History · Instructions · Structures · Tunisian crochet

Cornelia Mee’s simpler Tunisian stitch

The first native English instructions for what is now called Tunisian crochet appear in a booklet by Cornelia Mee and Mary Austin, titled Crochet à la Tricoter (“Crochet in the Style of Knitting” or “Crochet on a Knitting Needle”). The publication date is not indicated but an advertisement in the 25 November 1858 issue of a weekly newspaper states that it had just appeared. It would therefore have gone into circulation at about the same time as the instructions by Matilda Pullan discussed in the post before last. However, those were taken directly from German instructions published in January of that year and, beyond calling attention to the craft, are not an original contribution to its development.

The relationship between the German instructions and the English clone is discussed in my article on the history of Tunisian crochet in the Summer 2020 issue of the The Journal of Dress History, The Princess Frederick William Stitch. This also includes illustrations of the first four stitches that accompany the Mee and Austin instructions and, as with the previous post about Pullan’s derivative work, I will be providing further details about each of them in separate posts on this blog.

The present one deals with the first of the Mee and Austin instructions. Perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, they are not for what has since been termed the Tunisian Simple Stitch (TSS). The described structure is often treated as a variant of it but has never acquired a generally recognized name. It is the first of many structurally distinct but unnamed stitches that Mee and Austin present. I’m going to designate each of their stitches with an ad-hoc shorthand based on the order in which it first appears in what was to become a series of five booklets on Crochet à Tricoter. (They retrospectively abbreviated the title midstream, effectively clarifying it to mean “Crochet on a Knitting Needle.”) Where there is an established current abbreviation for a stitch, I’ll use it preferentially.

The stitch in the first set of instructions is discussed below and hereby labeled MA1. It is arguably a simpler instantiation of the definitive Tunisian crochet technique than is the classic TSS, which doesn’t appear until their thirteenth set of instructions, as MA8. Both MA1 and the TSS start with an ordinary foundation chain. A vertical loop is then pulled through every element of that chain and held on the hook until a second chain is worked backward through those loops and affixed successively to each of them. This pattern is repeated in MA1, with the next forward pass made by inserting the hook into each element of the return chain under the top leg of its primary loop, and pulling a new loop through it. In the TSS, the point at which the hook is inserted for the next forward pass changes to the corresponding vertical loop in the preceding forward pass.

MA1 is sometimes referred to as the “top loop stitch” but that is is only one of several alternative designations. The structural difference between it and the TSS is significant. The latter can be described as a vertical system of knitted loops created on the forward pass, to which a horizontal system of crocheted chains is tethered on the return pass. In MA1, each vertical loop in the forward pass is worked directly into a chain, and each chain in the return pass is worked directly into a vertical loop (shown in production here). If the horizontal chains are severed in a swatch of TSS, the fabric remains intact and its structure reduces to plain knitting. If the same is done with a swatch of MA1, its vertical continuity is destroyed and the entire structure disintegrates.

Just as Mee and Austin ascribe no special significance to the TSS, they don’t regularly use the classic Tunisian foundation consisting of a vertical loop pulled through every element in a row of chains. Their booklets include an “Explanation of Terms” illustrated with an openwork mesh for which no instructions are provided, with the initial vertical loops only worked into every second element of the chain. This open foundation is clearly prescribed for MA2, and MA3 uses yet another form of foundation.

This explanatory page is at end of the first booklet and either at the front or back of the others. Since the stitch it shows lies outside the sequence of instructions, I’ll be referring to it as MA0. The journal article includes the engravings of MA0 through MA3, and separate posts will be devoted to each of the remaining ones. I’ll then consider selected patterns from elsewhere in the series that illustrate details of particular interest in the development of the craft.

The illustration of the counterpane that accompanies the first set of instructions is stylized. It doesn’t accurately reflect the prescribed stitch count or the borders of the individual elements of the full piece. However, following the written directives produces an object that otherwise matches the drawing’s appearance. The numeric indication of the hook size is a key factor and refers to the bell gauge discussed in a previous post.

Henry Walker, a leading manufacturer of those gauges, ran an advertisement in the 7 February 1857 issue of The Illustrated London News for “H. Walker’s Alliance Needles.” They were clearly sewing needles but a later advertisement of his in Riego’s Abergeldie Winter Book, from 1867, includes hooks for both ordinary and Tunisian crochet. It is unclear when he began to manufacture the latter but there is no reason to question that the hooks specified by Mee and Austin were his. The “Alliance Needle, No. 5” they prescribe corresponds to a 5.5 mm hook.

Mee first pattern

For a Counterpane in Diamonds, No. 1.

6 lbs. of No. 4, 3-thread, Messrs. Walter Evans and Co’s Knitting Cotton,
and an Alliance Needle, No. 5.

“Make a chain of 3 stitches, insert the needle in the second loop, and draw the cotton through, repeat this in the 3rd loop, this will leave 3 loops on the needle.

2nd row. Take up the cotton, and draw it through 1 loop, then through 2 at a time to the end.

3rd row. Insert the needle into the 1st loop before the first long stitch, and draw the cotton through; repeat this in every loop, and in the one at the side of the work at the end. The loops to be taken up are those at the top of the work in front, between the long stitches.

Repeat the 2nd and 3rd rows alternately, till there are 16[i] loops on the needle; in the next row, let off the loops the same as in the 2nd row.

33rd row. Decrease at the beginning of the row, by taking the 2nd loop instead of the 1st, as in the 3rd row.

34th row. *, take up the cotton on the needle, and draw it through 2 loops, repeat from *.

Repeat the 33rd and 34th rows alternately, till only 2 stitches remain; draw the cotton through these 2 loops, and cut it off.

For the open work that surrounds the diamond, take up the cotton on the needle twice, insert the needle in the stitch at the extreme point of the diamond, and draw it through one of the loops of cotton on the needle, and draw it through the next loop; draw this through the loop of cotton on the needle, repeat this in every loop[ii] till you come to the come to the next point of the diamond, work three times into this loop, work in the same way to the next point of the diamond, then take up the cotton, and draw it through one loop, then through 2 loops at a time, till all are let off.[iii] Work the other side of the diamond in the same way, and join the diamonds, as shown in the engraving.”

i. The directive to end the increases when there are 16 loops on the hook means that the decreases will start in row 29 rather than in row 33 as subsequently specified. The row count will be correct if the increases are continued until there are 18 loops on the hook. If 16 is taken as the correct number, the row numbering needs to be corrected.

ii. The treble crochet (UK) border is started after the yarn has been cut and there is no loop on the hook. The instructions therefore say to “take up the cotton on the needle twice.” Subsequent iterations begin with a loop already on the hook and only a single additional one (yarnover) is required.

iii. The directive beginning mid-sentence with “…then take up the cotton…” is for a return row in the basic stitch pattern. It cannot be executed here and can be ignored without consequence.

*               *               *

Worktable notes:

Using three-ply cotton thread chosen to match the illustration and working with a Bell Gauge 5 hook (5.5 mm), yielded this diamond.

MA1 front

I’m right handed and the stitches appear to run in the direction opposite to that in Mee’s illustration. Here is the lowest diamond from the 1858 woodcut rendered positive and flipped horizontally for comparison.

MA1 rectified

If I’ve read this correctly, the original may have been made by a left-handed worker, as at least one pattern illustrated later in the series unequivocally was. However, many of the images are simply too stylized to permit the unambiguous interpretation of the structures they represent.

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