Crochet · Early instructions · History

German crochet instructions from 1828

Several posts during the first months of this blog provide translations of Dutch instructions from 1823 for a number of purses made with different looping techniques. They include three that are crocheted and mark the first use of the word crochet to designate the craft now widely known by that name. That term isn’t attested in English language text until 1840 but its German equivalent — häkeln — began to appear in publication at the end of the first decade of that century. Its literal meaning is “to hook” but early references may designate techniques other than crochet that employ a tambour embroidery needle (shown here in an illustration from 1763).

tambour needle

Despite the uncertain semantics, häkeln had clearly acquired its present sense by the 1820s. The Dutch instructions use the cognate hekelen and the explicitly French crochet synonymously. What may be the first use of crochet (“hook”) in French texts as the name of a craft rather than a tool, denotes loom knitting. It appears in instructions from 1826 by Élisabeth Bayle-Mouillard (writing as Élisabeth Celnart) for another purse discussed and translated here.

It would seem likely that crochet was used in the current sense in French discourse prior to the Dutch publication. However, the first attested occurrence of such usage is in French instructions, yet again for a purse, incongruously embedded in an anonymous compilation of knitting instructions from 1837 that is otherwise entirely in English (seen unaltered in the 2nd ed. from 1838; the 5th ed. from 1840 names the “compiler” as Miss Watts).

The translation presented below is of the chapter “About Crochet” (Vom Häckeln), in a domestic handbook by Elisabeth Klarin from 1829, “The Well-Educated and Self-Taught Housekeeper” (Die wohlunterrichtete und sich selbst lehrende Haushälterin). As Hanna Bäckström (whose PhD dissertation about the developing publication platform for knitting and crochet patterns during the 19th century is forthcoming in Textile Studies at Uppsala University) notes in a comment on the initial posting, it is a verbatim repetition of material published the year before by Charlotte Leidenfrost, in her “Small Handbook on Pleasant and Useful Activities for Young Women” (Handbüchlein zur angenehmen und nützlichen Beschäftigung für junge Damen). I was unaware of the 1828 publication date when giving this post its title and have now changed it accordingly.

The preface to Leidenfrost’s book says that it originated with a request for a free translation of the Bayle-Mouillard manual. Although, the outcome does reflect much of the earlier material, Leidenfrost’s chapter on crochet goes far beyond what Bayle-Mouillard said about it and cannot be seen as a translation, even with the greatest editorial latitude. (I’ll discuss the French text further in a separate post.)

As with the Dutch crochet instructions from 1823, the German ones use a tambour embroidery needle. The earlier instructions change the color of the thread between bands that are each several rounds wide. The later ones include multithread single crochet (US) colorwork in both its intarsia and stranded forms. The instructions for the latter prescribe the use of a mesh gauge, a basic tool of netting.

This is obviously intended to ensure adequate ease in the floats but the orientation of the work is confusingly indicated. It seems that the effect (public) side of the fabric is folded inward over the gauge. However, the instructions go on to state that crochet can only be worked with the effect side toward the worker. This eliminates the option of the piece being turned inside out and stitched from the reverse side but still doesn’t clarify the requisite detail.

I’ve therefore retained the ambiguity in the pivotal sentence (at the end of the sixth paragraph) and avoided other disambiguation where alternate readings are at all possible. The translation is also broken into shorter sentences and paragraphs, and passive instructions in the form of “one makes” are restated declaratively as “make.”

About Crochet

Since this resembles knitting in so many ways, we are only describing it in passing. It is not made with knitting needles but with an ordinary tambour embroidery needle [Tambournadel]. Cordonnet silk is used because no other material is twisted and plied tightly enough. It can be started in different ways, the best of which is as follows:

Take a piece of finger-wide linen tape somewhat longer than the width of what you want to crochet and sew a row of festoon stitches along its edge, matching the intended width and number of [crochet] stitches. This depends somewhat on the size of the thread but a normal purse is about 180 stitches. The festoon stitches are, of course, made with a sewing needle and serve only to provide a start by which the work can be held. As soon as it is completed the festoon stitches are cut off together with the tape.

Insert the tambour needle into the first of these stitches and a pull a loop of the actual working thread through it. Insert the needle in the second stitch and pull another loop through it. Wrap the thread around the hooked tip of the needle and pull it through both of these loops. This forms a new loop that is kept on the needle, which is then inserted into the next stitch and pulls a loop through it. Again wrap the thread around the needle and pull it through both loops, etc.

