The “wanton-eyed” crocheter: from Irish lace to pussy hats

To those familiar with the craft—and those who can at least spot a doily on grandma’s loveseat—crochet doesn’t typically evoke visions of immodesty, subversion, or the struggles of women in the workplace.

There was a time in history, however, when the act of crocheting became bound up with the entrepreneurial dreams of impoverished women, as well as society’s perceptions of them. The place was Ireland, and the time was the Great Famine of the 1840s.

Irish women were desperately seeking ways to help feed their families, and despite the declining demand for handmade lace in Ireland, a revival of the cottage industry soon developed. This was initiated by wealthier women and convents looking for charitable opportunities, along with larger textile businesses seeking to profit from the relatively inexpensive labor. Though some children and men were also employed as lacemakers, the workforce remained overwhelmingly female. Pay was generally meager but usually topped other workhouse wages, making it an attractive alternative.

crochet collar
Photo from: Cole, Alan S. (1890). “Lacemaking in Ireland,” The English Illustrated Magazine, 7: 655-668. (Public Domain)

It’s important to note that, at the time, there were many methods for making lace by hand, with visible differences in the resulting products. Of these, crochet became one of the most popular among hopeful Irish lacemakers. It was easy to learn the basic stitches, the work was portable, and even beginners could design their own patterns. Those who had neither the time, the resources, nor the connections to learn the more rigid and complicated forms of lacemaking turned to crochet.

“Godly people held the crochet-worker in horror”

This accessibility and ease of learning, it appears, was a problem—at least according to author Alan S. Cole, writing in the 1890s for The English Illustrated Magazine:

“‘Wanton-eyed’” women standing at their doors, and chattering with any one who would stop and talk, greatly favoured crochet, and it soon superseded the embroidery on net….Godly people held the crochet-worker in horror, and so long as traveling agents bought the work freely, and enabled the demoralized crochet women to thrive, there was no doubt a justification for the outcry made against the vice, which seemed to be inseparable from this branch of industry.” [1]

His melodramatic descriptions of the “artistic deficiencies” and “socially demoralizing effects” of crochet are intriguing, but he fails to give many specifics about why exactly crochet would have led to moral corruption, or vice versa: There’s a lot to unpack here, and Cole leaves his modern-day readers with a lot of unanswered questions.

It seems reasonable that the portability of crochet could allow a woman to stand or walk around with it and even have conversations while completing the work. This in itself doesn’t seem to imply lewdness—at least through a 21st century lens—but if we add to it the accessibility of crochet to the poorest and least educated women, this may have produced a certain crochet culture that wrankled the sensibilities of the Victorian middle and upper class. Crocheted lace was generally bulkier and less delicate than other forms of lace, making it less appealing to customers, which may have further tainted the reputation of the crocheter.

‘Wanton-eyed_” women standing at their doors, and chattering with any one who would stop and talk, greatly favoured crochet, and it soon superseded the embroidery on net….Godly p

Historian Patricia Wardle (Victorian Lace) cites Cole’s analysis but takes a slightly more sympathetic view: “It does indeed seem that crochet-making had a great appeal for the peasant women, not only because they were free to develop new forms and stitches for themselves, but because they were, on the whole, left to themselves in other respects, too.” [2]

And what would the crocheters themselves have said about their attraction to the craft? Wardle gives voice to one young crochet lacemaker of the era, originally quoted in the 1865 book The Lacemakers:

“I likes the crochet best, ma’am…because there’s hope in it. I may get ever so much for what I makes, if I happen to hit on a new stitch, and all the time I’m at it, I don’t know but I may have a lot of money coming to me, and I’m kep in spirits like, to the last moment; but that pillow-work—och, ‘this horrid, ma’am! You’re made sinsible from the beginning that you’re only to get the trifle of a price, no more, nor no less, and no thoughts will help you, you must go on with the thing to your ordthers, which is what I won’t do, until I can’t help it, plase God!” [3]

It’s hard not to be buoyed by her enthusiasm and aspirations for her crochet work, as well as her vehement refusal of low-wage, factory-style work. Given the Industrial Age upper classes’ obsession with efficiency and discipline, it’s not surprising that she felt more thrilled with designing her own work than she would at a long table in a workhouse, watched over by nuns or other instructors.

crocheting in convent
Photo from: Cole, Alan S. (1890). “Lacemaking in Ireland,” The English Illustrated Magazine, 7: 655-668. (Public Domain)

Mrs. Meredith, author of The Lacemakers, interprets society’s disdain for the crochet lacemaker as reflecting the shift from women working in “domestic occupations” to working for wages: “Money became a snare to the ill-trained female multitude” [4]. She laments that the infusion of cash—small as it was—into poor households had not resulted in “social elevation.”

On the topic of creativity and free expression, however, Meredith seems caught between a sense of pity and contempt for the crocheters’ lack of training and social refinement, and fascination with the unrestrained way in which the women “toiled and laboured, to make out a way in which to express their sense of the beautiful.” [5]

“Their crude fancies knotted and gnarled the thread into shapes so various and extraordinary, that to examine them became a study—not of lace, but of people. Poor little girls! their notions of beauty were as rudimentary as those of the early races.” [6]

“Crude fancies” become radical artistic expression

After the famine in Ireland had ended, the handmade lace industry struggled. Machine-made lace was far less expensive than any of its handmade counterparts, and customers tended to prefer laces that were finer than what most crocheters could produce. A small cottage industry remained in Ireland, while other forms of crochet fell in and out of fashion over the decades.

It feels appropriate, then, that in the second half of the 20th century crochet not only survived as a hobby, and for some a livelihood, but found a new niche in the world of contemporary art—a place where unrestrained creative expression and art as a study “of people” is encouraged. Along with other fiber arts, crochet became a medium for large-scale, sculptural installations, such as Faith Wilding’s Crocheted Environment (1972/1995).

Now, crocheted installations can be found in galleries, museums, and even parks and streets worldwide; many of them are ephemeral or meant to be disassembled and transported. Avant-garde crochet artist Olek pushes boundaries with crochet-clad models wandering sidewalks and interacting with the public. Toshiko MacAdam creates enormous, interactive nylon playgrounds with the intention of bringing children together to play in public spaces.  

toshiko macadam
One of Toshiko MacAdam’s playgrounds. (Photo)

Crochet and other so-called “domestic arts” have also emerged as an avenue for exploring gender, class, race, and social norms, in juxtaposition to their historical association with quiet women’s work. Crocheting “craftivists” blend their art with causes they believe in: “pussy hats” to support women’s rights and gender equality, crocheted coral reefs to educate the public about our impact on Earth’s oceans, and charitable efforts of all kinds.

From yarn uteri to jungle gyms to pink pussy hats, this may not be our grandmother’s crochet, but the spirit was already alive 150 years ago in the Irish crochet lacemaker supporting her family, exploring her creative potential, and being a little rebellious.

 

 


Sources:

Cole, Alan S. (1890). “Lacemaking in Ireland,” The English Illustrated Magazine, 7: 655-668.

Meredith, Charles, Mrs. (1865). The Lacemakers. London: Jackson, Walford, and Hodder

Wardle, Patricia. (1968). Victorian Lace.

Footnotes:

  1. Cole 1890, p. 663.
  2. Wardle 1968, p.197.
  3. Meredith, 1865, p. 374.
  4. Meredith, 1865, p. 16.
  5. Meredith, 1865, p. 86.
  6. Meredith, 1865, p. 86.

 

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