When I unpacked the yarn I had transported from Virginia to Florida, I found several granny squares left over from an afghan I made for a niece about 10 years ago. I knew there wasn’t enough for another afghan, and besides, who needs an afghan in Florida? But maybe a throw for the living room sofa would work. So I laid out the squares, and voila! They materialized as pillow covers that would freshen the decor. I not only used up eight partial skeins from the original project, but another three as well. Nina cared not a whit about my accomplishment. Amidst my books and hooks, she instead snuggled into the bright grannies.
Looking at both my cat and my enterprising use of scraps, I escaped into my lifelong love of crochet. Although a family friend taught me both to knit and crochet when I was about seven years old, I got hooked on crochet. Since then, I have made more pieces than I can count—everything from afghans and sweaters to necklaces and beaded snowflakes. But it’s more than making things. It’s a creative outlet, and, as frustrating as it is to rip out stitches or recount chains, crochet reduces stress.
Maybe it’s the tangible nature of the labor. Or the puzzle-solving quality of interlocking one color of yarn with another. Or the repetitive and meditative motion. I don’t know. But in surveying my work, I slipped into a trance in which a tangle of memories evolved like snarled skeins of yarn. Each untwisted knot revealed a moment when art imitated the life it reflected.
Like when my father was dying. I sat at his bedside and crocheted. He didn’t know I was there, but I did. And rather than feeling useless, I felt calm. And productive. Likewise, I once brought yarn on a visit to my mother-in-law as she slipped into dementia. I asked her to hold the skeins while I wrapped them into balls. We talked about color and texture—very concrete topics as memory fades.
In fact, according to the American College of Health Care Administrators, for persons with dementia, touch may be a vital vehicle for expressing emotions and making meaningful contact. Think about it: Everything you touch—silk, granite, kittens, or a hot stove—sends a message to the brain. Tactile stimulation is, in fact, brain inspiration.
No wonder, then, that as my fingers skittle through skeins, they fabricate the other yarns. Imagination overtakes the prosaic whether I’m waiting at the airport, sitting shotgun on a cross-country drive, or watching TV with my husband. We enjoy each other’s company while immersed in different worlds—his defined by dramatic suspense, mine by palpable artistry.
Crochet is an ancient art, though no one knows for sure where it started. Undoubtedly, it began as function, as early as the Stone Age. The word comes from Old Norse krokr, the Germanic croc, or the French croche. They all mean “hook.” The first hooks were the fingers of prehistoric hunters and gatherers who fastened together whatever they could find—plants, sinew, bone—to trap animals, fashion clothing, and prepare food. As the Stone Age evolved into the Bronze and Iron Ages, so did the materials for hooking.
The Vikings perfected wire-knitting during the 7th or 8th century AD, when they wove long strands of silver and gold first into ropes, then body armor (known as chainmaille), and finally jewelry. According to The Book of Viking Myths by Peter Archer, their art was complex and impressive, reflective of a rich civilization known more for sacking the castles of medieval Europe and selling into slavery the monks who guarded their treasures. Having taken a class a few years ago on Viking wire-knitting, I can attest to its strength and beauty.
Centuries later, crochet developed into a decorative art, but archeologists and anthropologists differ on how that happened. Some say it was born in Arabia and followed the trade routes to Europe and Asia. Others, that it originated in China and followed those same routes to Europe. Yet others point to unrelated sites, like an isolated tribe in South America that has crocheted ritual garments for centuries. By 1300 AD, however, we know that hooks from brass, bone, ivory, and wood were being used in Turkey, North Africa, China, and India. Annie Potter, author of Annie’s Crochet Odyssey: History of Crochet, believes that the art of contemporary crochet evolved in Europe in the 16th century.
Being of Irish descent, I am fascinated by the role crochet played in the an Gorta Mór, The Great Hunger. From 1845 to 1849, the British took advantage of a potato famine to strip the Irish of their Catholic allegiance. Unwilling to capitulate, more than a million Irish men, women, and children subsequently died of starvation in less than 10 years, while the Brits exported tons of seafood, crops, and seeds. But Irish women created a means to survive and thrive—by day, toiling the barren fields; by night, crocheting lace. A practical alternative to lavish needlepoint lace, their work transcended their peat-smudged squalor.
Horrified by conditions under which the women worked, a coterie of altruistic ladies established a market for the delicate Irish lace and a means for Irish women to sustain their families. Sarah Reed details that history in “Irish Crochet and Clones Lace: Exploring Lace Making in Crochet.” She notes that, “When Queen Victoria promoted the lace at an arts exposition in London, the demand became so high that professional dealers took the place of the charities and the business of lace-making moved from a resourceful survival skill into an industry.” Although banned from wearing lace themselves, the scrappy Irish triumphed. So I tried my hand at the technique. You might say that “scrappy” was the result.
But not my memories of trying. From Aran sweaters and Spanish serapes, to Japanese amigurumi dolls and Tunisian afghans, my endeavors were more than projects. They form a crocheted memoir. And I remember each wedding, birthday, gala, and boyfriend, probably because of the tactile-brain-emotion connection.
Once, I incorporated that same tactile stimulation into a lesson plan I created for about 30 inner city, middle-grade students on a field trip from New Orleans to San Antonio. You have to do something to break up a five-day bus ride for kids whose attention span rarely exceeds an hour. So along the concrete highways, I threw in byways of Stone-Age sinew, Viking wire, and Irish lace. I taught boys and girls to first finger-crochet, then to hook-crochet scraps of colorful yarn into bracelets and headbands. One boy, Anthony, really got hooked, I smile every time I think of his exuberance.
Those bygone yarns returned me to the pillow covers laid out on the sofa. When I found that Nina had appropriated them, I asked if she had taken up a new hobby, perhaps something to reduce stress. Seeing no point in working hard to relax, she meowed, “No,” then simply purred herself into a cat nap.