Crochet: a brief history
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THE EVIDENCE (OR LACK OF)
The earliest physical evidence of any kind for the thread technique we now know as crochet dates to about 1800. This is disappointing to many people who would like crochet to have originated earlier. But if crochet was done earlier, we would expect to find some actual examples somewhere -- in old collections, from tombs, from archaeological digs. I've never heard of any that have been examined by textile-knowledgeable people that have proved to actually be crochet -- they are all something else. (Usually naalbinding, a completely different technique.)
There are some very faint indications that some sort of chained trimming was made around 1580 (it's mentioned once in Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd, for instance). But this seems, from the context, to have been some type of cord, which was probably sewed down onto fabric like an ornamental braid. (It's a bit confusing that it is referred to as "lace," but remember that the commonest meaning of the word "lace" at that time was "a cord for tying," as in "shoelace.") Santina Levey in her excellent Lace, a History mentions this "cheyne lace" and says it was made with a hook, though she doesn't say how she reached this conclusion.
A single loop, drawn through with a hook, is sometimes used in bobbin lace to attach one piece to another. However, there's never more than one loop at a time, and they are a very minor part of the pattern (less than 1%).
Lis Paludan, in her excellent book Crochet: History and Technique (Interweave Press, 1995, ISBN# 1-883010-09-8, unfortunately now out of print) also discusses a primitive-looking form of crochet called "pjonting" which is basically a slip-stitch fabric. The earliest examples seem to date from about 1810-1820. (She only has a few pages on the early history of crochet this far back, but it's more than anyone else has. )
It's fairly clear now that crochet as we know it doesn't begin to be commonly seen until sometime after the mid 1700s, when tambour embroidery (a chain stitch done with a small crochet-like hook) reached Europe.
At present, the leading theory for the origin of crochet seems to be that it began when someone realized that chains worked in a pattern would hang together without any background fabric. Historians refer to this theory as "tambour in aria," since it's very much like the way the needle-lace technique "punto in aria" developed from Reticella embroidery on fabric. Santina levey presents a photo of a primitive sort of chained net, tentatively dated to the late 1700s, which shows what early crocheted "lace" (in the modern sense) could have looked like.
You do fairly often see claims that such-and-such a piece from an Egyptian tomb (usually) is "exactly like" crochet. So far all the ones I've seen and heard of have turned out to bear only a superficial resemblance. When you follow the path of the thread, it is quite different.
You also hear claims that "nun's work," done for centuries to ornament church linens, is crochet. Again, if "nun's work" was actually crocheted, we'd expect to see some examples, since there are certainly examples of many other types of work (needle lace, bobbin lace, knitting) from those same centuries. Still no crochet examples. (And church textiles seem to stand a better-than-average chance of being preserved.) It appears likely that the idea that "nun's work" equals "crochet" arose sometime in the 19th century and has been uncritically copied from older books by later authors. It is far more likely that the term simply meant any ornamental work done by nuns. For what it's worth, I have seen a sampler in hollie point (a needle lace technique) also referred to as "nun's work."
Hooks and hooked needles do not necessarily have anything to do with crochet. There is often a hook at the top of the shaft of a drop spindle, for instance, to hold the working thread. Hooks of various sizes and shapes have many uses, and it cannot be assumed that a "hook" mentioned in an inventory has anything to do with needlework, even if it is in with other needlework tools or clothing. For instance, Queen Mary Tudor's inventory mentions "hooks" that turn out to be short curved pieces with no handles, like the small hooks we hang pictures on. Knitting needles too have often been hooked, and in some cultures still are.
I'm sympathetic to the feelings of people who would like crochet to have been invented earlier, but the fact remains: no matter how "simple" or "obvious" crochet appears to us now, no pieces at all from before the late 1700s or early 1800s survive. Considering how much we have in the way of surviving examples of other techniques from the same time periods, this seems to most textile historians to be a very strong argument that crochet did not exist before about 1800.