This creates a chain that easily comes undone, as with tambour embroidery. To prevent that from happening when setting the work aside, secure the loop with a needle or pull the ball of thread through it. When the end of the thread has been reached and a new length is started, crochet it over the end of the old thread by holding the latter in front of the working thread, covering the free end before it is released.

This technique is often applied when crocheting with several different colors. However, it is not always advisable because the colors readily gleam through. Where it is not otherwise a concern, it is therefore preferable to float the threads along the wrong side and only capture them at intervals so that they do not become too long.

If crocheting with more than one thread, the use of a mesh gauge [Brettchen] is absolutely necessary. This is approximately one to two fingers wide and needed because it is almost impossible not to pull [the stitches too closely] together. The work is turned around so that the right side of the fabric rests inward against the gauge, which is then held from below in the left hand with the thread over the index finger, and the crocheting proceeds on the wrong side of the gauge.

When crocheting repeating patterns, whatever they may be, do not forget that the loop just made [and on the needle] is not added to the chain until the following [stitch]. Therefore, when a stitch in one color in the pattern immediately precedes one of another, the color change can obviously not be made right at the end of the pattern segment. Instead, it has to be done one stitch earlier. If, for example, six stitches are to be made with one color, only five are seen as completed because the sixth is still on the needle.

In crochet, a decrease is made by skipping over a stitch. An increase is either done by pulling a [second] loop through one and the same stitch, or by pulling a loop through the one already on the needle before inserting it into the following stitch. At this spot in the following round there will, of course, be one more stitch than there was previously.

Openwork crochet is produced in the same way, by repeatedly pulling a loop through the one on the hook four times [i.e., chain four] before stitching it properly into the fourth stitch [in the preceding round]. The next round is made in the same manner but the small arches are stitched into the middle of the arches in the preceding round. This produces a kind of mesh but it is neither pretty nor durable.

The result is better, especially with shading or alternating stripes, if one crochets four free stitches (as the simple pulling of the thread through a loop is called), and then four in the customary manner. These [arches] can be made diagonal when the next round starts, by shifting them a stitch forward or backward. In this way, crisp serpentine lines are formed, which stand out well with alternating silver and gold thread, and are quickly made.

Crochet can serve all sorts of purposes, such as purses, knitting bags, briefcases, watchbands, etc. However, it is awkward to work other than in the round because it is only possible to crochet from right to left and on the front side of the fabric. Therefore, if you want to make a piece that cannot be worked in the round, for example the flap on a briefcase or the like, the thread has to be cut at the end of a row and started afresh in the next one. For this reason, watchbands are not started from the top or bottom, but lengthwise. They are crocheted to double width and, when finished, the edges are crocheted together by inserting the hook simultaneously into one loop on each side.

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Assia Brill
5 April 2020 15:03

Thank you for the translation! What a joy to read all these clear instructions and plenty of sensible and wise tips which are not always provided even with modern crochet tutorials.

Concetta M Phillipps
Concetta M Phillipps
5 April 2020 22:23

As always, your blog is fascinating and today adding the translation is super helpful!

I’ve been meaning to ask you since you seem to have a strong grasp of German if you had studied the Morgenblatt für gebildete Stände? I’ve had a reference in there to crochet that I’ve been meaning to find someone with knowledge and skill to look at for quite some time in the 1817 compendium of Literatur Blatt. The nice folks at the Austrian library digitized it awhile back and put it on Google Books here

The reference is to the publication Penelope, which you’ve discussed in other blogs starting in 1823/24. But what surprised me was multiple references to häkeln within the 1817 text.

Anyway, I would love to know your opinion on it. The old German script is particularly hard for me to translate, I’m still getting used to it in my genealogy records.

6 April 2020 17:36

I’m very glad that you have found and made public this early description of crochet! A large part of the needlework section seems to have been copied from a book by Charlotte Leidenfrost, published one year before, Handbüchlein zur angenehmen und nützlichen Beschäftigung für junge Damen (1828) ( )
The section on crochet published under Klarins name matches Leidenfrost word by word!
Leidenfrosts Handbüchlein is in turn a translation of a french manual by Élisabeth-Félicie Bayle-Mouillard, Manuel des jeunes demoiselles (That it is a translation is mentioned in the preface to the second edition of Handbüchlein…, also available on google books.)

Bayle-Mouillard’s description of crochet can be found on page 189 here:
If you read the french description and find any differences, I would be very happy to know! My understanding of french is extremely limited

7 April 2020 09:09

I look forward to reading it!