By Dora Ohrenstein
It’s sad but true, crochet is too often not given its due. It still has an image problem. Why it’s such a struggle to establish crochet’s worthiness is a mystery, though some plausible theories can be advanced. In any case, it’s my mission to bust those persistent, pernicious myths, once and for all.
Let’s look the enemy right in its ugly eye by stating the case against crochet baldly:
Crochet is for boxy, unflattering, garishly colored garments that cover the body stiffly and gracelessly. It’s also good for covering up small trivial objects like a toilet roll. Unlike it’s refined sister craft, knitting, crochet isn’t suitable for anything fine and lovely, due to its basic flaws, which are: 1) heaviness 2) poor drape 3) stiff fabric and 4) inaptitude for fine shaping. For those with infinite patience, crochet when applied to thread and tiny steel hooks can make lovely doilies, but that’s your grandmother’s crochet, not ours.
These are TERRIBLE FALSE CHARGES which I’m about to repudiate, but these pictures say it all, and far more eloquently.
I don’t aim to bash knitting — it’s undeniably beautiful and I’ve learned a lot from its best designers. But it does seem that crochet’s bad image comes largely from knitters trying to make crochet behave like knitting, and when it won’t, griping about crochet’s “limitations.”
Many a good knitter becomes fairly adept with the hook, usually in order to making edgings on sweaters. An edging is not a garment however. When making something from scratch, the two crafts present identical challenges: how to take a particular yarn and turn it into a fabric that matches its function, whether the thick fuzzy comfort of a winter hat or the supple movement of a skirt. Beyond fabric weight and feel, the needle artist needs to shape her work to precise dimensions, must determine how to put her piece together – the construction — and make it as lovely to behold in reality as it is in her mind’s eye.
So yes, knitters and crocheters face the same challenges. Problems arise, however, because the answers to these questions are very craft-specific, beginning with what size tool, be it hook or needle, is the best choice.
Not long ago I was in my LYS (local yarn shop) when a customer holding a bulky yarn asked the proprietor what hook size she would need to crochet with it. A size G was suggested. “No!” screamed my brain — I really didn’t think the customer wanted a stand-up-by-itself scarf. Too bad though, because my interjection that a larger hook might be better met with hostile looks. My point is, if you look at a hook with a knitter’s eye, you’re likely to pick one that’s too thin, because your needle might be that size, but your hook needs to be larger to get similar drape.
Tool size is only one factor, albeit a major one, among many. To make quality designs with crochet, one needs a kind of expertise that goes far beyond executing stitches. It comes from long acquaintance with yarns, hooks, and stitch patterns, and from patient experimentation with various construction methods that are unlike knit construction. People who mostly knit are not likely to have developed these skills in the medium of crochet, and worse yet, are not likely to admit it.
It all begins with the stitches. Designer Vashti Braha, an outspoken crochet advocate, compares the knitted with the crocheted stitch as follows:
Knitted stitches are like a bunch of waves (or ripples on a lake, to be poetic), held on the needle in suspended animation long enough to build on them by creating relationships with other ripples linking them up. The crochet stitch is a strand crossing itself to create a closed circle, or loop. The simplest is the chain stitch, but all other crochet stitches use multiple loops locked together in a structured way that results in a very complex relationship within each stitch and as a whole fabric. Each stitch is a self-reliant, independent community of loops, knotlike, whereas one knitted stitch is interdependent and therefore easily unravelled.
These comments from Vashti arose out of a discussion of knitting and crochet on Kim Werker’s fun and informative e-zine, Crochet Me. Clearly, I’m not crochet’s only defender.
Interdependent knitted stitches are lined up in rows and the fabric builds up in one dimension. Construction is based on flat fabric models. The typical knitted sweater pattern looks like a sewing pattern minus seam allowance, with separate pieces for the back, front and two sleeves. The knitter generally starts from the bottom up, eliminating stitches to narrow or widen the fabric to achieve the shape desired.
