essays by Leslie Blackmon and Tanis Gray
It may be a convenient marketing ploy, but if I read one more blurb that says “this is not your grandmother’s crochet” I’m going to go ballistic! It was Annie Modesitt who first pointed out this unwarranted dissing of handiwork by our foremothers. Home and garment fashions were different then, so were yarns, hooks and lifestyles, so naturally women did a different sort of crochet. Often it was at a far more advanced level than what many crocheters do today, so let’s cherish these pieces for the wondrous example of craft and care they are. Certainly crochet is going in some new directions, and innovation is welcome, but it’s the older crochet we’ve fondled, marvelled at, and carefully stored that has inspired the creations of today.
In the previous issue of CI I made a call for people to send their Grandmother’s crochet — and they did! I’m so grateful to the contributors below who sent these examples, and their thoughts and feelings about them, to share with us.
My Mother’s Crochet
by Leslie Blackmon
My mother grew up in rural Arkansas, in modest circumstances. She raised her own three children in small-town Alabama and never worked outside the home. She did not have the opportunity to attend college and never had any formal training as an artist. Yet she was one of the most intelligent and artistic persons I have ever known. She brought a distinctive personal style and flair into every endeavor, from cooking, to decorating our home, to hosting elegant parties. Her creative spirit was most evident, however, in her passion for needlework. She made beautiful sewn garments, quilts, needlepoint and crewel embroidery. Her favorite thing, I believe, was crochet, and it was in this medium that she got most creative. Most of her work was conventional. Above and below are photos of the two thread crochet mega-projects she completed. I remember her working away on the king-size bedspread and tablecloth shown here. These are impeccably made.
What I treasure most, though, is the wild and colorful crazy-quilt style afghan shown at left My mother made several pieces of this sort, but this is the best. She submitted this work to a state-wide art competition in the 1970s. It won an award, and was exhibited in an art museum in Montgomery, Alabama, along with the other prize-winners. It was one of my mother’s proudest moments and I too was proud to have such a cool mom!
I am fascinated that my mother produced this type of piece because I do not recall seeing this type of work in her meager collection of crochet books. Now that I am a serious crocheter myself, I have been trying to find similar work. The closest thing I have found is a piece called “Crazy Quilt Afghan”, made by Helen Bitar and shown on page 62 of Creative Crochet by Nicki Hitz Edson and Arlene Stimmel. I am quite sure, however, that my mother did not own this book.
My mother died twenty years ago, at the all-too-young age of 49.
If she were alive, I would love to know whether she dreamed up this design out of thin air. Or had she seen the Edson/Stimmel book or others like it? Was this a technique she learned growing up in Arkansas? This last possibility is intriguing because it suggests that this type of free-form was born in rural America, originated by country women making pretty things for the home — much like the granny square — then taken to the next level by the master free-formers of the 70s. If anyone has any insights, I would love to hear them!
The age-old battle continues: Crochet vs. Knitting. Who will win?
Yarn Coordinator, Soho Publishing
Would crochet beat up knitting in a smack down, or would knitting win because it has twice the needle power? It’s an all-out crafting war that has been brewing for centuries.
I am one of “them.” The type of person who some people look down upon because I have an equal love and respect for both knitting and crochet. I dabble in them both, although I am more proficient in knitting. Both techniques are good for certain things. Personally, I’d rather crochet a giant circle rug than knit and drive myself crazy with the increasing and decreasing. I’d rather knit a cabled sweater than crochet one. Am I a bad person because I cannot choose between the two the way a mother cannot chose between her two children? There are even videos on YouTube about knitters treating crocheters like lepers. Are the people who thumb their noses at the opposing craft right or do they need to get over themselves? No one knows for sure. And so the battle continues.
When I was very young, I used to watch both my grandmothers make amazing things with their crochet hooks. They’d pull out tablecloths made by their mothers that looked like they were made with a hooked toothpick, christening gowns that looked like they were made by the angels themselves and incredible handkerchiefs that made you wonder what kind of person would blow their nose into such a work of art. No pun intended, I was hooked. I watched and waited, hoping to be taught.
My mother taught me how to knit when I was 9 years old. She had just finished making me a beautiful mauve mohair sweater and I was intrigued. My neighbor taught me how to purl and soon enough I was knee-deep in beginner scarves. When I moved onto mittens, every person I had ever met in my life got a pair, whether it was 10 degrees or 110 degrees in Boston. While going to college at RISD, I needed something to keep me busy while I was a teaching assistant and time moved slowly. A girl down the hall convinced me that I could pick up crochet in no time and we went to Wal-Mart, buying enough acrylic to start me on an afghan for my chilly dorm room. By the end of the semester I had made three and managed to retain all A’s.
