Looped Fabric

Tunisian crochet in Sweden in the 1850s

The 15 December 1857 issue of the Swedish journal Penelope, includes instructions for a child’s upper-body garment made with a crochet stitch that had been described without a name in instructions for a window shade in the 1 January 1856 issue of that publication. In the 1857 instructions, the same anonymous author retrospectively labels it the Tunisian crochet stitch — the earliest attested use of the term that has yet come to light. The preceding post includes a translation of the instructions for the window shade. The ones for the child’s garment are translated below.

In the 1856 description, the author notes of the stitch:

“Although somewhat awkward to describe…I hope that I have expressed myself tolerably well.”

That goal was reasonably well met in the text it prefaced but the adequacy of the description of the more complex 1857 garment is not as immediately apparent. It omits key procedural details from the text and the accompanying illustration does not accurately reflect the prescribed stitches counts. The need for interpretation and interpolation makes it difficult for a translation both to be faithful to the original and provide a sufficient basis for making the object. The readers of the initial document would, of course, have been addressing the same issues. This raises the equally important matter of the familiarity with crochet techniques that the author can reasonably have expected them to bring to the task.

I’ve therefore restated the instructions in English as literally as I can manage. The interpretive considerations needed to get from there to the finished garment are discussed in concluding worktable notes. Before getting to the seed translation, it may be worth comparing images of other Swedish garments made in Tunisian crochet with the one accompanying the 1857 text.

Penelope 1857

The perhaps unexpected vertical orientation of the stitching is also seen in a vest in the collections of the Nordic Museum in Stockholm, dated to circa 1870 (details and CC license for the photograph here).


It might be tempting to see this as a general indication of Swedish practice. It appears yet again in a child’s dress illustrated in the 1 January 1864 inaugural issue of Iduna, which overlapped editorially with Penelope (published for the final time in 1863). However, in that pattern it is juxtaposed with horizontally oriented stitching.


The 1857 instructions call the garment a tröja, which is a general designation for a snugly fitted upper-body garment with sleeves and a closed bodice. As with the corresponding English term for its knitted or crocheted form — sweater — its meaning varies from context to context, not least in regard to whether it can be open at the front.

Given that the illustration shows such an opening, it might seem reasonable to translate tröja here as ‘cardigan.’ However, the text designates the separated panels as the back of the garment, and the full-width panel that is not shown, as the “front piece.” Since this tröja is otherwise symmetrical it can be worn with the opening at the front or at the back. The technical orientation is unequivocal, nonetheless, and the text should be read with that in mind.

Here are the full instructions for the child’s garment in the 15 December 1857 issue of Penelope. The introductory reference to the simple Tunisian crochet stitch remaining in favor after just under two years suggests that it had gained noteworthy momentum elsewhere prior to its initial description in that publication.

Barntröja [barn = child]. This is crocheted with the same stitches that I already familiarized you with in the 1 January 1856 issue, Supplement II, No. 17, and which due to their being pleasantly made, remain in favor. Here they are given the name Tunisian crochet stitches [tuniska (sic) virkstygn]. The tröja is quite pleasant to make since it only consists of a single piece. Medium weight cotton yarn is needed for it, and a wooden crochet needle that is heavy in relation to the yarn, as described in the issue named above.

50 stitches are cast on [uppläggas] and 28 rows crocheted even [slät]. When one has these 28 rows thus, instead of crocheting downward, 25 stitches are crocheted for the sleeve, and after one has turned around and come to the back, another 15 stitches are crocheted so that the sleeve is 40 stitches wide. It is crocheted open [öppen], 25 rows even, then decreased at the beginning and end of the row, 3 rows even, decreased again, 3 rows even, decreased, 3 rows even, decreased, 2 rows even, there must then be 40 rows from the started [började; likely misprint for börjande — starting] stitches, and the sleeve is finished.

The yarn is cut and one starts the front piece [framstycket]. The yarn is joined to the shoulder at the last row from the back, and one first crochets the 25 stitches of the sleeve until under the sleeve, where one crochets another 35 from the start of all the sleeve’s stitches. In this manner 10 rows are crocheted; at the top, each row must fit with the rows on the back and is joined with them. 10 stitches are left to form the shoulder. 25 rows are worked even, 10 stitches are cast on for the shoulder. 10 rows even. 15 stitches are cast on and, from the front, another 25 stitches are taken to the sleeve.

