Crochet · History · Structures · Tunisian crochet

Scottish and shepherd’s knitting revisited

Several accounts of the history of crochet in early Victorian fancywork texts mention a transition to it from shepherd’s knitting that began in the second half of the 1830s. One such statement is found in the 1844 edition of My Crochet Sampler by Frances Lambert.

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.

A textbook (that I really wish I had noticed earlier) titled Simple Directions in Needlework and Cutting Out intended for the use of the National Female Schools of Ireland was first published in 1835. The chapter on knitting has a section headed “Scotch Knitting.” Quoting pivotal material from its 1853 edition:

Scotch Or Shepherd’s Knitting.
[See Specimen, No. 29.]

1. Take one end of the thread in the left hand, and with the right place another part of the thread over it in the form of a loop.
2. Draw the thread through this loop, and make as many of them as you require stitches; they should be drawn pretty closely, and appear like chain-stitch; knit the first and last loops together to join them.
3. This sort of knitting is done with one needle only, which has a hook on the end, and there never should be more than one stitch on the needle at a time.
4. Pass the needle through a stitch on the side which is next you; turn the thread over the hook, and draw it through the loop.
5. Make another stitch, and draw it through in like manner; you will then have a second stitch [loop] upon the needle, which must be drawn through the first one, so as to have one only on the needle, and so with every remaining stitch round and round.
6. To widen, knit two stitches in one loop. To narrow, take two stitches on the needle and knit them as one. An alteration is made in the pattern of the knitting by passing the needle into the stitches on the side farthest from you, and this change may be used to finish off the edges of any article, or to diversify the general appearance.

This knitting is very generally used for infants’ woollen or cotton shoes…

It continues with a less clear description of an elastic variant of this stitching, followed by a detailed note on the relationship between shepherd’s knitting and crochet.

NOTE.—The preceding may be called the elementary stitch, known as “Crochet Stitch,” and which in the exercise of taste and ingenuity has been latterly applied with much success to the production of almost every variety of article, whether useful or ornamental. There are four varieties of the stitch, including the preceding, which are briefly described for the use of practitioners; leaving the selection to their own choice, guided by the suitableness to the purpose intended. Numberless books are now in use, giving directions and scales for their special application…

This reference to countless books with crochet instructions strongly suggests that the note and the material immediately adjacent to it are not in the initial edition. However, if the term crochet in its present sense does appear there, the earliest attested date for that craft in English-language publication would be pushed back from 1837 to 1835. Prior occurrences would then remain to be located in the putative preexisting literature.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has a copy of the original edition but it is currently unavailable for examination, pending the relocation of their storage facilities. The online copy of the 1853 edition does not include any of the physical specimens provided for on the printed pages but the museum’s 1835 copy does. Two embroidered samplers indicate the year 1847. One of them confirms that it was made at the National Female Model School, in March of that year. It is safe to assume that the other specimens were provided by the same class, although depending on how long the full course of tuition was, may have been made a year earlier or later. The museum includes the following information about Specimen 29: “The little nightcap shown here is included as an example of ‘Scotch knitting’…”

shepherds-knitting-1835© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

It is difficult to calibrate when this publication became more widely known but it may well have been the baseline for the chronology of the transition from shepherd’s knitting to crochet as recorded in the 1840s. The text also appears to have been a source for those accounts and was coopted into other books intended for school use.

One particularly interesting derivate is Plain needle-work, in all its branches; Prepared for the use of the National and Industrial Schools of the Holy Trinity, at Finchley. This uses the Q&A format seen in earlier schoolbooks on knitting, was published in 1852, and would likely have been based on the 1846 or 1850 edition of the parent text. It includes the comparison of shepherd’s knitting with crochet, so the edition used for it would have, as well (again assuming that it was not already there in 1835).

In any case, it is noteworthy that instructions for shepherd’s knitting as a distinct craft were being published in the 1850s. The final edition of Simple Directions appeared in 1861 and my to-do list includes finding out if the section on shepherd’s knitting is retained in it. Since that craft is only mentioned as a historical detail in the fancywork literature, it seems as though it maintained a more vital role in publication targeted toward other audiences.

