One thing that frustrates me greatly is that no one seems to be able to answer the question ‘who invented crochet?’.
When I’m really into something, I like to know everything about it. If I watch a really amazing movie, the first thing I do is jump on IMDB and start researching it. I want to know which other actors auditioned for it, how long it took to film and whether or not there’s going to be a sequel. I’m a research junkie.
Naturally, I’ve done quite a lot of research on the invention of crochet and frustratingly I’ve come up very short on straight answers. There’s a variety of places where it could have originated but its development was so organic it’s hard to pinpoint exactly. Despite my frustration at being unable to get the answers I want, I kind love the mystery behind it. It seemed to appear out of nowhere, jumping continents and slowly developing from an ancient embroidery technique into the craft we know it as today.
So who invented crochet? Here are a few theories.
Queen Victoria crocheting; Image via Crochetvolution
Was it Queen Victoria?
Probably not but she was certainly an early admirer of the craft. She popularised crochet by purchasing Irish crochet instead of expensive lace, helping women make a decent living during the potato famine when their family farms weren’t producing an income. She also learned to crochet herself and made eight scarves for select members of her forces fighting in South Africa. It’s unclear exactly what these scarves represented but it was an enormous honour to receive one. Although Queen Victoria didn’t invent crochet, she made it fashionable at a time when it was seen as an inferior craft.
A page from Penelope magazine where the first known crochet pattern was published in Amsterdam in 1824; Image via Love Crochet
Was it France?
The word ‘crochet’ comes from the French word ‘croche’, meaning, ‘hook’. The French own the naming rights to crochet but there’s little evidence they played a bigger part than any other culture in the development of the skill of crochet. It a shame though because I think there’s a bit of a Francophile in all of us and I would have loved for my beloved crochet to have been a traditional French craft, but alas, just the name will have to do.
An example of tambour work; Image via Rankine
Was it China?
The most solid theory is that crochet came from a Chinese style of needlework called ‘tambouring’. It’s pretty similar to crochet except that it’s worked on to a fabric background, similar to embroidery, but you use a fine needle with a hook on the end. Tambouring was also present in Turkey, India, Persia and North Africa during the early 1700s. Tambouring reached Europe in the 1700s and it was around this time that someone discovered the stitches had enough structural integrity to survive without the fabric background and this was the first time crochet really existed in it’s modern, recognisable form. The tambour hook was still used and according to the French, it became known as ‘crochet in the air’, like ‘hook’ in the air. This is actually one of the reasons why I prefer crocheting to knitting. Knitting feels very grounded and I feel very physically attached to the project because there are so many live loops with knitting, with crochet I have one or just a few live loops and it makes me feel less inhibited. I can also lie down and crochet when my neck gets sore and that was something I could never master with knitting. Hook in the air indeed!
Vintage Irish lace samples; Image via
Was it Ireland?
Back to Queen Vic and her love of Irish crochet, it was in the 1800s that the potato famine sent many farming families into poverty who depended on that farming income. It was about this time that a woman called Mademoiselle Riego de la Blanchardiere started to teach the farmers wives a new trade and that trade was Irish crochet. The craft was perfect for famine times as it was made from easily accessible materials, could be made in any conditions (droughts, floods, harsh winters) and the final product was coveted by higher society. Crochet had the look of lace which was very fashionable at the time but crochet was much quicker to produce which helped Irish crochet become very popular, very quickly.
Mademoiselle Riego figured out how to crochet lace that resembled Venetian needlepoint but instead of taking 200 hours to make (as needlepoint would), the labour would be reduced to 20 hours with crochet. This suited mass production because Irish crochet is not worked in rows, instead it consists of motifs that are made individually and then joined with fans or mesh. This meant that Irish crochet creators worked like factories; workers would specialise in a particular area according to their abilities. In fact, rare and unique Irish lace designs ‘belonged’ to certain families and the construction of said motifs was a closely guarded secret as the family relied upon it for their income.
Mademoiselle Riego was the first person to publish a pattern book of Irish crochet in 1846.
Was it the Shepherds?
In the 1800s a style of crochet known as shepherd’s knitting appeared. It was worked with a larger, flatter hook and was designed for use with thicker yarns. It made a dense fabric, made up of only slip stitches but it was almost impossible to achieve the taller stitches with this style of hook. It was about this time thaw we saw crochet hooks start to taper into the hooks we recognise today.
Vintage crochet hook set circa 1860; Image via
The 1920s and 1930s
Crochet in the 20s and 30s was all about mercerized cotton and tiny, tiny crochet hooks. Lace was still a big hit and filet crochet was starting to rise in popularity. The 30s saw the first appearance of popcorn and bobble stitches towards the end of the decade too. The most popular items to crochet were home decor items like dressing table sets and runners, edgings for curtains and blankets, and children’s hats and accessories sets. It was also around this time that religious crochet patterns started to appear with prayer shawls starting to come into fashion.
1930s dress pattern; Image via
Crochet in the 1940s was used for mending and embellishing existing clothing. It was used for making scarves and hats to send to soldiers at war as well. It was a make do and mend era so crochet was mostly used as a tool to extend the life of existing clothing or repurpose yarn from worn out knits.
Wartime crochet patterns; Image via Knitting Matters
This was the era when crochet patterns and DIYs would appear regularly in women’s magazines. Designers were almost unheard of as patterns were bought from designers and published through yarn companies as an incentive for people to buy their yarn or through magazines who would then charge a mail order fee for a pattern. Crochet also moved with the fashion times and there were lots of Dior-esque shapes in crochet patterns of this era.
1950s crochet pattern; Image via Cemetarian
The 1960s and 1970s
The granny square hit the height of its popularity in the 60s and 70s and crochet hit mainstream fashion. Crochet vests, dresses and headwear were favoured by the youth of the era and crochet homewares also became popular. Macrame, crochet’s hook free sister, also hit its stride in the 70s with hanging baskets and wall art adorning many walls in the 1970s.
1970s crochet pattern; Image via Musings from Marilyn
Crochet took a dip in popularity in the 90s but weirdly crochet itself was quite fashionable. Crochet tops, vests and slouchy grunge style sweaters were a popular look for the Courtney Love-esque kids of the 90s but it was mostly fast fashion that provided these items so crochet makers focussed on blankets and homewares.
In the last few years, crochet has become extremely popular with modern designers creating functional and stylish patterns for homewares, clothing and toys.
A page from Molla Mills book; Image via Molla Mills
To wrap it all up, there really is no answer which is kind of fabulous in itself. I don’t even know why I picked up a hook again a few years ago after not having crocheted since I was a kid, but there you have it. Crochet just gets under skin and into your soul totally inexplicably and bloody love that.
Extra reading on modern crochet:
Do you know any cool facts about crocheting? Share in the comments!
P.S Don’t forget Crochet Coach has a free trial offer period at the moment so make sure you sign up!