Long the neglected stepsister of knitting, crochet is now garnering overdue respect. Reassessing crochet includes a surprising possibility that it is older than previously thought by centuries.
A recent article by Larisa Vilensky in the online journal Crochet Insider, offers a tantalizing clue to crochet's early development. Vilensky theorizes that crochet originated in Central Asia and grew from the rug-making cultures of the region. Her prime evidence are jurab -- colorful patterned socks -- made in the Pamir region and which share significant characteristics with Central Asian rugs.
The oldest known fragments of knitting are socks from Egypt. According to Richard Rutt they cannot be dated with more accuracy than some time between 1200 and 1500 A.D. Anne Zilboorg in her book on Turkish knitted socks says, "It is not unlikely that Turkish knitting was invented by semi nomadic sheep herders. . .Rug weaving was highly developed throughout the Middle East, and knitting, wherever it took hold, fed upon the more ancient craft. The wool yarn, the dyes, and the patterns are all directly linked to rug making."
It is precisely this same connection to rug making that Vilensky has documented in the jurab of the Pamir Mountains, rising up at the northern edge of the Himalayas, and extending into Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. The Pamirs are home to nomadic peoples who for centuries have herded their own animals, and have spun and dyed their own yarns. Vilensky finds that both motifs and colors are shared in rugs and jurabs from the region. Analyzing an intricate pair of socks, she writes, "The composition of these socks is comprised of the most versatile combination of carpet elements including flowers, S-signs, and other geometrical shapes found in carpets of Central Asia.”
What distinguishes the Pamir socks is that they are made not with knitting needles but with a crochet hook, worked in the round from the top down, the traditional method for knitted socks as well. The stitch used is slip stitch, where one loop is picked up on the hook. Unlike other crochet stitches, this stitch has no height, and the resulting fabric is tight, thick and stretchy, producing a warm, durable textile.
Because stitches worked in this manner do not line up directly over one another as the work progresses, the colorwork designs have a distinctive slant, with edges that are not cleanly defined. Jurab designs carry strong cultural resonance, and the techniques for making them are closely guarded family secrets. The socks themselves, though, are simply worn and eventually discarded. As in so many textile arts, old examples do not survive to give us a clear history.
The customary assertion that crochet dates from the mid-19th century relies on the notion that the tambour hook gave birth to the crochet hook. Tambour, a type of Chinese embroidery, came to Europe in the 18th century. The tambour theory confuses the history of lace crochet with a broader history of the craft. It’s widely known that slip stitch crochet, similar to what is done in the Pamirs, though less elaborate, existed in many regions of Northern Europe as a method for making warm clothing out of local wool. The hooks were homemade out of animal horns or metal spoons. Written citations date slip stitch crochet to at least the 18th century, but its origins are unknown.
Vilensky reminds us that hooked tools were also used in rugmaking. In weaving a piled rug, knots are tied around adjacent warps to create intricate colored patterns. After each knot is made, the yarn is cut with a knife. Some knives have a hook at the opposite end, allowing weavers to draw yarn through threads too close together for fingers to fit.
Knowing that hooks were a common tool in Central Asia, it seems plausible that crochet evolved in a similar manner, perhaps even during the same general time frame, as knitting, though in a different place and using a different tool. It‘s also quite possible that slip stitch crochet evolved separately in different areas at different times.
Since the famed Silk Road, the Pamirs have been a significant meeting place of major civilizations. On its Eastern side stand China and Mongolia, to the south Anatolia, to the west the region now called Eastern Europe. The Persians dominated from 500 BC until the 7th century AD. In the 9th and 10th centuries, Arab invasion brought Islam to the region.
In subsequent centuries, Ottoman culture dominated Central Asia, mingling its traditions with those of conquered peoples. Religious and cultural symbols moved from rugs to bags and hats, and all kinds of other textiles, both decorative and utilitarian, including jurabs. Whatever tools were at hand were imaginatively put to use to create the textiles needed.
Perhaps this cultural mix produced the knitting needles of Turkey, though we may never know for sure. In any case, from the medieval era onward, knitting spread north and west to Europe and all over the world, while crochet remained underground, only to resurface and bloom again in Europe centuries later, with lace making as its new starting-point.
The one place it seems to have flourished continuously is the Pamirs, where a forbidding landscape kept its people isolated for centuries. They were (and are) able to retain their Persian culture, still thriving today in music and dance. Even now, some people carry on the ancient nomadic way of life.
Jurabs are still made in the traditional way in a few mountain villages in Tajikistan and neighboring Afghanistan. They are also found in urban areas, but these jurabs are a far cry from their village ancestors, made with imported acrylic yarns, simpler designs, and often different stitch-types. No one can say how many women still possess the knowledge of this beautiful crochet art, but certainly their numbers are dwindling.
Yet in the West, we’ve only now caught a glimpse of it. Hopefully, research by Vilensky and others will stimulate more research and protection against further erosion of the craft.
Dora Ohrenstein is founder and editor of Crochet Insider, an online journal for crochet enthusiasts. For more see www.crochetinsider.com. For bibliographic references, please see the online version of Crochet Chronicle on www.handeyemagazine.com.
- Robert Middleton and Huw Thomas, “Tajikistan and the High Pamirs,” Odyssey Books & Guides, 2008
- Lis Paludan, Crochet History and Technique, Interweave, 1995
- Richard Rutt, A History of Hand Knitting, Interweave, 1987
- Pauline Turner, “Crocheted Lace,” Martingale, 2003
- Larisa Vilensky, From Carpets to Jurabs, April 2010 http://www.crochetinsider.com/article/carpet-jourabs
- Anne Zilboorg, “Fancy Feet,” Lark, 1994