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Crochet: A Craft Craze for the Cool Kids

Eleanor Gilchrist | Newcastle University


In the UK in the 1840s, a new craze hit the drawing rooms of the middle and upper classes. Where before, an elegant woman might have embroidered or netted a purse to pass the time, occupy her hands and prove herself feminine and useful - but not too useful - now, the fashionable elite turned their hands to crochet. It is easy to lapse into modern stereotypes and think of crochet as something your granny might do, lumping it in with knitting as something slow and old-fashioned. But, in 1840, it was novel and fashionable, and its possibilities were exciting.


Although not strictly new - crochet probably dates back at least another century - this little-known craft was popularised by another new kid on the block: the craft manual. These books were mostly written by lower-middle-class women, many of whom ran businesses such as haberdasheries and shops selling craft materials. As well as producing a new income stream in themselves, sales of craft manuals would have boosted sales of materials and equipment just as they do today. Many of the books included patterns for the more established crafts of knitting and netting, sometimes with basic instructions as well, but it was crochet that was the novelty. Being new to many, perhaps even most, it had to be explained in some detail.


It is clear from the pricing of the earliest craft manuals that they were aimed at elite women, but we have no way of knowing exactly who these readers were or what level of crafting competence they already possessed. It is also difficult to learn about the women who wrote these books as many did not put their names to their work. Even for the women whose names we know, there is a lack of discoverable biographical information to tell us about the lives they led and how they learned the craft, design, and teaching skills they used in their writing. Some have left clues in the prefaces and introductions of their books. Some have even made bold claims about themselves. Others are all but anonymous.


Cornelia Mee is probably the most fully documented of the early craft writers. We owe most of what we know about Cornelia to her great-grandson, Sir Patrick Reilly, who outlined the main events of her life and some family stories in a privately printed memoir intended for his family. Born Cornelia Austin in 1815, she was the daughter of a haberdasher and undertaker in Bath, which may have been where she initially learned her business skills. Her mother died giving birth to her sister Mary when Cornelia was fourteen, and her father died the following year, orphaning seven children. There are no more records of Cornelia until she married Charles Mee in 1837. The 1841 census reveals that Cornelia's sister, Mary, lived with the couple. Sir Patrick Reilly conjectures that Charles and Cornelia had taken responsibility for Mary's upbringing since their marriage. So far, so typically nineteenth century.


But by the late 1830s, Cornelia was in business in her own right, in partnership with two men, and running a shop selling embroidery materials and teaching needlework skills. We don't know whether this partnership predates her marriage, but in February 1839, she advertised the business as now being under her sole control. At this stage, two years after her marriage, the business is still called Austin's – her maiden name. The business was eventually renamed Mee's, and Charles was listed in the trade directory as proprietor of the business in 1841. Regardless of its legal status, it is clear that the business was firmly Cornelia's.


Despite being the driving force behind the business, Cornelia combined her work with the more traditional feminine roles of wife and mother. Between 1839 and 1844, the couple had four daughters, the eldest sadly dying at only six months old. At much the same time (1842-1845), Cornelia published three craft manuals. This was no mean feat with several small children and a teenage sister to care for, even if Mary was by now assisting in the shop. Cornelia went on to publish twenty-six more books over the next twenty-four years, twelve as sole author and fourteen in partnership with Mary.


A swatchbook cover in silk with a design of poppies in pink and green on a dark blue ground.
Crochet samples, USA c1850, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (Public Domain).

We do not know how Cornelia learned her craft skills. In the "advertisement" (effectively the preface) to Tatting and Frivolité, dated 20 December 1862, Cornelia said that she found it hard to explain the craft of tatting: "I never remember learning the work or when I did not know how to do it. I believe it was taught me by my grandmother, who, if she had been living, would have been in her hundredth year." She may also have learned to crochet and knit the same way.


Cornelia sought, and received, recognition for her work and hence presumably publicity for her business. She was given an award for crochet at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and an honourable mention at the International Exhibition in London in 1862. In his memoir of his great-grandmother, Reilly found no evidence that Charles played any role in the day-to-day running of the business, and he did find indications that Cornelia and Charles separated in later life.


Cornelia's story has many similarities with the stories of other early craft manual authors. Writing whilst mothering several small children and simultaneously running a business either by choice or through necessity is a common theme. Jane Gaugain, who published the first crochet pattern in English and went on to publish twenty books, ran a haberdashery business in Edinburgh and had ten children, four of whom died before the age of three and only three of whom outlived her. She and her husband started out very much as a team, united by ambition, but after several business failures ended up living apart.


The Lady's Assistant for Executing Useful and Fancy Designs in Knitting, Netting and Crochet Work. Illustrated with Fifteen Engravings, Showing Various Stitches in the Art of Netting. By Mrs Gaugain.
Title page of The Lady's Assistant by Jane Gaugain, 1840. This book contains the earliest known published crochet pattern in English. (Public Domain: CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0))

The lack of international copyright laws meant that Cornelia's work, like that of several other authors, including Jane Gaugain, was reprinted in the USA and across Europe without permission. Often these reprints were unattributed or misattributed, and the work of more than one author might be combined into one volume and repeatedly translated into other languages. Several authors wrote about their frustration at being unable to prevent printers and publishers benefitting from the wider distribution of their work when they themselves did not.


