Growing up here in southwest Michigan, we had to find creative ways to pass the long winter evenings. It was a given to see my grandmother, my mom, and my aunts doing some kind of needle art every night. It was also a given that my generation would grow up learning the basics of this art form.
"Needle art" is an umbrella term that covers various crafts including crochet, knitting, hand embroidery, tatting, counted cross stitch, and more. Long considered an older generation’s craft, times are changing, and younger folks are discovering the joy and benefits of this art. Besides the normal hats, mittens, scarves, sweaters, and table runners, new patterns are springing up all the time for a bounty of new items.
I learned to crochet at an early age, as it was my mother’s favorite type of needle art. I was given a ball of yarn, a crochet hook, and was taught the basic chain stitch. I was told to practice until all the stitches were uniform. Needless to say, I think my chain could have made it into the Guinness Book of World Records!
Apparently more and more Americans are discovering the attributes of needle arts, because approximately 31.5 million adults participated in needle arts in 2012 — an increase of 2 million people from 2008. Many of these arts are similar, but each has its own characteristics. It is usually a matter of personal and individual taste which to choose.
Crocheting and knitting are sister crafts, as both use yarn or other fiber, both use patterns, and the finished product is basically a series of loops. However, there are distinct differences:
Crochet is a process of creating fabric by interlocking loops of yarn, thread, or strands of other materials using a crochet hook. It dates back to the 18th century, and is a French term meaning “small hook.” The hooks used are made of metal, plastic, and wood. The crochet stitch is made by pulling yarn — or whatever material is being used — through an active loop, and each stitch is completed before proceeding to the next one, just opposite of knitting, where a large number of stitches are open at the same time. Usually yarn, thread, or wool is used to create the fabric. However, rope, grass, wire, dental floss, and even human hair have been used.
In Europe during the 1800s, crochet was known as “shepherd’s knitting.” It was invented as a method of producing a cheap substitute for traditional lace, thus it was known as an inferior craft. Queen Victoria changed its reputation by buying crocheted lace from Irish women who were struggling after the potato famine in Ireland. Subsequently, she learned to crochet, and it soon became a popular craft. Crochet was ranked number 3 in Google’s most popular how-to search in 2014.
Closely related to crochet, knitting is a technique of producing fabric from strands of yarn or wool using two or more needles to loop the yarn into a series of inter-connected loops in order to create a finished fabric.
It evolved from nalbindning which is an ancient Scandinavian technique that produced woolen clothing from lengths of yarn with a single short needle. Evidence of the earliest knitting using two needles came from 11th century Egypt, where knitted socks were found. The needles were made from ivory, bone, and even tortoise shells.
Cotton and silk were more popular for knitting than wool was for the first 400-500 years of the craft. Soon, wool became the material of choice, and sheep were bred mainly for their wool. The Merino sheep were a popular breed because they produced yarn that was soft, strong, and sustainable.
Knitting — once considered a male-only occupation — came to be considered a national duty during the first and second world wars. Women were expected to knit warm clothes for soldiers who were stationed in cold war zones. Recent studies have deemed knitting a healthy hobby, since it has been known to reduce high blood pressure, decrease heart rate, and spur relaxation responses.
Sadly, tatting is a needle art that is becoming a lost. It is an ancient form of lace-making that was popular during Victorian times and also during the 1950s and 1960s. It is a technique for handcrafting a particularly durable piece of lace from a series of knots and loops. Intricate doilies, collars, earrings, and necklaces have been fashioned by tatting.
Essentially, thread is wrapped around one or two shuttles, which are used to guide the thread into a pattern of knots to create rings and chains in delicate designs. The shuttle passes in, out, and around the hand to tie a simple set of knots. The knots are then arranged in marvelous ways with picots, loops, and chains. There are hardly any straight lines, as the rows consist of curved stitches, picots, and little loops that make the final product lacy and frilly. Depending on the design, the finished lace can be plain or intricate.
It is said that the art is in the design and the rest is skill, but an eye for beauty transforms a useful skill into an art. Thus, it comes full circle. Ironically, children and handmaidens were taught to tat edging that was quickly snatched up.
Tatting and crochet are often confused because they look a lot alike, even though there is a distinct difference in the technique. Tatting is looped, wound, and knotted to form the lace, whereas crochet is only looped.
Hand embroidery and counted cross stitch, although similar, are two more distinct crafts in the needle arts. Hand embroidery is a technique for sewing designs by hand onto a piece of cloth using five basic stitches. Embroidery uses different stitches to achieve the texture of the finished piece; counted cross stitch uses only one stitch and relies on color and shading for texture. The counted cross stitch is worked from a graph where the printed designs are rendered as a series of X's, and the artist stitches the design accordingly.
Thankfully, needle crafts are making a comeback as people realize that working with one’s hands helps relieve anxiety and stress. Even younger generations are realizing the peaceful and calming effects. Local yarn and textile shops are enjoying a surge in revenue as folks want to see and feel the materials in person, thus the local brick and mortar shops are edging out online textile retailers.
Sophie Schneider, a 23-year-old med student at the University of Nebraska Medical Center turned needlepoint into a successful business venture with her own Etsy shop, SeeSophieSew. Perhaps she said it best: “There’s so much technology, I think our generation is starting to feel pulled to go back to simpler things, kind of maybe to balance all of the crazy, modern, hectic things.”
I think Sophie speaks for us all.
Photo by Fotolia/tata_cos