Looped Fabric

Scottish crochet in 1567

The word “crochet” designates both a tool with a hooked tip and a family of looped structures made with that tool. It additionally names the craft of producing fabric consisting of those structures, the fabric itself, and the objects into which it is worked. Each sense of the term has its own history and its appearance in an older text does not in itself indicate either a technique or a craft, even if the topic clearly relates to fabric production. Care is therefore needed to avoid conflating usage at one time and place with that of another.

The modern form of the craft can be traced back to the early 1800s and is commonly referred to simply as crochet. It didn’t initially span the full range of structural detail and techniques that were to develop (with a few also dropped along the way) but the aggregate has borne the name in English-language publication since the late 1830s. Nonetheless, its most basic structures — chains and the slip stitch — are verifiably older. Their position on the timeline of hook-based loopcraft has been indicated in various ways.

My personal preference has been to use labels taken either from contemporaneous documents or, if none are to be found, the oldest known corresponding designations. Examples of this are “cheyne lace” (also “chayne” or “chain”) for the openwork crochet mesh first attested in 1580, and “shepherd’s knitting” (aka “Scottish knitting”) for the slip stitch crochet thus named in several sources beginning in 1812 but explicitly designating an older craft.

Some of the candidate vocabulary is used heterogeneously in different languages, adding further complexity to the terminological facet of the history of crochet. The English word was loaned from French, in any case, and the pre-19th-century documents I had examined before noting the one reported in this post use it to designate a tool but not a craft.

A main purpose of the research behind this blog and the journal articles published in tandem with it, is to locate early written sources relevant to the topics under consideration. When a previously unnoticed document modifies our understanding of the underlying history to the extent that one or another previous blog post requires updating, that action has been undertaken easily. The same applies to revising the addendum to a published article, although its distribution is not as straightforward.

Newly recognized sources have been fairly consistent in pushing the “earliest known date” back by a relatively small interval. That also applies to the present one but its historiographic consequence is by no means as modest, and having previously overlooked it is all the more to my chagrin. (I’ve already begun emending the effected other texts on this platform.)

Alexandre Teulet, an archivist at the National Archives of France, published a five-volume anthology in 1862 titled “Political Relations of France and Spain with Scotland in the 16th Century” [Relations Politiques de la France et de l’Espagne avec l’Écosse au XVIe siécle]. Its subtitle is “State papers, pieces and documents unpublished or little known taken from the libraries and archives of France.” Volume 2 includes a transcription of a manuscript in the National Archives. The original is in French with my translation here.

Statement of the salaries of ladies, damsels, gentlemen and other domestic officers of the Queen of Scotland, dowager of France, for a year commencing the first day of January M. V. C. LXVI and ending the last day of December following, one thousand five hundred and sixty-seven.

These expenses were covered by revenue from the dower of Mary, Queen of Scots. She signed the statement, dated 13 February 1567 (four months before her imprisonment), which was then sent to the French court for reimbursement. Line item 22 is for payment to the only listed tailor.

To Jehan Poulliet, named of Compiègne, both
for his salary for fashioning garments and silk thread
for sewing and crochet ….. iiii.c.l

In the original:

A Jehan Poulliet, dict de Compiengne, tant
pour ses gaiges que façons d’habitz et soye
à coudre et crochetz ….. iiii.c.l

It is not clear if the silk thread was intended for Poulliet’s own use or was delivered to someone else at the Scottish court. The latter appears more likely since there is no corresponding itemization of fabric. Regardless, there can be no doubt that the word crochet designates a craft in the same sense that sewing does but is separate and distinct from it. Whatever it was, it can safely be taken to have involved the use of a hook.

The cheyne lace listed in an account of the wardrobe of Queen Elizabeth I of England from 1580 would have been produced using such a tool. It can therefore be posited that the thirteen-year earlier reference to crochetz in the similar accounts of Queen Mary I of Scotland, designates the same thing. (Tambour embroidery is often put forward as a precursor of modern crochet in discussions such as the present one but its arrival in Europe is not documented until the mid-18th century.)

Cheyne lace is assumed to have included metal thread but crochetz done entirely with silk would be consistent with the diamond mesh that is otherwise documented from the middle of the following century. Later instructions for such mesh state that it can be made with either material. It also appears in earlier documents as a type of passementerie. Other inventories of Queen Mary’s wardrobe include work named as such (for example here). It is possible that a distinction was made between it and crochet on the basis of the material used, if not some distinctive design detail, or was an artful way of circumventing guild privileges to passementerie.

One way or the other, the blockbuster addition to our understanding of the word crochet in the present context is that its first attested use designates a craft. The document from 1567 erodes — if not obviates — the basis for the widespread reluctance to refer to any type of loopcraft predating the 19th century as crochet.

There is nothing of further surprise in the French term appearing in a document intended for a French recipient. To the extent that French was the vernacular in Queen Mary’s household, whoever used the silk thread there would also have called the craft crochet. Two important corollary but currently unanswerable questions are whether it was known and practiced in other social contexts at that time, and if so, whether the same name was applied to it.

The openwork crochet mesh, however it was labeled, shared a Scottish nexus with the slip stitch closed work called shepherd’s knitting beginning at some indeterminate date. This adds further intricacy to the discussion of the relationship between the two. They are generally regarded as having developed separately in different contexts and locations, with one serving a decorative and the other a utilitarian purpose. The accepted view is that they ultimately merged into the broader craft of crochet as described in the fancywork press at the outset of the 19th century.

It is now reasonably clear that the designation crochet was applied to the production of some type of openwork in the first written reference to it that has yet come to light. That document originated in mid-16th-century Scotland, hinting at the possibility of the elemental form of the hook-based craft having influenced the subsequent development there of closed work shepherd’s knitting — which is nothing more than an aggregate of chains that are interlooped along their entire length.

It might alternatively be suggested that the decorative mesh was distilled from the solid fabric. However, the latter cannot be made without first producing a free chain. The two modes of harnessing the creative potential of that chain are seminal to the development of crochet and the order of their appearance can easily have differed in the regions where older exemplars of such fabric are encountered.

Notwithstanding, there is no reason to doubt that the production of an openwork variant was referred to as crochet in 1567. The same label is still applied to such work. This provides full warrant for referring to any instantiation of the craft during its interim development as crochet, even if localized labels are known and may be useful in analytical discourse.

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Assia Brill
4 April 2023 15:44

Very interesting, thank you for your historical articles!

11 April 2023 19:19

I wonder if there is no fabric listed considering she gave Jehan a ton of clothes and fabric in January 1567? (https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=wu.89071077457&view=1up&seq=523)

Its very interesting to match up the French accounts and the Scottish ones. I don’t have time to do an indepth study but you’ve definitely made me curious!

1 May 2023 22:33

Feldman (1974; isbn 0-385-05134-4) also notes that crochet is a four-hundred-year-old art. Italian Renaissance is noted, but no scholarly references provided as the book is for arts and crafts’ readers.