It took our intrepid craft columnist 30 years to learn how to crochet. Now Emma Mitchell is so hooked she sometimes forgets to eat dinner. Here, she discusses the meditative highs – and tangle-strewn lows – of the yarn-based pursuit.
I received The Girls’ Handbook for Christmas in 1982. It was an excellent tome full of tips on how to tie a sheepshank, file your nails so as to avoid the Stig of the Dump look, rewire a plug and how to bake a floofy fairy cake. The crochet section sounded thrilling: “Use a hook to make a useful pencil case out of string.” Fie to Duran Duran pencil cases. I was going to make my own stringy number and be the coolest girl in class.
The crochet tutorial pages were full of hand-drawn illustrations of a pair of hands (nails filed into the perfect arc, obvs) wrangling some string into fabric by sticking a hook in and out of some loops. I was a girl who made her own flip-flops out of bits of old cardboard. This was going to be a cinch. I raided the kitchen drawer for string and my Gran found a crochet hook at the bottom of her sewing basket. And so it began.
Things started well. I made some interlocking loops that looked like a little plait – I’d made a foundation chain. BOOM! My pencil case was surely just an hour or so away.
Then the book explained, “Insert your hook into the chain, pull through a loop and make a stitch.” The accompanying diagram caused my handmade hope to droop. It was like a cartoonish pile of interlocking spaghetti. It was three-dimensional stringy calculus. Flippin’ ‘eck Tucker, where was I supposed to stick my hook? I tried poking it into various stringy apertures and pulling through various loops. I succeeded in making a sort of tragic little stringy beard. The pencil case was nowhere. I sought solace in an episode of Fame and a packet of Spangles.
For the next few months I persisted, to no avail. Each knotty tangle seemed to confirm that crochet was the particle physics of yarncraft. It defeated me. For 30 years.
“Then, suddenly, I’d cracked it. There were no tangly knots, no woolly dreadlocks, just a slow-growing fabric of miraculous yarny loops made with a funny-looking stick.”
Cut to 2008 and the beginning of the current craft revival. With a brand new blog and brand new handmade friends who shared my love of hand-thrown mugs and knitted beanie hats, I harboured a secret hope that my craft nemesis could be conquered. However, I also had a new baby. Three extremely kind women tried to simultaneously teach me to conjure up a little woolly primrose while I breastfed a miniscule Mitchell. It did not end well. The result was a pale yellow bird’s nest, a slightly squawky baby and an addled brain. Hooky success remained elusive.
Several more years passed before I began to peer, in a slightly defeatist, grumbly way, at YouTube crochet tutorials. I’d learned the terminology – foundation chain, double crochet, treble, amigurumi – by osmosis from fellow bloggers. I even knew the UK vs US terminology trickiness. Then, suddenly, after hours of watching American women make things with wool and hook I realised I’d cracked it and was making stitches. There were no tangly knots, no woolly dreadlocks, just a slow-growing fabric of miraculous yarny loops made with a funny-looking stick. HURRAH!
It’s thought that crochet started life in the 16th century and evolved from a form of Chinese looped embroidery called tambour, which was made with a tiny hook. Eventually the material on which the embroidery was worked was abandoned and the rows of looped threads were used to make intricate lace-like fabrics. It can be traced along the trade routes from the East and became extremely popular in both France and Ireland in the 1800s. In the 1980s and ‘90s crochet fell out of favour, along with most crafts. Man-made fibres and mass-produced goods were fashionable and delicate handmade crochet doilies and windcheaters made of granny squares were a source of ridicule.
“In recent months when a family member was unwell and stress levels were high, crochet gave my brain a break and allowed it to breathe a sigh of relief.”
But in the last few years there has been renewed appreciation for the joy of making things with your hands and crochet has risen to the top of the craft pops. It’s difficult to fathom why taking up hook and yarn has become so popular. It may be its versatility – it can be used to make flat fabric, innumerable exquisite lacy motifs, three-dimensional toys (the Japanese art of amigurumi) or the simplest of washcloths. I believe it’s also the meditative nature of making loop after loop; the repetitive, soothing, satisfying feeling of conjuring your own fabric with such simple materials that has led so many to turn back to this neglected craft.
Betsan Corkhill of Stitchlinks has been working with the medical profession on the benefits of yarncraft and their work has shown that regular stitchy sessions can help to ease the symptoms of depression, migraines, neuralgia, anxiety and chronic pain. Betsan believes that focusing your mind on creative yet repetitive activity such as crochet can decrease the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system: essentially it turns down the volume on the rest of the world. Your hook and yarn come into focus and everything else falls away.
In recent months when a family member was unwell and stress levels were high, crochet gave my brain a break and allowed it to breathe a sigh of relief. I swear my adrenaline levels dropped; I relaxed and I lost count of the number of hats and scarves I made. It’s like yarny yoga, with the brilliant addition of handmade lovely things.
I’ve made a film of how to begin to crochet. The first steps for many projects are a slip stitch and a foundation chain. This is like the first row of little crochet bricks in your woolly wall.
Tweet me at @silverpebble if you give it a try.4010 Views
I make things, mostly out of silver, sometimes out of wool. I’m never too far from a bottle of PVA glue.