A Stitch in Time

It’s winter, and cold weather is a great inducement to focus on indoor activities.  For me, that means it’s time to find my yarn basket. I just can’t relax for long without a colorful strand of yarn threaded through my fingers and a project to knit or crochet.

Hand knitting and crocheting, used to make sweaters, socks, and other warm clothing, were once more than cozy activities. They were necessary skills, a method anyone could learn to weave strands of wool into fabric without a loom.

Today knitting and crocheting are regarded as hobbies, still practical but also satisfying, with an added social element. The difference between the two crafts is slight – knitters typically use two needles to make their projects while crocheters use a single hook. You can find knitting and crocheting circles in almost every city or region, along with stores selling a wide array of yarns in a rainbow of colors.

Of the two crafts, knitting is older, probably by hundreds of years. The earliest known pieces of knitting appear to have come from Egypt, between the 11th and 14th centuries. These pieces consist of many types of clothing, including stockings.

1855 illustration from Forrester’s Pictorial Miscellany for the Family Circle

Though knitting is often seen as primarily a woman’s activity now, originally the craft was dominated by men. Europe had men-only knitting guilds until the 1700s. It took three years of intensive of training for a man to become a journeyman knitter, and even longer to reach master status.

Before the Industrial Revolution introduced machine knitting, both men and women learned how to knit as a way to use their spare time to earn money. Socks were especially popular. Knitting as part-time work must have been a common practice; there are many illustrations of shepherds knitting while they watch their flocks.

Knitting and crocheting existed during the Regency, though depictions of fashionable ladies enjoying these activities are rare. Accomplished young ladies were expected to learn how to do fine needlework such as embroidery, along with other skills such as music, watercolor painting, and dancing, plus a few French phrases to sprinkle in conversation. The humbler technique of knitting wool into fabric for clothing was most likely left to the lower classes.

However, according to the authors of Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England, girls in Regency England learned knitting, sewing and embroidery regardless of their social background because these crafts were considered vital skills. Women spent a lot of time on their clothes, including sewing, mending, altering or decorating their gowns and bonnets, either for themselves, family members or as charity work.

“Woman Knitting,” by Francoise Duparc, 1726-1778

Here’s what one husband wrote to his wife in 1809:

“You have said nothing about how you pass your time or amuse yourself. I should think you’d be at a loss at times for something to do, tho’ I suppose you nit [knit] a great deal now, and must have improved much. I never expect to have to buy any more worsted [woven wool] stockings.”

Jane Austen refers to knitting in her novel, Emma. After hearing Jane Fairfax praised by her aunt, the voluble Miss Bates, Emma says to Harriet:

“One is sick of the very name of Jane Fairfax. Every letter from her is read forty times over; her compliments to all friends go round and round again; and if she does but send her aunt the pattern of a stomacher, or knit a pair of garters for her grandmother, one hears of nothing else for a month. I wish Jane Fairfax very well; but she tires me to death.” (Chapter 10, Volume I).

The art of crochet is more recent. It appears to have sprung from the pages of ladies’ magazines in the early 19th century, during our Regency period.

The first reference in writing to crochet appears in 1812. In her book, The Memoirs of a Highland Lady, Elizabeth Grant talks about “shepherd’s knitting” as a way to use homespun wool to make items of warm clothing like hats, drawers (underwear) and waistcoats.  An old comb was fashioned into a hook for this work.

There is some evidence that lace making in earlier centuries was a predecessor to crochet. Another theory is that crochet may have evolved from “tambour work,” a type of embroidery done with a hook in 18th century France. The term “crochet” in the early 19th century was spelled as either “crotchet” or “crochet” until about 1848, after which “crochet” was the accepted spelling.

No matter how you spell it, crocheting, like knitting, is a popular hobby, fun as well as useful. I am grateful that women during the Regency period kept these arts alive for the benefit of the generations that followed.

Queen Victoria knitting with her daughter, Princess Beatrice, 1895


Sources for this article include:

  • Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England, How our Ancestors Lived Two Centuries Ago, by Roy and Lesley Adkins, published by Abacus, an imprint of the Little, Brown Book Group, a Hachette UK company, London, 2013.
  • Emma, by Jane Austen, published in December 1815, in London by John Murray
  • “Knitting History,” from the Knitting Guild Association website
  • Kooler, Donna, Encyclopedia of Crochet, Leisure Arts. Inc. 2002
  • “The History of Knitting, Part 2: the knitting guilds,” August 16, 2015, The Crafty Gentleman.net

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Similar Posts

One Comment

  1. As someone whose hands are constantly busy, more with crocheting than knitting, I was delighted with the info in your article. (I make shawls for the church, warm hats for whoever needs them, and clothes for 12″ dolls.) I have often wondered if I dared insert a bit of crochet into our period, and now I know. And, yes, I can vouch for the fact that there are groups everywhere keeping these precious skills alive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.