Whatever the subsequent bibliographic trajectory of the material originating in 1835 may have been, it curtails the need for speculation about the relationship between the crafts named shepherd’s knitting and Scottish knitting. At least as far as their production with a shepherd’s hook goes, they were one and the same. However, when translated to Tricot écossais, an additional technique enters into the picture.

Eléanore Riego de la Branchardière used the French term in 1859 to designate what is now generally called Tunisian crochet (as detailed here). It can safely be assumed that she was aware of the prior usage of the English term. The label Tricot écossais may therefore have been intended to highlight the distinction between slip stitch fabric produced on a shepherd’s hook, and another species of knitting that she also saw as having roots in Scotland, produced on the similarly eponymous long cylindrical tricot hook. (A possible antecedent of that technique is discussed in another preceding post.)

By the mid-1860s, the long-hook craft and the fabric made by it, were commonly referred to simply as tricot. The label tricot écossais reemerged in 1882 in The Dictionary of Needlework by Sophia Caulfeild and Blanche Saward, designating a tricot stitch that is significantly different from the plain one. The two appear side by side in a “crochet couvrepied…which is worked in Tricot Ecossais and in Tricot, the centre strip in Tricot, and the sides in Ecossais.”


The neo-écossais may be intended to appear as a 90° rotation of the original. If so, the shared label may somehow relate to the characteristic parallel bars, whether vertical or horizontal. Either way, the interesting part about the stitch is that separate instructions are provided for making it row-by-row using a tricot hook, and stitch-by-stitch with a “small bone hook.” The latter form is labeled simply as a “crochet-fancy stitch.” (The Dictionary includes an identical embroidered “Leviathan stitch…sometimes called a railway stitch” perhaps explaining why ‘railway crochet’ appears on the list of alternate designations for tricot.)

The crochet and tricot forms of this stitch are atypical of the respective crafts. The adventuresome loopist will find the crochet instructions on page 122, accompanied by this illustration.crochet-fancy.jpg

The corresponding tricot is on page 129.caulfeild-ecossais

It may also be worth noting that the instructions for crochet tatting in the 1869 volume of Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine (discussed in the preceding post) are largely duplicated on pp. 116-17.

Sweden beat the British Isles to it in its first published description of traditional knitting with a single hook. A dialect dictionary compiled in the northern Swedish province of West Bothnia during the late 1790s includes this definition:

påta — v. (pōtă) … 2. to knit [sticka] caps, mittens, etc., with a small hook [krok].

The word påta remains an accepted designation for traditional slip stitch crochet and is found in an intervening fictional narrative from 1907 consistent in all regards with the earlier definition.

She graciously took out a half-knitted [halfstickad] mitten. to which the white wool yarn was still attached. It was påtad as the women in Norrland used to do, who with a small bone hook [benkrok] put together [påtade ihop] splendid strong mittens.

This spans the entire period covered by the documents presented above and also brings us to home territory for another traditional technique associated with strong mittens — nalbinding. Early 20th-century practitioners of that craft also used the name påta for it. Were it not for the explicit reference to the hook in the preceding snippet, it would be unclear whether the mittens were shepherd’s knit or nalbound (discussed in further detail in yet another previous post).

I’ll be discussing the possibility of technical exchange between the respective segments of the craft community in a separate post. I first want to examine the two earliest Swedish texts in which Tunisian crochet appears. In the second of them, the vernacular term krokning (hooking) is used to label the broader family of tricot stitches, of which only the plain form is called Tunisian crochet. The chapter presenting them is also sandwiched between a description of crochet tatting and an idiosyncratic stitch that can reasonably be grouped with the 1882 écossais.

2 thoughts on “Scottish and shepherd’s knitting revisited

  1. Här fastnar jag för två detaljer! Som västerbottning är det självklart roligt att läsa om den gamla användningen av ordet påta! Även om man kan anta att den funnits i andra landsändar samtidigt. Men sedan var det ju det där med “a less clear description of an elastic variant” också. Intressant – den skulle man gärna titta närmare på. Jag brukar jämföra olika sätt att virka elastiskt, eller ska jag säga olika försök att virka elastiskt, det finns ju några olika metoder att välja på.


    1. The elastic effect is produced by alternating slip stitches and chains (“knitting one stitch and slipping the next…without knitting”) in a round, and alternating the way successive rounds are worked. The instructions for joining a round to the preceding one are ambiguous, which is why I made my comment. The original text is here.


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