Thursday, February 21, 2013

Bent-wire crochet: the crochet stitches

"The Captain, in a wig, generally sat in a corner chair with arms to it, never doing anything that ever I saw. He was old and getting frail, eighty-five or eighty-six, I believe. Sometimes when he was not well he wore a plaid cloak, and a nightcap, red or white, made by his industrious wife in a stitch she called shepherd's knitting; it was done with a little hook which she manufactured for herself out of the tooth of an old tortoise-shell comb, and she used to go on looping her homespun wool as quick as fingers could move, making not only caps, but drawers and waistcoats for winter wear for the old husband she took such care of." 
—Elizabeth Grant, Memoirs of a Highland Lady, a recollection from 1812/13. 

"Crochet—so called from the French name of the instrument wherewith it is worked—though long known and practiced in Scotland, in its simplest form, under the name Shepherd's knitting, did not attract particular attention until within the last seven years. Since that time it has been brought to great perfection, and has obtained the preference over all other ornamental works of a similar nature." 
—Frances Lambert, "Handbook of Needlework," 1846.

Crochet was revolutionized in the first half of the nineteenth century by the introduction of new stitches and new hooks suited to making them. The earlier, more basic technique (it is variously called slip stitch or bosnian crochet, shepherd's or shepherd's crook knitting) is simply chain stitches worked through each other. Articles of shepherd's crook knitting can be country-charming to our eyes today, but they held little consumer appeal in a time when everyday life was a bit too country. Shepherd's crook knitting remained a stay-at-home Cinderella, a craft practiced only in scattered maritime communities of Europe.

A traditional hook for shepherd's crook knitting (a.k.a., slip stitch crochet.) Image from String Geekery.

Even in shepherd's crook knitting, you can put a stitch absolutely anywhere you please (it seems crochet's real desire is to make a cobweb, not a fabric,) but that will just leave you with a long, loose, unconsolidated stitch. The nineteenth-century innovation was a simple way to make a stitch reach out a long way, but work back to where it started in a series of chain stitches, chain stitches that were made all the tighter by a helical overwrap of yarn—the very yarn of the original reach.

Now, for the first time, a seamless article could be made with any desired degree of rigidity, security from unravelling, and structural ornamentation. The killer app turned out to be purses. With in a few years the old way of making coin purses, spool knitting, was out, and crochet was in. As the preferred wrapper of money, articles of crochet were now to be found in every bank and city street, and aboard every Grand Tour. Cinderella never missed another ball.

Around 1840, when the new technique was coming over in a wave, the British called it crochet ("hook"in French) because the news was coming from France, but we now know that the first crochet patterns had been published in Sweden twenty years earlier. The Swedes are the only people who did not name crochet for its remarkable hook, so it is plausible that their ancestors made the innovations of crochet's finger-worked era as well. (A plausible reason why it is only scattered maritime communities in Europe that know how to do shepherd's crook knitting is the Vikings.)

The technique of the new stitches, called, single, double, treble, etc., crochets, involves the wrapping of extra turns of yarn, or yarn-overs, on the shaft of the crochet hook at certain stages in the making of the stitch. Since a hook shaped like a shepherd's crook cannot very well store on its shaft extra turns of a suitable diameter for its hook to later pull through, the new stitches required redesigned hooks as well: modern crochet hooks are more cylindrical and less aggressively hooked.

A challenge in bent-wire crochet is to make these crochets, these out-and-back stitches, with the same assembly technique used for the chain stitch. My approach has been to make the reach out to the point of attachment with straight wire, then turn, and work a chain back that straddles the reach (rather than being helically wrapped by it as in the traditional technique.) The sculpture in the image below displays an approximately 13-tuple crochet stitch worked in this technique (in this case, there's nothing attached at the far end of the crochet stitch—not something you could do in yarn.)

Interaction. Galvanized steel wire.

No comments: