another text from 1842 and will be considered further in the next installment.

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