With the exception of Cornelia Mee, the lives of the other named writers must be pieced together from records of births or baptisms, marriages and deaths, census records, and the autobiographical information in their books. To complicate matters, there is often a lack of consistency between the sources. For example, Mlle Eleonore Riego de la Branchardière, one of the most prolific of the mid-nineteenth century authors, was born in 1829 according to her death certificate. The 1871 census, however, indicates that she had been born in 1834. Mlle Riego published her first book, Knitting, Crochet and Netting with Twelve Illustrations, in 1846. This makes the 1834 birthdate seem unlikely since she would have been only twelve. In the preface of this first book, she describes herself as 'having had much experience of teaching', which seems a stretch even at seventeen. However, in 1886 she reasserted that she was only twelve when she wrote her first book.


Playing fast and loose with the autobiographical information in their books was not uncommon. Cornelia Mee, Mlle Riego, and a writer we know much less about, Frances Lambert, all made misleading claims about the origins of crochet. Cornelia's great-grandson quoted a claim printed on the cover of her last manual, which may have been published posthumously: "Mrs Mee was sole Inventor of the Art of Crochet in all its varieties, nothing being known till she published her first books on Crochet, but the common Shepherd's Crook Crochet." This is definitely not true; examples of complex crochet exist that date back several decades before Cornelia wrote her craft manuals. Mlle Riego claimed repeatedly to have invented and popularised crocheted lace, but by the time she published her first book containing a true crocheted lace pattern, seven other authors had already published at least one such book. Whilst not claiming to have actually invented any aspect of crochet, Francis Lambert does claim in the preface to the second series of My Crochet Sampler, published in 1848, "the merit - should any exist - of introducing to general notice the art of Crochet, and being the first who described the method of working it." Her first book was published in 1842, two years after Jane Gaugain's first book.


While needlework and crafts such as crochet were activities accepted and encouraged as suitable for women, running businesses and writing books were less so. Cornelia Mee, Jane Gaugain, and their contemporaries broke out of traditional gender roles, writing and conducting business under their own names. They also succeeded in straddling class boundaries in ways that served them and their businesses. The authors were mostly lower-middle-class working women who had to tread a fine line between working hard to make a living and appearing genteel to appeal to their elite clientele.


Despite disregarding the norms of class and gender themselves, these women took full advantage of societal expectations of these same norms, emphasising crochet as a ladylike accomplishment. They made claims of patronage, dedicating their books to members of the aristocracy or royalty. If their stories are all to be believed, Queen Victoria's daughters must have been well supplied by the availability of needlework expertise! Reilly, for example, recounts a family story that claims Cornelia gave needlework lessons to Queen Victoria's daughters. In a letter written in 1887, Mlle Riego writes about knitting for Queen Victoria's mother and teaching needlework to all of her daughters. Though theoretically possible, no evidence for either of these claims has been found.


Queen Victoria and Princess Beatrice crochet at Windsor Castle.
Queen Victoria crocheting with Princess Beatrice at Windsor Castle, 1895 by Mary Steen (Public Domain).

Unlike the young princesses, most women did not have experts queuing up to teach them. Instead, one option was to turn to craft manuals. The authors of these books were pioneers in providing written instructions for manual, procedural skills, and they invented the format of the pattern as we would recognise it today. They were, in fact, inventing a genre. The earliest books include very few images, instead relying on prose descriptions of varying quality. These instructions were not very consistent in their vocabulary and would have been extremely hard to learn from. Readers must have persisted - or paid for lessons - because sales soared with many craft books going into several editions and follow-up volumes coming hot on the heels of the first. Within five years, explanations became clearer, images began to be included, and vocabulary became standardised. Patterns settled into a format similar to that we would recognise today, becoming easier to follow with more reliable results.


Developments in printing technologies and significant reductions in taxes on paper contributed to a boom in publishing, and publishers were keen to exploit every conceivable market. Over the second half of the 1840s, crochet and craft manuals became shorter and cheaper. They were no longer only available to the elite. The craft opened up to wider and wider audiences and became more technically sophisticated. Crochet had arrived.

 

Further Reading:


Three of the earliest craft manuals, which have been digitised and are publicly available:

Books about the history of crochet and knitting, which, though out of print, are available second-hand:

  • Paludan, Lis, Crochet: History and Technique, (Interweave Press, 1995).

  • Rutt, Richard, A History of Hand Knitting, (London: B T Batsford Ltd, 1987).

Sir Patrick Reilly's memoir about Cornelia Mee, which is only available at the British Library:

  • Reilly, Patrick, Cornelia Mee 1815-1875, (Place of publication not identified: P. Reilly, 1983).

Eleanor Gilchrist is a PhD student at Newcastle University. Her research investigates the development of the craft of crochet, including making a detailed analysis of the earliest craft manuals to include crochet instructions. She is the recipient of a Special for Everyone Robinson Bequest Bursary.

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