Although crocheting has stuck around since its big break-through amongst American housewives during the 1920s, this amount of public engagement in the craft has not been seen since the world wars.
Crochet as business
Robyn Hicks, owner of yarn-business Yummy Yarn and Co in Dubbo, Australia describes the upswing in sales due to COVID-19 to ABC News, telling them that her “phone’s been running hot for the last three weeks.” With demand for yarn at an unusual high, The Australian Yarn Company reports a 200 per cent increase in sales over the past few weeks.
This boom is made even more prominent with the help of technology and the added channels which that allows for distributing the craft. Websites such as Etsy and Pinterest, have made building community easier than ever before, whilst online sales have expanded access to crafting materials by a tenfold.
Online crafts firm Stich & Story was started by Jennifer Lam and Jen Hoang seven years ago in London, aiming to inspire a new generation to pick up knitting and crocheting skills. Telling BBC that their sales have seen an increase of 800% in March compared to last year’s sales, this vision is becoming reality with an unexpected speed.
And not only is this domestic handicraft currently threading its way back into the mainstream fabric of society – but it is also to be found strutted down catwalks of high-end fashion brands, such as Dior and Louis Vuitton.
Within the crafting-industry, nothing can quite compete with the timelessness of crochet – ranking as Google’s third most popular how-to-search of 2014. But there is more to this technique than beautifully wrapping around the bodies of super-models and enabling the creation of baby lobster-suits for Halloween.
Crocheting as therapy
Looking beyond the consumeristic aspects of the current boom within the crafting industry, there are also therapeutic features to crocheting. In these times of major uncertainty on a global level, it provides a means to take things into your own hands.
In her book, ‘Crochet Saved My life’ American author Kathryn Vercillo tells the stories of how women from all walks of life, facing various mental and physical health issues, have healed through the use of their hooks.
“Creating beautiful things by hand and developing new skills helps build self-esteem, something frequently lost in depression,” she says in an interview exploring the many ways in which crocheting has positively impacted her own mental health.
According to Kathryn, it provides a repetitive, meditative, non-competitive activity, that can help combat the daunting feeling of powerlessness through the act of creating something from scratch. Crochet provides a finite project, something with a clear beginning, middle and end. Something within your own control.
Outlining the endless benefits of crocheting on her blog, Kathryn writes about the sense of security induced through the controlled environment in which crocheting takes place.
She explains that not knowing what the world will look like when you wake up is difficult. Not knowing how to best help those in need is difficult. Not knowing when, or even if, the world as we knew it will ever return back to normal, is difficult.
In the light of this situation, knowing that if you loop one thread into another, a chain will be created and that this chain can at any time be unravelled and restarted should a mistake be made is a true comfort, according to Kathryn.
Recent years have also seen a rise in empirical studies surrounding the health benefits of crocheting join the plethora of anecdotal evidence on the subject. These studies unanimously back up Vercillo’s testimonies, showing that crocheting causes spikes in our serotonin-levels, provides a sense of community and achievement.
In April this year, Australian researchers Pippa Burns and Rosemary A Van Der Meer published an international study confirming the plentiful links between crochet and wellbeing. Near to all middle-aged respondents spread across 87 different countries reported a significant improvement of mood following their crochet-sessions.
There is also science pointing towards crocheting’s ability to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by 30-50 per cent, as it involves cognitive exercise. Providing stimulation for your mind, it can slow down or even prevent memory loss according to researchers at Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
Crocheting as craft
In a more literal sense of the phrase, crocheting also played a major part in saving people’s lives during the 1845-1850 Irish potato famine, as exporting lace became one of the only incomes of the Irish at the time. Relying on the earnings from crochet, families managed to emigrate from their poverty-stricken home-country, bringing the invaluable tradition with them across the waters.
Today, crochet is in the West seen as a hobby, a side-hustle or at the most a means of artistic expression – however, in many developing countries, it is still the main source of income for craftsmen/women. Yet main source of income is not the equivalent to a good salary, which is often but a dream for street-vendors living day-to-day on the money they manage to scrape together selling their work at over-crowded markets.