In crochet, each stitch is an entity in itself and doesn’t require a nearby neighbor to keep it standing. This makes crochet very versatile. When you complete one stitch and begin another, you can turn in any direction and build up fabric at any point. In fact, straight rows of unvaried, same height crochet stitches are perhaps one of its least attractive manifestations, though in skilled hands they too can look good. Crochet stitches have a spidery ability to latch on to one another; we can call this its connectivity. An equally crucial component of crochet is the varied height of stitches. Any number of little and big guys can stand together in a row, or around a center point, either alone or in groups. And since the crochet stitch is not only sturdy but yielding, you can insert the hook over and over again in the same space, making small groups and big groups and bigger groups, then chain along to another spot and collect another bunch together. Crochet stitches of different heights can be grouped and deployed like figures in a Busby Berkeley spectacular. By exploiting these elements inherent in crochet, practitioners have developed an immense gallery of stitch patterns resembling waves, shells, flowers, pineapples, diamonds, and many more. The building blocks of crochet can be toyed with endlessly. This is the architectural quality of crochet.
In Busby Berkeley films there’s always a shot where we’re looking down at the dancers from above and seeing a patterned circle, something like the images in a kaleidescope. Crochet stitches too are marvelous worked in the round, with logical, mathematical stitch increases adding fabric as the work progresses from a small circle to an ever larger one. It seems the eye takes particular pleasure in the orderly unfolding of more and more stitches from a center point. Neither math nor engineering genius is required to achieve a crocheted circle, just a little experimentation with the hook. In fact, crochet can make any shape desired, as freeform and Irish Crochet amply demonstrate. The ubiquitous Victorian crocheted shawl was often made in the round. Just as commonly, shawls were constructed as triangles, using fan or shell stitch patterns whose diagonal lines could be exploited to create the triangle shape.
The creations which emerged from Irish Crochet between 1885 and into the early 20th century, are among the most impressive design achievements in fashion from any period, and remarkable demonstrations of crochet’s structural, multidimensional and connective abilities. It’s mind-boggling that discussions of lace and crochet’s place in it so often focus on the fact that Irish Crochet started as a discount way of imitating “real lace” and fail to recognize its achievements beyond that. As if Bobby McFerrin’s singing were denigrated because he is “merely” imitating an orchestra. Once the crochet lacemakers really saw the form’s possibilities, they moved far beyond what
lace had been to that point, namely collars and cuffs, and created an elaborate, completely original form not duplicated by other lace-making techniques. The finest pieces of Irish Crochet evoke otherworldy fantasies and might have been made for princesses in fairy tales. Yet real women wore these creations — they are the original “wearable art.”
The basis of Irish Crochet are roccoco, 3-D depictions of flowers, leaves, bunches of grapes and other natural objects, stylized to resemble sculpted filigree in palazzos. Completed motifs were placed on a paper model of the garment, and the fabric between motifs created using special “filler” stitch patterns, developed for the purpose of maneuvering into and around the complicated motif shapes. This kind of construction is very natural and sensible in crochet, and is far from the flat pattern model.
Irish Crochet motifs are only one of many methods that involves putting smaller pieces together. Geometric motifs are a staple of crochet work, because crochet and geometry are very cozy bedfellows. A crocheted circle is easily turned into a square by adding extra stitches at four corners, resulting in a “block.” A square can be made in rows, as in knitting, but that would be boring considering all you can do by working blocks in the round. As stitches are added in each round to grow the circle, patterns and shapes can also be created by exploiting crochet’s building tools — the Busby Berkeley groups mentioned earlier. Given the infinite possibilities presented by crochet stitch patterns, designing blocks is a rich and rewarding art.
Given crochet’s remarkable, well-documented history, and its obvious wonders as a craft, one may well ask how it became associated in many minds with potholders, dishcloths, and clunky outerwear. Undoubtedly there were socioeconimic factors at work, and they deserve further study and analysis. See http://www.chezcrochet.com/page0101.html for a very interesting article about this issue. In any case, by the time of needlwork’s last great resurgence in the 1970s, magazines typically featured garment patterns for knitters and “home dec” for crocheters. Crocheters who yearned for fashion would clamor for the knit patterns to be converted to crochet. Publishers complied, using the same yarn and a hook sized to yield a similar gauge than the knitted original. The knotty crochet fabric turned out a garment twice as heavy and bulky, and crochet’s bad name was the unfortunate result.
There were, of course, many lovely “purely” crochet fashion at this time as well, like these great coats by Lillian Bailey at left. Somehow these great designs failed to make an impact on the prevailing spin about knitting vs crochet. Rather the unsuitability of adapting knitted patterns to crochet turned into the injunction that crochet was not suited to garments at all.
