Crochet · Early instructions · Nalbinding · Structures · Techniques

Twists and turns in the development of crochet — Part 3

The authors whose writings illustrate the early Victorian practice of crochet in the preceding installments of this series (Part 1Part 2) continued to publish extensively about the craft. Its development can be traced through each of their works and is concordant across them all. Frances Lambert is particularly clear in relating crochet to the predecessor craft of shepherd’s knitting and I’m going to wrap things up by focusing on how her perspective of the differences between them shifted during the 1840s (also summarizing snippets presented more fully in an earlier post on Scottish Knitting).

In The Handbook of Needlework, from 1842, Lambert notes that crochet had come into fashion only four years earlier “although long known and practised.” She published the first book devoted exclusively to crochet, My Crochet Sampler, in the following year (the 1844 printing is available online). It specifies the earlier form as “a species of knitting originally practised by the peasants in Scotland, with a small hooked needle called a shepherd’s hook.”

In the same work, Lambert defines “plain single crochet” and “plain double crochet.” These correspond to the present single (or slip stitch) crochet and double crochet (UK) with one key difference. The initial forms were worked into the front leg of the chained loop at the top of the corresponding stitch in the preceding row — a technical detail designated as “plain” (now abbreviated FLO; front loop only) — rather than under the entire loop (“both loops”), as is the current standard.

Lambert published a revised second edition of the Sampler in 1848, again emphasizing that:

“Heretofore, Crochet had been practised in its most primitive shape—as a species of knitting; the stitch now recognised as Crochet, being but little known. From that period—now ten years since—Crochet has gradually progressed.”

The reference to “the stitch now recognised as Crochet” and the dropped mention of the Scottish tradition are significant. Lambert and her contemporaries emphasize that a crochet stitch presented without further specification is to be taken as a “plain double crochet.” The 1848 Sampler labels this a “plain stitch crochet” and does not include the definition of plain single crochet that appeared in 1843.

Lambert describes several additional stitches, some of which are relevant to the present discussion. Here is double crochet worked into the back leg of the loop. (Although the concordance between the legs when designated as back/front or top/bottom is not always clear, in this case the description of the stitch provides the requisite context.)

Raised, or ribbed crochet,—sometimes called elastic crochet—is worked in the same manner as plain stitch crochet, with this exception—the under loops of the stitches of the previous row are always to be taken. It is worked in rows backwards and forwards.”

Double crochet can also be worked under the two legs of the loop rather than into it.

“Double stitch crochet—is worked in the same manner as plain stitch crochet, with the exception that both loops (the upper and under) of the stitch of the preceding row are taken. It is only employed where extra thickness is required,—as for the soles of shoes.”

This extends her 1842 description (noted in Part 1) and drops the earlier constraint that “it is not suitable for working patterns,” taking a step toward eliminating the constraint on inserting the hook under both legs of the loop. There is also a significant structural difference between stitches worked into the loop and those worked under the loop but not into it. The former has a stronger affiliation with knitting that does the latter, providing greater justification for categorizing shepherd’s knitting as a species of knitting than there is for any form of crochet worked under the entire loop.

The visual effect of the changed technique, as that of turning the work at the end of each row rather than the waning practice of cutting the yarn, was to equalize the appearance of the two sides of flat crocheted fabric. Beginning each row from the same edge otherwise preserves the difference in appearance between the front and back, which is particularly marked with slip stitch crochet. That contrast is prominent even when it is worked in the round, as seen in extant shepherd’s knitting where both sides are juxtaposed on the public face of the fabric.

Two ways of changing their orientation were presented in the preceding installment. One is found in an instruction by Lambert for a slip-stitched bootee: “When finished it is turned inside out.” The other is a less obvious technique described by Jane Gaugain in 1842.

“It is not necessary to work an edge stitch [i.e., turning chain] on a round, but only where the work requires to be turned to the wrong side, in order to work round the other way.”

Slip stitch crochet itself successively disappeared as a method for producing fabric, as signaled by the difference in the 1843 and 1848 editions of My Crochet Sampler. It reemerged in the encyclopedic reviews of 19th-century fancywork published later in the century and the beginning of the following one (illustrated in a previous post on Bosnian crochet). Some recent pedagogical material fully reinstates it, illustrating the common legacy stitches and variants that only appear sporadically in the earlier repertoire. Nonetheless, there was a relatively long period when crocheters would likely have had difficulty recognizing shepherd’s knitting (by any name).

That interval spanned the late 1940s and mid-1950s, when the broader research community was first becoming aware of the distinction between the crafts of nalbinding and knitting. The joint applicability of these techniques for producing the structure alternately termed cross-knit looping and twisted-stitch knitting has been discussed in a number of previous posts.

The back side of FLO slip stitch crochet also has a superficial resemblance to that structure. Although someone familiar with the craft would immediately recognize the difference, that erudition was not shared by all of the participants in the initial discussion of the candidate production methods. As a result, some exemplars of shepherd’s knitting were identified as nalbinding, with the conflation of the two crafts in earlier research reports echoed in more recent studies.

On the other hand, the basic slip-stitch structure that characterizes shepherd’s knitting can also be made with an eyed needle pulling a single strand of yarn. Pending the identification of decisive secondary detail equivalent to that used to differentiate nalbinding from true knitting with regard to the cross-knit structure, it is safest to stipulate that there can be reasonable contention about the craft identity of a given slip-stitched object.

However, if the object under examination includes shaped details such as the toe or heel of a sock, the practicability of the respective techniques can also be factored into the evaluation. I’ll be discussing a few such equivocal descriptions of potential historical significance in separate posts. These put nalbinding in contexts where it is otherwise unknown and date the crochet-type slip-stitch structure far earlier than can be corroborated by any other evidence.

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