Elizabeth Metcalfe reflects on the history of crochet – a meditative, rhythmical craft that has gained popularity over recent years.
“Anyone can do the Granny Square...Grab a crochet hook, yarns of any colour, and get going.” This enthusiastic call to action formed the opening lines of a ten-page feature that appeared in a 1973 issue of the American magazine, Woman’s Day. The Granny Square – a simple motif, created in rounds from the centre to the edges – was once the preserve of grandmothers and village fetes, but by the ’70s it had become something of a fashion statement.
Put simply, crochet is the art of looping yarn through yarn. Taking its name from the French word crochet, which translates literally as “small hook”, it involves using a hooked stick to interlock loops of yarn. It is thought to originate from tambour embroidery, a technique that became popular in China and India from the sixteenth century onwards, where chain-like stitches were threaded through a piece of taut fabric to create lace-like patterns. Unlike tambour, crochet doesn’t require a background fabric: instead, it forms the fabric itself through a rhythmical process. “When I learnt crochet, I found a sense of freedom in it, as I could make any shape I wanted,” says Brooklyn-based crochet artist Taryn Urushido who learnt the craft at the age of seven. “I would make clothes for my dolls and beach bags for my mum’s friends, which leads to my approach today where I want to crochet just about everything.”The fact that crochet simply requires a hook and yarn and can be done almost anywhere accounts for why it became popular in Europe in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In the 1840s and 1850s, Irish farmers’ wives took to crochet as a way to generate income during the potato famine. While resembling Venetian needlepoint – at the time highly covetable – it took 90 percent less time and used readily available, affordable materials. Unlike knitting, which was more prescriptive, women could make motifs in almost any shape, and it was soon a booming cottage industry. It wasn’t, however, until a piece was presented to Queen Victoria that crochet started to take off in Britain. Not only did the Queen wear the gift, but she also took up crochet herself, eventually making eight five-feet-long chunky brown scarves, which were subsequently presented as military awards to fighting soldiers. In response, women across the country turned to crochet hooks and yarn.
By the 1920s and ’30s, entire garments – everything from evening gowns to hats – were being crocheted, as well as table runners, curtains and blankets. In the Second World War, crochet became a thrifty way to extend the life of a piece of clothing, with embellishments such as cuffs, trims and collars becoming all the rage. The ’50s and ’60s saw mercerised cottons and tiny crochet hooks swapped for chunkier primary-coloured yarns, which quickly found form in the versatile Granny Square motif. In the ’70s and ’80s, magazines continued to be filled with DIY patterns and ideas for everything from crochet curtains and blankets to vests and dresses.If crochet fell out of favour in the ’90s and early 2000s, it has made a triumphant comeback in the past 20 years. This is in no small part thanks to fashion designers, such as JW Anderson, Gucci and Bottega Veneta, who have championed the craft in their collections. Today, Instagram is awash with self-termed “yarnaholics”, many of whom are attracted to the hand-craft’s meditative qualities. “There’s plenty of science to suggest that the repetitive process helps to lower blood pressure and repair connections in the brain,” says crochet teacher and designer Ruth Herring, who creates designs for JW Anderson among other clients. There’s also a sociability about crochet: “Women in my home town would gather as soon as they finished household work and crochet around a circle while chatting,” remembers contemporary Turkish jewellery artist Esna Su.
Today, crochet is valued as a respected, experimental art form. The popularity of yarn bombing – literally crocheted graffiti or street art – suggests that it is not just art, but also a form of protest. For some, such as New York-based artist Olek – who wrapped two houses in Finland and Sweden in hot pink crocheted yarn – and sculptor Orly Genger, crochet can be a feminist statement. For others, crochet is a chance to experiment with materials and push its boundaries. Su uses fine copper wire and leather cord to craft her sculptural pieces, while Urushido works “with almost anything”, hand-cutting her own leathers, jerseys and denims. “I love the exposed fibres that tell another story through texture,” she says.
Herring, who has been running crochet classes for over 30 years, estimates that the craft hasn’t been as popular as it is now since the ’70s. Really, it’s time for those of us who haven’t already to take heed of those wise words in Woman’s Day and get going.
Words by Elizabeth Metcalfe.
Elizabeth Metcalfe is the Deputy Features Editor at House & Garden Magazine.
All images courtesy of Brooklyn-based crochet artist Taryn Urushido.