The sleeve is crocheted in the same way as the first. To the back are taken the 15 stitches from the sleeve and the 35 from the front piece. At the top, the back is again joined to the front piece, so that one row matches the other until there are 10, 18 rows even. With an ordinary needle, an even row is crocheted around the entire tröja, which is finished with narrow lace.”

*               *               *

Worktable notes:

The initial posting of the preceding text triggered a discussion in the Tunisian Crochet Explorers group on Ravelry. It started with an announcement of the availability of the translation. After considerable discussion, it concluded with the reproduction of the garment shown here, with thanks for permission to use it.

Annette Knights and Sue Perez have since prepared detailed instructions for it in contemporary terms, available as a free Ravelry download. One of the ideas behind this blog was that the translations of early instructions appearing here might usefully be carried forward in this manner. I am delighted to see this happening and am truly grateful for Sue’s and Annette’s initiative.

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Gunilla Nyblom
Gunilla Nyblom
26 June 2020 16:28

Very interesting article! I have also come across the word ’tunisk’ before and I have always wondered why they did not spell ’tunisisk’ correctly. I think that over the years someone ’corrected’ the ’misspelling’ and it became ’tunisian’ instead of ’tunish’. If you check the origin of the word ’tun’: https://en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/tun one of the meanings is barrel. If you look at the pictures of the barrel, you could see it resembling the simple stitch/the pattern of the barrel. We could almost call the simple stitch barrel stitch. With some imagination you could see the ’bands’ around the barrel as the reverse pass.

’Tun’ is also used meaning fence. And I guess that would also characterize the weaved look of ’tunish crochet’. And a barrel is actually a fence for some liquid.

The word ’tun’ is still in use on Gotland, a Swedish island. There are many techniques of building a ’tun’ fence (in a gotlandstun juniper is used), but many of the techniques are forgotten now.

Gunilla Nyblom
Gunilla Nyblom
28 June 2020 13:32
Reply to  stringbed

I never thought about the tunic garment, but the word itself has some interesting old forms (like tunice). What I think is the most interesting part with the old word ’tun’, when used in the meaning fence, is that in a fence you have vertical and horizontal bars and you have a system to keep the entire piece together, by binding around them. These elements are also clearly visible in this textile craft, and this craft is characterized by working with the bars to create your piece. You repeatedly add bars and you bind around them. If you would use the old word ’tun’ to describe that it looks like a fence, the adjective would be ’tunisk’. The name of the craft would then be ’tunisk virkning’. The binding stitches used would be ’tuniska virkstygn’, inspired by the way you would bind around the bars (with fence stitches/bindings) when building a ’tun’ fence many, many years ago. I noticed that the term ’tunisk virkning’ still is in use in Swedish, together with ’krokning’ and ’tunisisk virkning’ (and ’hakka’). In Belgian and Dutch ’tunisch haken’ is in use, and tunisch is not the way they say Tunisian. At the beginning of… Read more »

Gunilla Nyblom
Gunilla Nyblom
29 June 2020 08:19
Reply to  stringbed

Just one final thought about the ‘tun’ (fence)…

‘Tunisk’ could possibly refer to or describe the work process. Or the system.
The steps to create a section of a fence and to pratice crochet the ‘tunisk’ way are very similar:

1. Make a foundation row of vertical bars. The vertical bars come in pairs, so you will always have a front post and a back post.
2. Bring on your loops, onto the vertical bars and make your bindings.
3. Finalize the row, by adding the horizontal bars. They will be resting on the loops you added in step 2. Repeat from 2, until your piece is as tall as you want it to be.

If you were building a fence “in the round” or crocheting double-ended in the round you would finalize the row by adding the horizontal bars whenever convenient or when completing the full circle.

Here are some nice pictures, some terms and a brief description of the construction of a specific type of ‘tun’ (fence), the ‘bandtun’.

22 August 2020 01:54

The pattern for the child’s trōja is up on Ravelry in modern form. Sue Perez and I have added instruction detail, plus diagrams, to make very workable, we hope. https://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/1850s-child's-jacket

Annette Knights
Annette Knights
30 October 2022 08:12

There is a jacket of almost identical construction, in the body, held in Sollefteå in Sweden. See the Virkstad blog (Anna Lindmark) http://virkstaden.blogspot.com/2022/10/pa-vastfronten-nagot-gammalt.html