Times back then were different in the age of my grandmothers and great grandmothers. There was no TV, no afternoons spent pillaging the mall or seeing a movie during a rainy day. Woman had a place in their home and were for the most part, expected to stay there. They had a radio, a home to manage and children to raise. Many of them also had a sewing machine, a crochet hook or a pair of knitting needles. Did they argue about which craft was better or simply care about which was more utilitarian?
With each passing winter bringing on mountains of snow and ice in western Pennsylvania, my grandmothers got their hooks out and began their projects of the season. One year, all the girls in the family got matching hats and scarves. Another year, we all got muffs. My Grandma Irene had very serious rheumatoid arthritis and her hands were frozen like claws. A handmade gift from her was all that more special, knowing that each stitch must have caused her pain and was made with love. Even with all her ailments and mostly confined to a chair, she crocheted on, moving to the rhythm of her hook, her eyes never looking at her work. She knew her stitches were perfect. Her knitting was equally as amazing as her crocheting.
My Grandma Myrt was notorious for her afghans. Boy could that woman crochet! She had seen a pattern for an afghan in a magazine in the 1940’s, back when quality yarn simply wasn’t available to the masses. She went to her local Woolworth’s and picked out the colors she wanted in good, reliable acrylic. As each winter drew to a close, each of her three sons was presented with an afghan, her friends, sisters, neighbors and happily, me. Nothing has ever kept me so warm on a cold night than one of Grandma’s afghans.
When Irene and Myrt passed away, I was given some of their treasures. To this day, I feel uncomfortable crocheting with anything except Irene’s wooden crochet hook. I feel the history coming out when I make the stitches and wonder about all the projects she made with it and what she did while she made them all. Did she think of her grandmother too when she crocheted? With it, I was given a box of patriotic-colored yarn and a half completed afghan she had started. It still smelled like her house. I could never bring myself to finish her last work, but I will carry that crochet hook with me always. My father was given Myrt’s sewing box and accoutrements. When I started sewing and taking a serious interest in crafting, my father passed it on to me. Inside was the afghan pattern with her handwritten notes on it.
My mom often makes remarks on how thrilled the grandmothers would be with my job. At Soho Publishing, I find myself buried in yarn and patterns day in and day out and loving it. I would have loved sending Myrt hand dyed silk yarn, easing the pain of the acrylic rubbing her dry skin, and Irene would have loved the bulky wools. I can only imagine their delight in all the exotic fibers and colors.
My thoughts often wander back to crochet and knitting nowadays versus the time of my grandmothers. Did all these fancy fibers spoil us? Do we rely too much on the fiber rather than good old-fashioned skill? Why do the projects they made look so much better and complicated than what I see today? Was it because they had more time for the finer things and didn’t spend half their life on the subway? I look at some of the tablecloths handed down to me from my great-grandmothers and my head spins at the complex swirl of the stitches. I could never even conceive of how to make something like that.
So I stand in the middle without judgment, in the position of the blind women holding the brass scales sitting on lawyer’s mahogany desks. To the right are my knitting needles and on the left, my crochet hooks. I stand supporting their weight wearing a knitted sweater and a crocheted hat and scarf. You know what? Each scale weighs exactly the same. One is no better than the other.
I wonder what my Grandmothers would say. I peer over my shoulder towards the past and can hear them both in my head saying, “Bent hook or pointed needles, who cares? Pick some up and get to work.”
A Note from Annette Petavy
This was a gift to me from my grandmother, and I think she made it some time around 1980. At the time, I didn’t realize the time and skill needed to make this, and I’m sure I was far from as grateful as I should have been. It is meant to be used as a short curtain, covering only the top 1/4-1/3 or so of a window. It measures about 15 x 63 inches (without the fringe). It is worked in an ecru cotton thread, and the hook used may have been a 2 mm (smaller than a US B hook), or perhaps even smaller.
As I hope you can see from the close-up, the pattern is full of Solomon knots, which I consider a really difficult stitch — and I’m not a total crochet novice myself! It is so evenly stitched and well done. It could do with some good blocking, but even in this unblocked state, I think you can really see what a beautiful piece of art it is.