Tunisian Crochet: A Short History

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

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Ball of red yarn with a crochet hook

Tunisian Crochet: An Introduction

When I first began teaching myself to knit and crochet I was delighted to find a box, buried beneath blankets on a neglected shelf of my parents’ linen cupboard, full to the brim with my grandmother’s crafting implements. In amongst the alarming collection of tiny double-pointed needles (she must have been a gun sock-maker) was one rather strange crochet hook. Extra long and lean, it has hung around with my familiar tools, just waiting for me to solve its mystery.

Finally, its day has come. As soon as I stumbled across this wonderful tutorial from the Purl Bee, the answer was clear and enticing — Tunisian crochet.

Tunisian crochet fabric in progress

Image from The Purl Bee

TUNISIAN CROCHET: STITCHES AND STYLE

Tunisian crochet creates a dense, textured and fairly inelastic fabric that you can whip up at about twice the speed of knitted fabrics — perfect for those big winter blankets and throws.

The technique can be thought of as a mix of knitting and crochet; if you’re competent with either you’ll be able to pick it up with ease. In fact, beginners will probably find it the simplest yarn craft to learn. All you’ll need is an ‘Afghan hook’ (the official name of my long oddity) two or three sizes larger than you would normally use for your yarn (to avoid an overly stiff fabric).

Like its conventional cousin, Tunisian crochet starts with a foundation chain. From there, things get interesting. Rather than creating and closing one stitch at a time, you create the fabric in a two-row process. The ‘forward’ row moves from right to left as the stiches are gathered and left on the hook (hence its extra length); the ‘return’ row moves from left to right as the stiches are interconnected and dropped from the hook. The work is never turned, meaning that the front side of your fabric is always facing you — pretty handy if, like me, you’re apt to lose track!

Pattern publishers have only recently begun to embrace Tunisian crochet and standardise its stitch language so you’re unlikely to find a great range of pattern books at your local yarn shop. Thankfully, home crafters and independent professionals are filling the gap. A quick bit of Googling will turn up a host of ideas, including some modern experimentation with light, airy stitches.

Take a look at these free projects from across the web to get started.

Tunisian crochet washcloths in orange and grey yarn by the Purl Bee

Tunisian crochet washcloths (image and pattern from The Purl Bee)

Shawl of multi-coloured Tunisian crochet squares

Shawl or throw in crochet squares (image and pattern from Couturier)
This pattern is in Japanese, but take inspiration from the many textures of Tunisian crochet it demonstrates!

Striped Tunisian crochet cushion

Striped cushion (image and pattern from According to Matt)

Multi-coloured blanket in crochet squares

Patchwork throw (image and pattern from Lion Brand Yarns)