Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Crochet as Lace

Illustration: Crochet chair back pattern, 19th century.

Although crochet can often be closely, although inaccurately twinned with knit, it has in fact long been associated with lace rather than knit. In many respects, it could be seen as a simpler, though still effective interpretation of lace skills. Although obviously not as fine and accomplished as professional lace making, depending on the materials used and the fineness of both yarn and needle, a wide variation of crochet can be achieved.

Crochet can be produced quickly and efficiently with one hook and a continuous chain. From this relatively simple process, much more complex patterns and interpretations can be achieved as is shown in some of the examples that illustrate this article.

Illustration: Crochet collar pattern, 19th century.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the skill became particularly widespread in Ireland where extra income could be achieved with little initial outlay. Crochet pieces were produced in large numbers and were used within costume and domestic interiors for such items as collars, cuffs, pillow borders and table linen.

The Irish used cotton and silk more frequently than other materials. This, along with the combination of very fine crochet needles, produced work that was much sought after in mainland Britain and further a field. Although not strictly or technically lace, the standard of Irish crochet examples from the nineteenth century are relatively high and are now rare and much sought after.

Illustration: Crochet lace pattern, 19th century.

It is unfortunate in some respects that we tend today to judge so many of the textile craft skills by the standards of the revival and reinterpretation of the 1960s and 1970s. The revival was justified as so many textile craft skills had fallen from the heights achieved during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when skills reached a plateau of creativity, popularity, but perhaps more importantly still one of general acceptance and critical acclaim within the fine art and decorative arts world.

However, it was perhaps the reinterpretation or re-imagining of so many traditional textile craft skills in the 1960s and 1970s that has left us with our own biased opinions concerning these skills. Crochet is a particular, but by no means unique casualty of this era. Often very fine pattern work that had been produced in the nineteenth century in order to imitate lace work was now being interpreted and reinvented with much brighter yarns, often using unsympathetic acrylics and much clumsier needles. Pattern work interpretation and finish inevitable suffered with much of the delicacy and subtlety of the original pattern work lost.

Illustration: Crochet Reticella lace pattern, 19th century.

To be fair, one of the prevailing ideas in the 1960s and 1970s as far as textile crafts was concerned, was one of the loosening of the rules and regulations that often plagued traditional crafts. However, this worthy ideal was often badly reinterpreted by self-styled experts, many with little if any design knowledge. The penchant was much more one of changing pattern work, colour and materials for the sake of the change rather than adding to the skill. Books and magazines of the period dealing with crochet would often encourage the use of thick yarns and needles in order to achieve a quick, bulky and obvious result, rather than spending labour intensive time achieving a much smaller, less showy but more accomplished result. As a consequence crochet along with many other textile craft skills have suffered decades of negative publicity.

Illustration: Crochet star pattern, 19th century.

Crochet is a delicate and fine skill. Pattern work can be extraordinarily complex and visually stunning. Perhaps in time, we will be able to see past the thick, overly bright red, orange and lime acrylic yarns and the heavy and laboured pattern work that were so much a part of the 1960s and 1970s re-imagining of this delicate skill.


Anonymous said...

I have an old crochet bed cover with matching pillow covers that was found in my grandmother's house after she died. The pattern is filled with little animals. We did not know she had it. It is either a wedding gift to her...1920...or she made it herself as she made beautiful crochet pieces. We donated one piece to the local museum. Would you possibly be able to date the pattern of the bed cover?

Quilters Cottage Norfolk said...

It's wonderful to see such inspirational lace. I love the lace collar. It must have looked wonderful with it's full costume.
ooh to be able to crochet this fine. The craftmanship is something to admire.

Anonymous said...

These are exquisite! - Sheila

Eva said...

The Turkish women made crochet lace in bright colours, adorned with seed beads, as an embellishment for their head shawls (baslik). Each girl would finish a whole stash of them and keep them in a small glass cabinet to show off with her skills. I saw such a box in the household of my ex-husband's family a few years ago. I wonder if they still do...

Von said...

Lovely post..would you consider doing one on tatting?

John hopper said...

Thanks for all your comments.

Anonymous, I can't pretend to be an expert on dating crochet, but if you send me some photos via my email, then I will see what I can do.

Eva, I have not looked into Turkish crochet, but I think that would be interesting as many seem to see crochet as confined to Europe, so any culture, even on the doorstep of Europe, would be an interesting development.

Von, I am more than happy to post an article on tatting and plan to do so. I also have some old illustrations on macrame, various lace types and lace immitations. All these will be posted over the coming weeks.

Anonymous said...

Where are the written directions for the chairback. I'd love to make that design in heavier yarn for a table cover.

John Hopper said...

I don't believe these illustrations came with detailed instructions. I think they were just examples for an old article.

Susanne said...

Thank you for sharing all this interesting history, your insights, and the wonderful pattern pictures! I would love to re-create the crochet star from the photograph. Are there any copyright matters to be taken into account?

John Hopper said...

Suzanne, I use copyright free imagery unless otherwise stated. These images are definitely copyright free, so please feel free to use them as you see fit, and enjoy them :)

Paula Kelly said...

I've got the pattern for the exquisite collar in an old book published by DMC. A few years ago I managed to make several of the panels and they look fantastic and believe me, I'm not a skilled person at crochet!

John Hopper said...

That sounds great Paula. I always think it's wonderful when people are able to resurrect old pattern work, breathing new life into something that can appear to be little more than an old faded illustration, or jumbled pattern.