As an art made to be used, rather than contemplated, a utilitarian rather than a high-art tradition, the value of craft compared to painting/sculpture is a topic under debate.
Australia-Jamaican creative filmmaker, artist and curator Ania Freer is currently working to help create a viable market for artisans in Kingston. Last year she curated the exhibition ‘All That Don’t Leave’, lifting the craft practices of seven Jamaican artists, whose work is normally only featured outside mainstream knowledge.
Through her role as curator, Ania aims to create a paradigm within the art-world in Jamaica, opening up the platform to makers who have historically been marginalised from gallery spaces. “Through these exhibitions, I want to bring a different appreciation to the word craft”says Ania.
Featuring in one of Freer’s documentaries, is a woman called Jennifer Stewart, or ‘Eighty’. “The first time I met her, she told me she learned to crochet through stealing a pair of knitting needles and a crochet hook when she was ten.
“Over the course of four to five years, she taught herself how to crochet. And she built up this collection of crocheted pieces. Her family situation was very up and down and at 14, she had to leave home. Those pieces of work allowed her the means to make a bit of a start in the world.”
Describing Eighty’s love for and relationship with crocheting as a profession, Ania points to the non-existent support of a social system or workers-unions to aid in her endeavours. “She’s selling her work for less than what the ball of string to make it costs. It’s bad,” says Ania.
“I think that in terms of art, there’s an emphasis on the maker. A story woven into the personality that is the piece of work. With craft, the maker is invisible, they don’t have that same sort of presence.
“When a story is attached, it creates a different space. It creates a different understanding of the object and the artist.”
Rather than “pretending craft is something it’s not through labelling it as art”, Ania’s hope is to partake in an emergence of new spaces and ways of appreciating the crafts in Jamaica. To create a space for crafts where they, just like art, can serve to provide the artist with a reasonable income.
Crochet as art, science and women’s work
Australia-born science writer, artist and curator Margaret Wertheim can relate to both ‘Eighty’ and Ania on this front. Receiving adequate funding for the revolutionary participatory art project Crochet Coral Reef she, together with her twin-sister Christine has been pursuing for the past 15 years, continues to be a struggle.
Combining art and science to create a virtual response to the devastating effects of climate change on marine life, their project allows people to engage with abstract concepts in a hands-on way. Getting contributors across the globe to crochet corals and reef organisms – many of which are living examples of hyperbolic-geometry – tackles geometry in a tactile way.
A type of structure with a surface which curves away from itself at every point – the very opposite of a sphere – hyperbolic geometry was discovered in the 1820s. However, lacking physical examples of such structures, this complicated structure had scientists puzzled for more than a century.
Then, in 1997, mathematician Daina Taimina at Cornell University did what many had believed impossible. She created the first useable physical model of the hyperbolic plane and she did so using crochet.
Employing this same technique, the Wertheim sisters’ reef-project has over the years expanded to encompass over 50 community reefs across the globe. A large success, it’s been shown in places like the Venice Biennale and Smithsonian – with an outreach into both the art and science sphere.
“We’ve had people from all walks of life contribute – professional scientists, mathematicians, housewives, teachers, students – it’s been done in a women’s prison, in a juvenile girls’ prison,” says Margaret.
“I can’t think of any other art or science project that can say that. This is all possible because of the technique of crocheting.
“The most important thing for me about crochet, is that it’s very easy to learn. I could teach anyone to crochet in 10 minutes. Then they can be up and running – that’s pretty unusual.”
However, when discussing the practical side of things, Margaret recognizes the generally low value associated with crafts and the implications that this brings.
“Money is a very big issue for lots of craft-based artists – and indeed for us. It’s no trivial matter to take on a project like this and stick to it. It’s not something that participates in the art-stock-exchanges as my sister refers to it.”
Struggling to bring a traditionally feminine handicraft into the male-dominated field of science, Wertheim has also found this project to be an index of how gendered a society we still live in.
