Unlike some of the needle or fiber arts, crochet has a very history. Indeed, crochet (which comes from the Middle French word for “hook”) as we know it, can be traced back to the 16th century when the wealthy wore a lot of lace.
There are three theories about the origins of crochet, as put forward by Lis Paludan. The first is that crochet originated in Arabia before spreading eastward to Tibet and westward to Spain. From there it followed the trade routes (much like knitting did) to Mediterranean countries and then Europe.
The second theory about the origin of crochet is that the earliest evidence of Crochet is from South America where crochet ornaments were worn as adornments in rites of puberty.
The third theory is that crochet originated in China, where early examples of three-dimensional crocheted dolls have been found.
Of course, it may even be a mixture of these theories!
Evidence for European crochet only starts in the 1800s, although, Lin states, that crochet — then being called “nun’s work” was known as early as the 1500s in Italy. There is, however, some resistance to the lace made by nuns being crochet.
Tambour work as a precursor to crochet
Research also suggests that crochet may have developed from an ancient Chinese form of embroidery that was also known in Turkey, India, Persia, and North Africa. It then reached Europe by the 1700s.
Tambour work is described as follows by Ruthie Marks:
“In this technique, a background fabric is stretched taut on a frame. The working thread is held underneath the fabric. A needle with a hook is inserted downward and a loop of the working thread drawn up through the fabric. With the loop still on the hook, the hook is then inserted a little farther along and another loop of the working thread is drawn up and worked through the first loop to form a chain stitch. The tambour hooks were as thin as sewing needles…”
By the 18th century, tambour work had developed into a craft that the French called “crochet in the air”. In this craft the stitches were made on their own instead of being made on backing fabric.
Crochet in the 1800s
Crochet was given a tremendous boost in popularity by Mlle. Riego de la Branchardiere who had the ability to create crochet patterns from old needle and bobbin lace designs.
The Irish Famine and Irish crochet
Known by their intricate patterns that usually includes flowers like roses and leaves, Irish crochet was a lifesaver during the dire days of the 1845—1850 potato famine in Ireland.
Men, women and children were organized into crochet cooperatives and schools formed to teach the people how to do this crochet.
Many families used the income that they got from the crochet lace to emigrate abroad, seeking a better life away from the famine and hardship.
The Victorians and crochet patterns
During the Victorian era, crochet patterns became available for almost anything you can imagine. In Ruthie Marks’ words, patterns were available for: “flowerpot holders, bird cage covers, baskets for visiting cards, lamp mats and shades, wastepaper baskets, tablecloths, antimacassars (or "antis," covers to protect chairbacks from the hair oil worn by the men in the mid- 1800s), tobacco pouches, purses, men's caps and waistcoats, even a rug with footwarmers to be placed under the card table for card players”.
The 20th and 21st century
During the early 20th century afghans, slumber rugs, travel rugs, sleigh rugs, car rugs, cushions, teapot cozies and hot-water bottle covers became some of the most popular projects for crocheters.
In the 1960s and 1970s, crochet was seen as a way to freely express yourself in “sculptures” clothing, rugs, and tapestries with both abstract and realistic designs.
Crochet’s popularity began to wane at the end of the 20th century, but has become a lot more popular in the past few decades.
Besides the lace-like doilies, curtains, and other traditional projects, amigurumi has also burst onto the scene. These three-dimensional dolls have become an art form that gives creators the chance to make any figure that your imagination can conjure. Making figures from well-known films and cartoons and even books are also very popular.
Now that crochet has been given a new breath of life, it’s very exciting to see not only the new yarns that are created for the craft, but also to see what new stitches and designs are still waiting to be created.
Crochet Guild of America: Crochet History