Crochet has always been hugely popular for making afghans and doilies. This in turn has had an impact on what skills are emphasized when it’s taught. According to Vashti,
“The way crochet is taught– Canonical Crochet — is, from a fashion standpoint, “Jacket Crochet”, great for coats, jackets, any structured piece. As for drapy empire-waisted camisoles or bias-drape-front cardigans, or languid flare-sleeved peasant tops, or fluid tunic-dresses, or clingy pencil skirts etc., it takes a different kind of crochet. This kind of training is very hard to find. Clearly it requires a different choice of yarn, something silky and lank, luminous, stretchy, and a different choice of gauge. Neither afghan gauge nor the firm gauge used for thread and lace will do the job. Lastly, the stitch pattern must be carefully chosen; they all have different kinds of flex in different directions.”
This is a fine summary of the skills needed to master fashion crochet: a deep knowledge of yarns, hooks, stitch patterns, and shaping that all of us designers are constantly seeking. It’s also true that training has not been easy to come by, though the Crochet Guild Of America, thankfully, has done a great deal to make it more available. The more crochet moves out of its straight jacket, the more demand there will be for these skills and hopefully, more teaching of them in a variety of platforms.
Let me return to a point asserted at the start. A designer who thinks like a crocheter will design in a manner fundamentally different from the approach taken by a knitter. A knitter is usually thinking of flat planes, cutting or adding fabric at the sides of pieces to obtain certain shapes which are then fitted together to form the finished garment. The flat pattern model works beautifully for them and the methods are documented in numerous fine books and taught in yarn stores everywhere.
Crocheters have a completely different mind set. They can work from the center out, or from circumference to center, or work in rows for a while and then turn and go in a whole new direction. More fabric can be whipped up at any point: if you’ve worked the midriff area of a top, let’s say, and have now arrived at the bust, you can simply add stitches right where those protrusions are rather than at the sides of your piece. Because of these options, one piece design is more inviting in crochet than in knitting. Conversely, crochet is very suitable to multipiece designs too, as in Irish Crochet, or by combining geometric motifs. The multipliticy of stitch patterns influences the crocheter to think differently from the knitter, by making textural choices integral to the design concept. Crochet stitch patterns offer not only texture, but shapes that can be built right into the garment. In short, crocheters have a different toolbox from knitters. They may use the flat pattern model, but many prefer to do their garments otherwise. People with a flair for structure, like Jennifer Hansen who is trained as an architect, or mathematics, like Marty Miller, make outstanding crochet designers.
Doris Chan’s designs are amazing structural achievements. Her garments use openwork lacy patterns, are made in one piece, worked in the round from the top down with raglan shaping for the neckline, shoulders and sleeves all accomplished by internal shaping, with no seams. In Amazing Crochet Lace, her inspired debut book, Doris explains how she arrived at the method. Having mastered motifs and how to join them, for Doris it was a natural leap to the realization that:
“The yoke of a sweater is just a giant motif, somewhere between a circle and a square, with controlled pattern growth at four “raglan” points. I naturally gravitated toward making my exploded doily garments from the neck down. Through trial and error I figured out how to take a pretty stitch pattern and grow an exploded, shoulder-shaped motif.”
Doris makes this brilliant step sound obvious, while the rest of us can only marvel at her impressive feat of engineering. The needlework world has quickly embraced Doris’ unique talent, and everyone loves her gorgeous “exploded lace,” the seamless flowing lines and drape of her garments, and the sheer ingenuity of her designs. Read more about it in the interview with Doris in this issue.
The negativity about crochet derives from fossilized notions that have to do with unpleasant things like class snobbery and ignorance, unfortunately often furthered by marketing trends in the needlework industry. Luckily this is changing, especially since world class fashion houses like Prada and Oscar de la Renta have taken up crochet in recent seasons. We live in a land of culture by marketing, and when the big names do it, everyone else wants to. Fortunately some wonderful crochet designers like Lily Chin, Margaret Hubert, Melody MacDuffie and many others are around to jump at the new publishing opportunities that have developed in the last few years. Needlework magazines too are committing more pages to high quality crochet designs.
Crochet has infinite possibilites, that’s why we who love it do it, knowing one can never come to the end of discovery with this craft. If you want to understand crochet’s possibilities, have another look at what’s been done, keep an open mind, and you’ll see how marvelous a tool the hook can be. On the other hand, if you don’t invest the time and energy to learn how to make crochet drape, float, and cling, please, don’t blame the crochet.