Crochet · History · Shepherd’s knitting · Terminology

Crochet nomenclature and the reliability of memory

The German references to crochet in the early-19th century, discussed in the preceding few posts, clarify a comment about the craft written at the end of the century that I had long been wondering about. The article on crochet in the Encyclopedia of Needlework, by Thérèse de Dillmont from 1886, categorizes its ordinary form as “German crochet” (as do the French and German editions). This contradicts a pivotal detail in an account of the craft’s history written 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. It derives its present name from the French; the instrument with which it is worked, being by them, from its crooked shape, termed ‘crochet’. This art has attained its highest degree of perfection in England, whence it has been transplanted to France and Germany, and both these countries, although unjustifiably, have claimed the invention.”

This statement about its geographic origin is belied, in turn, by illustrated French instructions from 1785 for the use of a shepherd’s hook for the co-named shepherd’s knitting. A German text from 1800 describes the same tool and “hook knitting” in even greater detail and predicts the impending emergence of crochet, as the term is currently understood. A stream of German references to the new craft began in 1809.

Lambert’s reference to Scottish practice does harmonize with The Memoirs of a Highland Lady by Elisabeth Grant (1797-1885, aka Mrs. Smith). The section of her book that recounts events from 1812 includes the following episode.

“…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…”

This is generally taken to be the first written appearance of the English term “shepherd’s knitting.” As noted, that craft and the characteristic tool used for it had already been described in French and German sources. Grant’s memoir is therefore more of terminological significance than being a milestone in the history of hooked loopcraft.

It is all but inconceivable that she wrote it without the support of journals or other notes kept along the way but the preface to the printed edition raises a warning flag nonetheless.

“Mrs. Smith began writing her recollections in 1845…and concluded the portion here printed [1797 to 1830] in 1867. That they should contain some errors and inaccuracies is natural in the circumstances; but these are of small importance, and the picture of the writer’s life and surroundings is unmistakably a genuine and faithful reflection of her impressions.”

The latter assessment can comfortably be applied to Grant’s account of homemade garment production in the Highlands. However, assuming that she prepared her retrospective manuscript in chronological sequence and at a steady rate, the episode about shepherd’s knitting would not have been recounted until over forty years after the fact. This raises a question about whether she indicated the name of the craft as she had recorded it at the time or was applying what had become a common, but possibly different, term of reference in the interim.

Her recollection may also have been prompted by Lambert’s more recent description or a similar statement elsewhere in the fancywork literature or literary reviews of it. If nothing is assumed about the sequence in which the individual accounts were added to the memoir, the description of shepherd’s knitting could have been penned as early as two years after Lambert’s publication.

Grant’s remarks about shepherd’s knitting are commonly cited as a journal entry. However, if it is at all reasonable to posit that the published text might retroactively apply a more recent name to the craft, a document from 1835 that describes “Scotch knitting” becomes central to the discussion. There is no question about it designating the same craft and tradition that Lambert was to label shepherd’s knitting. This is confirmed by a revised edition of the 1835 text, published in 1853, adding the latter term as a synonym to the former (followed by a review of ordinary crochet as it had developed in the interim). However, the fact that the initial edition only makes reference to Scotch knitting may indicate that shepherd’s knitting was a later coinage.

Either way, the 1835 description of Scotch knitting unequivocally attests that term at that time. The posthumous publication in 1898 of a memoir commenced in 1846, recounting an observation of shepherd’s knitting in 1812, yields an intrinsically less certain attestation. On a platform where historically accurate nomenclature is as important as it is here, it might therefore seem more appropriate to use Scotch knitting as the designation for the earliest British manifestation of traditional slip stitch crochet. However, shepherd’s knitting is entrenched in the literature and widely understood as a demarcation between a hook-based “species of knitting” and true crochet, leaving nothing to gain by changing the glossary.

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Readers with an interest in other crafts bearing the Scotch label may find it interesting that Grant’s memoir also provides the first account of whisky being aged in the barrel (with a less familiar further aging in open bottles). An episode from 1822 relates:

“Lord Conyngham, the Chamberlain, was looking everywhere for pure Glenlivet whisky; the King drank nothing else. It was not to be had out of the Highlands. My father sent word to me—I was the cellerer—to empty my pet bin, where was whisky long in wood, long in uncorked bottles, mild as milk, and the true contraband goût in it.”

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