Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Question From Reader: Crochet in America

Can you please tell me why Americans changed hundreds of years of patterns and turned stitches into their own language, for example a double crochet became a single crochet - why?? It's very confusing, especially if you don't know there's a difference. Jo Ko

Good question, Jo Ko!

And the answer is a whale of a tale! Or rather, a look into early American history ...

When America was just a wee infant, with settlers just starting to populate the New England area, they noticed there were whales washing onto shores, making themselves available for easy harvesting. At that time the whales were important because their bodies contained two things the settlers needed: the whale's oil, which was used for making soap, lighting lamps and for lubrication of machinery; and balene, a precursor to today's plastic.

As time went on, the Americans started building ships, launching from the island of Nantucket, to whale hunt. These hunts would take from a week to a month in time. As more and more people came to America, and with England being a huge customer of the American whale products, the need to hunt for more whales grew and grew! (There is reference to America being able to afford the American Revolution due to whaling, but that's another story for another time.)

Eventually, as the whale population in the area decreased due to over-hunting, the need to go into further and into deeper oceans to find the whales was necessary. The whaling history shows that at one point demand was so high that it took a fleet of some 700 ships to sail from the shores of Massachusetts, down and around the tip of South America, deep into the Pacific Ocean, to complete the task of hunting and processing of the whales, taking some 11 years to do (eventually this would give birth to cities such as San Francisco)! As you can imagine, this left a lot of down time for the sailors, and after the whales were processed right on the ships, many sailors would take to hand-decorating and hand-carving the whale's balene into useful items, including creating crochet hooks and corsets used in the 17th and 18th centuries.

While this was going on, the Industrial Revolution in America was blossoming. With the invention of various machines, products such as fabric, trims, and even thread, were being mass-produced. This meant the time women previously spent to card, spin, and weave cloth by hand in order to clothe their families, could now be used as "leisure time." (As the fabric became more reasonable in price, the women's skirts got bigger, eventually to the point where traditional jackets no longer fit. This would bring about the need for crocheted and knitted shawls for both fashion and warmth which is still popular today!)

With this leisure time, needle arts were no longer a pastime for just the elite. With the aid of a family member or friend, or by paying for lessons, American women of all classes took to the needle arts to decorate their garments and their homes; passing the name of stitches and techniques by word of mouth. This is how stitches became renamed. ((This happens even in today's time! I've had many students show me stitches and call them by different names -- names provided to them by the person they learned from!))

As the growing interest in the decorative arts grew, publishers started providing patterns. Printed patterns started appearing in the States around 1840(I have one dated 1849); this would cause problems with beginner crocheters because they assumed the reader was experienced enough to figure things out on their own. Since the pattern designers in the early American publications were American, they used the terms familiar to them, eventually creating the American version of crochet terms and abbreviations we use (in America) today.

Today the good news is:
1. Whales, for the most part, are no longer hunted (the BBC news reports that the Alaskan Eskimo hunt is one of five still permitted by the International Whaling Commission today). You can visit Cape Cod and go whale watching.
2. Some whale populations are slowly returning. Recently a gray whale was spotted for the first time in the Atlantic region in 300 years.
3. The Craft Yarn Council of America is working hard to regulate the fiber crafts. You can visit to learn more.
4. In today's publications, one of the easiest ways to determine which set of crochet rules you'll be following (American vs. European) is by looking at where the material was published. It is also recommended you read the general instructions and stitch abbreviations prior to starting projects.

For further information:
Read: Historic reflections in crochet by Nicole H. Scalessa (your local library might be able to obtain it for you)
Watch: Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World
Visit: The New Bedford Whaling Museum


Sara said...

The changing terms do make it harder, but know I'll always think of the whales when trying to convert a pattern. :)

Erika said...

Thank you so much for this very interesting report. I very much enjoyed reading it and learning a bit about it's history.

Have a nice evening!

Unknown said...

I enjoyed reading your blog.