Tunisian crochet has had an uncertain and fluctuating history. For one thing, nobody quite knows where it came from — despite the name, we can’t be sure that the style even originated in Tunisia.
One theory credits sailors and shepherds with developing the technique as a simple way of creating warm clothing. It seems most likely that it evolved from a style of hooked knitting practiced in Africa and Central Asia, including in Tunisia and Afghanistan. Hooked knitting shares elements with both conventional knitting and crochet, being worked on two long needles with hooked ends.
Despite this, no crocheted fabrics have been found in Central Asia, the Middle East or North Africa that date before the 1920s. The earliest European examples that textile historians know of are from the mid-nineteenth century, with existing patterns and exemplars dating to the same period.
With such a hazy history, it is not surprising that Tunisian crochet has been known by many names. It seems that the French first attached the ‘Tunisian’, although they have also given us the popular term tricot crochet (tricot is French for knitting, appropriately reflecting Tunisian crochet’s blend of the two fabrics).
Other names that you might encounter include shepherd’s knitting, German work, Russian work, fool’s or idiot’s stitch (encouraging for beginners!), crochet knit, Tunis crochet, and railway stitch. This last is my personal favourite; it is thought to come from the working-class girls who crocheted while waiting for their trains to the factories and mills of nineteenth-century England.
Unlike knitting or conventional crochet, Tunisian crochet’s popularity has fluxed with time and has never truly regained the popularity it enjoyed in the nineteenth century.
All forms of needlework were widely practiced in the Victorian era, when advances like the sewing machine allowed women more time for pursuing ‘useful leisure’ activities beyond the utilitarian. Yarn as inexpensive as local cottons or as luxurious as silks and fine wools could be used to make anything from practical stockings and mittens to fine lace edgings, fancy tablecloths and delicate collars, making crochet both useful and appealing to all classes of women.
Nineteenth-century publishers, as part of a wider explosion in book and periodical publishing, latched onto the popularity of yarn crafts and began producing the first widely distributed patterns and craft manuals. It is from these that we have our first official references to Tunisian crochet.
A 1907 copy of Needlecraft periodical gives an introduction to the craft (source):
This useful work in its simple form is also known as tricot, tricote, idiot, fool or dolt stitch, and is greatly employed for scarves, sofa rugs and other articles that require a firm, close stitch. For light and dainty articles, it is quite unsuitable. In Germany and France, however, many varieties of the stitch are worked, some being close and others light and open so that they may be employed for every purpose, from couvre-pieds waistcoats and golf blouses to baby’s garments and shawls.
Tunisian crochet remained a reasonably popular craft until about the 1920s, particularly lingering in Norway (where it is called hakking). As the twentieth century progressed and the role of needlecrafts in women’s lives shifted, however, Tunisian crochet was one of those that faded from the picture.
A simple form of Tunisian crochet enjoyed a short revival in the 1970s, particularly in the United States. Even then, most crafters remained oblivious to the variety of stitch textures available to them, largely using the basic ‘Afghan stitch’ or ‘Tunisian simple stitch’ to create thick, plain-coloured blankets for subsequent decoration — the square, grid-like pattern produced by the Afghan stitch makes an ideal base for embroidery and cross-stitching.
Thanks to the sharing of craft ideas enabled by the internet, this lovely fabric is finally having its due resurgence. Take a look at my previous post on Tunisian crochet for some more information about its style, the technique and some links to pattern ideas. Show references