“All of the funding, all of the grants we’ve ever received has been from the art-world,”she explains, pointing to the lack of recognition from the science world. “Every time I’ve applied for funding from the science world, they’ve told me they won’t even consider the application.”
Reaching out for funding for innovative science outreach, she recalls once being told by a science funder, “I can’t believe, Margaret, that there is any science in a bunch of women knitting.”
“Our show has been seen by millions of people, there has been tens of thousands of people who have actively contributed to the works on display. If we think that science outreach matters, how come science out-reach to women, is apparently not then valuable?”
Speculating on the reasons behind the increasing recognition crochet is receiving across the world, Margaret says “for two generations it had this association with something that was considered to be very – to use an Australian word, ‘daggy’.
“Un-coolness is a great quality and coolness is way overrated… And I like that aspect of the reef, that it is in some profound ways ‘uncool’… It doesn’t have microchips and wizzy-bits in it and that’s the very value of it.
“I think young people are sick of wizzy-bits. They want something physical…to do things with their hands because they’re sick of their computers.”
Reflecting over the beneficial impact activities like crochet can have on society, Margaret questions whether they will ever make it into mainstream, due to “societies obsession with newness”.
“Whether it’s computers or genetics, we have an enormous investment in our society today in a supposed newness. That’s a pathology of our society. We should value all of the handmade things. Hopefully we will.”
Crocheting as community, for community
During WW2, crochet became a means for women on the home front to show solidarity through contributing to the war efforts by hooking up items for the soldiers. Gathering for these wartime efforts provided women with an unprecedented sense of togetherness and sense of purpose.
Much of the intrinsic value in crocheting lies in its community-building features. For a group of elderly ladies at CC Young Senior Living Facility in Dallas, crocheting has meant new friendships and a feeling of great purpose.
They call themselves the Happy Hookers/Bag Ladies and would, Pre-COVID, gather monthly, to turn used plastic bags into ‘plarn’ which they use to crochet mats and mattresses for homeless people in their community.
For Judith Baines, 73, joining the Bag Ladies meant making the move to CC Young so much easier as she had a community awaiting her there.“My husband had wanted to go ahead and move here for a while, I was the one dragging my feet. Eventually, I got to where I really loved the ladies living here, they were just so interesting, and I thought ‘Okay, I can do this’ – and here we are!”
Recalling the times shared with her fellow crocheters, Judith laughs and says, “My husband takes Spanish during the time that we get together, and he says ‘Do y’all do anything but laugh?” Because really, we spend our time laughing and catching up with one another. You know, most of us, our hands are busy – but our mouths are as busy.”
According to Joan Jackson, 88, her favourite thing about the initiative is its two-fold-nature. “It just means a lot of fun times for me and it makes someone else’s life a bit better too.
“One day, one of the ladies from the group was driving down the street and there was a person sitting at a bus-stop with one of our mats hanging over their bags. That was amazing to see, I’m so glad that they are coming to use.”
Reflecting over the times spent together with the Bag Ladies, Joan explains “When we meet, once a month, a different person will have gotten to sign up for a birthday celebration – so then we always have a cake and sing happy birthday. There’s so much comradery with it, I just love it!”
With the current situation, the group has not managed to get together for the past eight weeks, due to social distancing restrictions. This has, however, not stopped the ladies from pursuing their crocheting on separate ends – uniting over Zoom to share their customary laughs with one another.
As an eco-friendly way to socialize and build community whilst being a low-cost, solitary activity, with both physical and mental health-benefit, used to educate, decorate and invigorate – no wonder that crocheting is looping back into our radars.
Combining traditional women’s work, science, art, community, crafting and a means to get by, crocheting is in many ways as ground-breaking as the various technologies used to circulate this trend today. “Daggy” is the new cool, handicraft is making a come-back and hooking now makes you good-looking.
 “Daggy is one of my favourite words of all time ÷ what is means is sort of ‘nerdy’, the very opposite of cool.”