Sweden is a good place to be located for someone researching the historical and contemporary use of flat hooks for slip stitch crochet. It’s only a thirty minute walk from the desk where this blog is maintained to a folkcraft store in central Stockholm that regularly stocks such hooks, so it was easy for me to gear up for testing my findings experimentally. (A few years ago flat hooks were to be had just around the corner at a local yarn store that has since closed.) Books about the traditional Swedish practice are currently in print and tools survive from the late-18th century. This is also when evidence of comparable traditions begins to appear at other locations significantly enough distant from each other to make investigating the possibility of cultural and technological exchange worthwhile.
The earliest illustrated description of flat-hook slip stitch crochet was published in France in 1785. I discussed it in detail in a previous post but overlooked the importance of something stated in that document. Here is the drawing once again.
The caption says, “Fig. D, crochet intended for use with very large objects, and which is larger to produce more open stitches.” This clearly indicates that flat hooks were made in varying sizes and selected as appropriate to the intended stitching. Adding some curvature, the basic shape of the French hooks comfortably matches that of a Swedish hook from the same period in the collections of the Nordic Museum (image cropped, as are the two following ones, with the full attribution and licensing details available here).
It is made of silver and bears a Swedish hallmark that was first used in 1778 by Arvid Vernström (d. 1810). This suggests that the flat-hook craft had well-to-do practitioners alongside those working under more rustic circumstances. The latter context is reflected by an undated flat hook in the collections of the Vänersborg Museum (attribution here) showing that such tools were also made in varying gauges.
Yet another hook in the collections of the Nordic Museum (attribution here) shows the same secondary taper toward the tip and it seems clear that this dimension of a flat hook was matched to the gauge of the stitching and weight of the yarn.
I didn’t recognize the full significance of a document from 1812, either, when I made summary reference to it in another previous post. This is The Memoirs of a Highland Lady by Elisabeth Grant, where the English term “shepherd’s knitting” and its special hook first appear.
“…he wore a plaid cloak, and a nightcap, red or white, made by his industrious wife in a stitch she called shepherd’s knitting; it was done with a little hook which she manufactured for herself out of the tooth of an old tortoise-shell comb, and she used to go on looping her home-spun wool as quick as fingers could move, making not only caps, but drawers and waistcoats for winter wear…”
It is not possible to reconcile the shape of the hook in the 1785 drawing or either of the photos from the Nordic Museum with anything that might be made from the tooth of a comb. However, a hook fashioned in that manner can easily be compared to the thin finely tapered segment of the hook at the Vänersborg Museum.
Illustrated descriptions of the more recent Scottish flat-hook tradition — cleekit — (see def. 12 via that link) show a hook resembling Fig. C in the 1785 drawing and also include narrative descriptions of those made from the teeth of combs. Practitioners of the craft also regard it as knitting rather than crochet. This can all be seen in a presentation held by Louise Scollay at the In the Loop at 10 conference at the Winchester School of Art last June, titled Archive Treasure: Cleekit Gloves, with relevant additional commentary in a following panel discussion.
We know that shepherd’s knitting was the same as slip stitch crochet by collating descriptions in the Victorian fancywork press. The first relevant statement was made by Frances Lambert in 1844.
“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.”
This was followed in 1846 with a description by Eléanore Riego de la Branchardière of a “Shepherd or Single Crochet” as a slip stitch in its current form. However, the association the Victorian descriptions make between the shepherd’s hook and the slip stitch is not reflected in Dutch crochet instructions from 1833. These illustrate a flat hook and simply note its suitability “for coarse work in yarn or thick knitting cotton” without relating it to any specific stitch.
By that date the stitch repertoire in the Netherlands included everything from the slip stitch to treble crochet (UK as with all following stitch names). Although going beyond double crochet with a strongly tapered flat hook is impracticable, a more gently tapered one can be used without difficulty for double crochet and is not inordinately troublesome for treble. Notwithstanding, traditional schools that use flat hooks are generally focused on the slip stitch, and a basic association between the tool and technique remains.
The incipient blurring of the boundary between the older and younger varieties of this species of knitting is further highlighted by Lambert noting in 1842 that crochet hooks “are sometimes called Shepherds’ hooks” (her italics). Her characterization of the original Scottish shepherd’s hook as “a small hooked needle” is a poor match to a broad flat hook but is reasonably close to the thin finely tapered segment of the one in Vänersborg. Riego’s 1846 labeling of the primary stitch of shepherd’s knitting as a “shepherd crochet” further illustrates the bridge between the two crafts.
This may all reflect nothing more than nomenclatural inertia and, in any case, present-day slip stitch crocheters commonly use ordinary crochet hooks. Nonetheless, having noted that purpose-made flat hooks can also be used for treble crochet allows for the possibility of taller stitches appearing in shepherd’s knitting after the Victorian transition to crochet in its present form, if not earlier.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
If it can be dated correctly to the 18th century, it would pretty much have to be categorized as shepherd’s knitting. The problem is that its primary stitch is treble crochet, which is otherwise unattested at that time.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
If it is from the 19th century, the stitch is no longer anachronistic but a fine-gauge hook would still be required. This can credibly be provided by one of the Vänersborg design or a smaller tool corresponding to its hooked segment, as might be fashioned from the tooth of a comb.
The cap can also be a deliberate attempt by a later crocheter at making something with a rustic appearance, unaware of the slip stitch being an identifying characteristic of shepherd’s knitting, or simply unconcerned with that level of detail. Whatever the correct explanation may be, it seems clear that the flat hook has never had a tightly set form. There are many additional examples with the configurations illustrated above, as well as of characteristic designs in other regions. In at least the north European traditions considered here, they clearly have been made in gauges appropriate for both light and heavy yarn.
It is not possible to know whether people working fabric with Riego’s shepherd crochet saw any relationship between it and its namesake. However, the Swedish flat hook in hallmarked silver, as well as the Dutch instructions from 1833, indicate that the craft from which they emanated was practiced at the urban worktable. There would be no reason for surprise if it should be determined that objects conceptualized in that manner were not rigorously restricted to the slip stitch.