I’ve devoted an inordinate amount of blog space to slip stitch fabric made with a hook, tracing it back along a number of paths to its first appearance in printed sources in the mid-18th century, and discussing objects made in that manner found in museum collections. I’m going to restore some balance with material and written evidence of European hooked openwork from the same period, starting with an elaborate Robe à la Française (sack-back gown) in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (accession number 1995.235a,b), dated to the 1740s.
I saw it in their exhibition Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade,1500–1800 in late 2013. This was about a year before my focused interest in looped fabric was kindled. I therefore didn’t take particular notice of a wide strip of chain mesh passementerie providing a prominent yoke around the dress extending to its hem, with a second piece of the same mesh along the hem between the ends of the yoke. In early 2016, my friend Dora Ohrenstein called my attention to their potential relevance to the chronology of crochet. The ensuing discussion cascaded into a seminar on differentiating crocheted fabric from that made with other looped techniques, arranged by and held at The Met in May 2016.
The dress wasn’t accessible for examination alongside the other objects presented to the seminar participants. One of the questions we had otherwise hoped to be able to answer was whether the chain mesh had been affixed to the dress when it was first made, thus conferring the 1740s date on it, or could have been a later addition. We did get to take a close look at two specimens of comparable passementerie dated to the 18th century. I documented them in detail and let the dress slip out of mind.
Chained passementerie made with a crochet is attested in 1653 and may be what was meant by “chayne lace” in wardrobe inventories beginning in 1588. Published descriptions of the use of a hook to produce chain-based closed-work fabric appear from 1785 and onward. This is invariably presented as a type of knitting, which English sources call “shepherd’s knitting.” Although closed and openwork crochet are now regarded as two facets of a homogeneous craft, passementerie and shepherd’s knitting were the provinces of entirely separate practitioner communities.
The former is characterized by a diamond chain mesh that can be classified by the length of the free chains between its nodal points. An undated French text (published in or before 1848) shows openwork crochet maille de chaîne joined at the third loop in what is initially made as a five-loop segment.
The exemplars at The Met all show seven-loop segments successively anchored to the midpoints of those in the preceding row. Here is a detail from one of the unattached pieces shown at the seminar.
This is structurally identical to the mesh found on the dress and both are embellished with similarly fashioned floral elements. If the dates ascribed to the unattached passementerie and dress are correct, the passementerie on the latter can reasonably be of the same age whether or not it was attached at the outset.
The first attested use of the term crochet to designate a fabric structure rather than a tool appears in Dutch instructions from 1823 for “a hooked purse in simple openwork crochet” [Een gehekeld beursje, au crochet simple à jour]. They prescribe diamond mesh with the same free chain length seen above, with a stylized illustration (possibly showing beads at the nodes), but unequivocal wording. They are translated in their entirety and discussed further in a previous post, with the drawing repeated here.
The instructions state that the purse can be made with silk thread or metal wire. The collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London include a freeform chain mesh “metallic lace border” (accession number T.24-1980) dated to ca. 1700. It is made with flat strips of gilded copper wrapped over a silk core, as are the two pieces of unattached passementerie at The Met.
Here is a detail of its construction showing decorative elements worked integrally into the chain structure.
The V&A’s description says that it was made with a hook and may instantiate the chain lace that appears in earlier inventories. However, the further commentary vacillates between categorizing it as “crochet,” “technically…a form of crochet,” and “built up in chains with a hooked needle.”
Hooked chains are illustrated in a volume of plates published in 1763 for the Diderot Encyclopédie, this time in the context of tambour embroidery. In two of the images the chain is shown free from the base fabric, deliberately or coincidentally illustrating its congruence with a crocheted “air stitch,” as it is called in several languages. The front of this structure is oriented here as it appears when crocheted from left to right.
It can be made without any tools at all, is also a structural element of fabric made with an eyed needle, and is encountered in other situations related to fabric production. It has no intrinsic craft identity and therefore cannot be classified unambiguously in terms specific to any of the contexts in which it appears. The V&A piece is only one case among many where uncertainty besets the classification of a looped chain.
The description of the purse from 1823 justifies treating diamond chain mesh made with a hook as crochet without further qualification. However, the V&A passementerie overburdens the accepted systematic definition of crochet as “vertical and lateral interlooping” — an expression used to distinguish such fabric from knitting, which is “vertical interlooping” only. The V&A chains take paths that have no quantifiable directionality, nor is the interlooping at the nodal points both vertical and lateral.
The ISO 4915:1991 standard, Textiles — Stitch types — Classification and terminology, makes a distinction between, “intralooping: the passing of a loop of thread through another loop [formed] by the same thread,” illustrated with a “single thread chain stitch,”
and “interlooping: the passing of a loop of thread through another loop formed by a different thread.”
The first definition is immediately suitable for the present discussion. If the second is extended to “the passing of a loop of thread through another loop formed by a different thread or a noncontiguous preceding segment of the same thread,” it is also fully applicable.
This would permit the classification of a chain of loops as an autonomous intralooped structure that inherits further taxonomic properties from whatever might be worked into it, or it worked into. If that action forms fabric by the successive interlooping of adjacent chains, with each loop in a new chain passing through the corresponding one in the preceding chain, the primary structure of the aggregate is a “slip stitch.” Since the same term denotes something quite different in knitting, additionally qualifying it as a “crochet-type slip stitch” might be advisable.
It is entirely reasonable to classify this as “vertical and lateral interlooping.” However, that heading does not provide a commensurate slot for openwork mesh produced by joining individual loops in one chain to individual loops in another chain at separated points along their length. Unless the nodes in the mesh include at least two adjacent loops in each chain, it is incorrect to describe the interlooping as having both vertical and lateral components. Although it would do nothing to solve that problem, since the type of mesh typified by the V&A piece has no specifiable directional attributes, a more appropriate category heading for it might be something along the lines of “freeform interlooping.”
The tutorial texts about crochet that began to appear in the Victorian fancywork press in 1840 distinguish between “plain crochet” as defined above, and “open crochet.” The latter includes both diamond mesh and the now more commonplace filet mesh that separates straight horizontal chains with vertical “posts.” The height of the mesh is set through the familiar sequence of stitches with increasingly taller posts — double crochet (US), treble crochet, etc. — and the horizontal separation is determined by the number of intervening chained loops.
Although not normally regarded as a post, the detail that distinguishes a slip stitch from a single crochet (US) is produced in fundamentally the same manner as the taller posts are. Regardless of their height, posts are closely allied with the slip stitch in both structural and procedural terms. The advent of the post was a watershed in the development of crochet and provides a robust demarcation between what might be termed “modern crochet” and the indeterminately older shepherd’s knitting and chained passementerie that can be seen as its precursors.