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A Stitch in Time

French woman knitting, circa 1801
(as seen on Dames a la Mode

If you are like me and many of my friends, you just can’t relax for long without a colorful strand of yarn threaded through your fingers and a project to knit or crochet.

Hand knitting and crocheting, used to make sweaters, blankets and other protective clothing, were once necessary skills. It was economical to be able to weave strands of wool or yarn into fabric without a loom. The difference between the two crafts is slight – knitters typically use two needles to make their projects while crocheters use a single hook. Today knitting and crocheting are regarded as hobbies - still practical but also satisfying, with a social element thrown in. You can find knitting and crocheting circles in almost every city or region, proof that the practitioners of these crafts like to chat as they work.

Both knitting and crocheting existed during the Regency, though depictions of fashionable ladies enjoying these pastimes are rare. Accomplished young ladies were expected to learn fine needlework skills such as embroidery, along with music, watercolor painting, dancing and a few French phrases to sprinkle in conversation. The humbler skill of knitting wool into fabric for warm clothing was most likely left to the lower classes.

"The Knitting Woman," by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
(Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Of the two crafts, knitting is older, probably by a few centuries. The earliest known pieces of knitting appear to have come from Egypt, between the 11th and 14th centuries. These pieces consist of many types of clothing, including stockings.

Indeed, stockings were a common knitted item in the American Colonies. During the Revolutionary War, Martha Washington is said to have organized groups of knitters, urging them to produce bandages and stockings for the soldiers. One wartime knitter, named Mrs. Eliot, incorporated the date 1776 into the socks she knitted.

The patriotic urge to knit socks for soldiers emerged again during World War I, as evidenced by this wartime poster.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

And who can forget literature’s nastiest knitter, Madame Defarge in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities? During the French Revolution she not only knitted as she watched the guillotine do its grisly job, she also wove the names of the victims into her work. She was definitely a whiz with her knitting needles, even if she was sinister.

Illustration of Madame Defarge knitting
during the French Revolution (The Telegraph)

The art of crochet is more recent. It appears to have sprung fully formed from the pages of ladies’ magazines in the early 19th century, during our Regency period. The first reference in writing to crochet showed up in 1812. In her book, The Memoirs of a Highland Lady, Elizabeth Grant talks about “shepherd’s knitting” as a way to use homespun wool to make items of warm clothing like hats, drawers (underwear) and waistcoats.  An old comb was fashioned into a hook for this work.

There is some evidence that lace making in earlier centuries was a predecessor to crochet. Another theory is that crochet may have evolved from “tambour work,” a type of embroidery done with a hook in 18th century France. The term “crochet” in the early 19th century was spelled as either “crotchet” or “crochet” until about 1848, after which “crochet” was the accepted spelling.

"Woman Knitting," painted by Francoise Duparc, 1726-1778
(as seen on Two Nerdy History Girls blog

No matter how you spell it, crocheting, like knitting, is a popular hobby, fun as well as useful. I suspect that women during the Regency period, like women during the centuries before and after, enjoyed keeping these arts alive for the benefit of the generations that followed. I’ll think of them the next time I crochet a dishcloth or knit a scarf.

Sources for this article include:

  • “Knitting History,” from the Knitting Guild Association website
  • Kooler, Donna, Encyclopedia of Crochet, Leisure Arts. Inc. 2002
  • Madame Defarge: My favourite Charles Dickens character“, February 5, 2012, The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group


  1. A good read, Maureen! And I learned something--again! I wonder where tatting fits into the scheme of things. Thanks for another enjoyable article. xo Jennifer

  2. I'm glad that our generation and the generations to come will have this tradition to keep alive and to keep them happy. It truly is a very productive and relaxing pastime, as well as an important way to socialize.

    - Momma Cat

  3. Very significant Information for us, I have think the representation of this Information is actually superb one. This is my first visit to your site. Woman knitwear


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