History · Instructions · Structures · Tunisian crochet

Mrs. Mee’s model method

Mid-19th-century instruction books for diversionary fancywork often provide general tutorial material under introductory headings. Cornelia Mee and Mary Austin follow this practice in a series of five booklets about Crochet à la Tricoter — now known as Tunisian crochet — that they published between November 1858 and October 1861. The first two are the oldest known such publications devoted to that craft. The initial booklet is prefaced with an “advertisement” signed by Mee alone that states:

“The great advantage of Crochet à la Tricoter is that it combines the firmness of crochet with the lightness of knitting, and can be done in almost any variety of shape, from the ease and neatness with which it is increased and decreased. The edges can always be taken up, so that, if done in small pieces, the work has the appearance of being all worked in one. It is never turned; and every alternate row the stitches are taken up on the needle, and remain on it for the whole row, as in knitting. The variety of useful and ornamental purposes to which it can be applied is almost endless; and in presenting these entirely new and pretty Patterns in Crochet à la Tricoter to my numerous patronesses, I feel it will meet with their entire approval. Those who work for amusement will have the pleasure of numbers of new stitches, and those who make it a source of livelihood will find many things that will meet with quick and ready sale.”

It is not clear if “presenting these entirely new and pretty Patterns in Crochet à la Tricoter” to both professional and recreational practitioners implies an established body of Tunisian stitches with which Mee expected her readers to be familiar. The name used for the craft (shortened to “tricoter” elsewhere in the text and commonly reduced further to “tricot”), with the wording of its summary description, suggest that the instructions were intended for both knitters and crocheters.

The booklet ends with an “Explanation of Terms” with procedural information not provided in the intervening instructions but applicable to them all.

“The peculiarity of Crochet à la Tricoter consists in, whatever pattern is done, every alternate row the stitches are taken up on the needle, as shown in the engraving, and the work is never turned, but the front is always towards you.

To make a stitch, pass the thread over the needle to the front, and take up the next loop; or at the commencement of a row, pass the cotton round the pin to the front, and take up the next loop. 

To decrease at the right-hand side of the work, either take up two loops, and work them as one, or miss a loop; and at the left-hand side in the row where the stitches are let off, draw the thread through 2 loops at the beginning of the row instead of through one loop as usual.”

This glossary was moved to the front of the second booklet, which does not include the advertisement, slightly expanding the second paragraph.

“Take up the wool on the needle, is to make a stitch, pass the thread over the needle to the front, and take up the next loop; or at the commencement of a row, pass the cotton round the pin to the front, and take up the next loop.”

While changing this sentence the authors would surely have reviewed the wording of the seemingly obscure distinction between passing the thread “over the needle to the front” and “round the pin to the front” but found no need to revise it. The directive for wrapping the thread “over” the needle is credibly for what crocheters now term a “yarn over” (YO) and was the default procedure for all documented forms of Victorian crochet from the outset. This leaves “round” the needle to designate a wrap in the opposite direction as what (with less general agreement) is now called a “yarn under” (YU). This was the unlabeled default for the knitters in Mee’s readership and appears in instructions for “hook” or “shepherd’s” knitting — now called slip stitch crochet — beginning in the 1780s.

None of the instructions in the Mee and Austin booklets prescribe a direction for the yarn wrap, with that detail placed centrally in the glossary. However, the accompanying engraving clearly shows a row of YU loops on the hook, with the exception of the starting loop which might be YO. This parallels the directive for one form at the starting edge, and the other everywhere else in the fabric, but it inverts the positions of the YO and YU. (The determinative detail is whether the leg of the loop closest to the tip of the hook is on the front or the back of the hook, characterizing YO and YU respectively.)

No instructions are given for this stitch pattern but it seems unlikely that the swatch would have been worked contrary to the wrapping principle it is intended to illustrate. This unclarity is compounded by the separate reference to the loop “at the commencement of a row.” When using a continuous length of yarn, the final loop in the return chain becomes the initial loop in the forward pass, and its seating is determined when the chain is made.

There are a few possible explanations for this disparity. Mee may have intended the distinction to apply where new yarn is joined to the fabric at the outset of a row, as with a color change. There may also be some implication that the alternation was between YO for the forward pass and YU for the return. If the hook used to work the swatch had been removed and replaced during preparation for the engraving, the loops may have been remounted in the wrong direction. (The YU seating would be intuitive, if not instinctive, to a British knitter performing that operation.)

The stylized flattening of the depicted structure obscures both the point where the hook is inserted into the fabric and how the new loop is seated on it. Guidance about the insertion point can be culled from the instructions for other stitches. However, because none of them say anything about the wrap direction, it is a matter of opinion as to whether Mee’s statement about the predominant use of YO should take precedence over the drawn YU.

A shorthand developed in an earlier post designates each stitch in the Mee and Austin series by the order of its appearance in the written instructions, with that post presenting MA1. Since the stitch illustrated in the glossary lies outside this sequence and is repeated in the other booklets, it can conveniently be labeled MA0. Here is an enlarged detail of its structure.

MA0 detail

The vertical loops are only pulled through every second element of the foundation chain, as is explicitly prescribed for MA2 and others. The space between the columns in the resulting mesh is maintained in the subsequent return chains by adding an extra chained loop to each one that is tethered to the vertical structure.

The illustrated fabric has a marked bias, indicating that a new vertical loop is pulled through the fabric before the corresponding vertical loop in the preceding row. The instructions for MA1 prescribe inserting the hook into the top of the main loop of the closest return chain. Doing the same for MA0 is consistent with the illustration, particularly with regard to the separation it provides between the horizontal rows.

When this stitch is worked into an open mesh, without changing the basic visual effect, the vertical loops can be seated either YU (crossing the legs of the loops retained in the fabric) or YO (keeping the loops open). The presence of the hook shows the row mounted on it to be unequivocally YU. The drawing otherwise gives no indication of where the yarn passes in front of, or behind, itself. This prohibits the reliable differentiation of vertical loops where the legs touch without crossing and where they do cross.

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Worktable notes:

I worked three swatches based on the preceding analysis of the MA0 engraving. The first is YU throughout, matching the illustrated wrap. The second follows the written description and is all YO. The third is YO on the forward pass and YU on the return, testing possible explanations for the discrepancy. In all swatches, the hook was inserted into the top of the main loop of the chain immediately before the vertical loop in the preceding row.

The YU return chain fits the illustration somewhat more closely than does the YO. However, the vertical loops are equally convincing both YO and YU. The suggestion that the top row can have been remounted prior to the engraving is conjectural and, although my own general preference is to work YO forward and chain back YU, Mee’s description only tenuously indicates that possibility. The least subjective option is therefore to take the YU shown on the hook as intentional and propagate it through the entire swatch.

MA0 test swatch

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