Tunisian crochet: what’s in a name

Unlike the many other fibre crafts we’ve written about – spinning, weaving, dyeing, embroidery – the history of Tunisian crochet is a little sketchy. While we can trace the origins of most crafts, this form of crochet proves more elusive, even down to its real name.

Given its name, you would be forgiven for thinking the craft has its origins in Tunisia or the middle east (it’s also commonly known as Afghan crochet), but all the articles we’ve read while researching Tunisian crochet suggest this is most likely not the case. In fact, there seems to be a general consensus that the French came up with the name, but why they called it Tunisian crochet remains a mystery.

Things start to veer even more off path when you consider all the other names this craft was known as around the world – shepherd’s knitting, railroad knitting, trichot crochet, hook knitting, hakking, Scot’s knitting, Russian knitting, Royal Princess knitting and the rather derogatory fool’s or idiot’s knitting.

Tunisian crochet and the Victorians

Tunisian crochet was at its height of popularity during the Victorian era when patterns began to appear in crafting magazines. The texture of the stitches, more solid than knitting or crochet, lent itself well to making blankets or throws (which may explain why the Americans coined it Afghan crochet). But its popularity was relatively short lived, and by the early 1900s (around the 1930s) the craft fell into decline. Now, some 100 hundred years later, we’re seeing a resurgence of sorts in this fibre craft, which looks like a hybrid of knitting and crochet. We spoke to Irish Tunisian crochet designer Aoibhe Ni Shuilleabhan who called it “the lovechild between crochet and knitting”.

Tunisian crochet – the tools of the trade

Tunisian crochet is created using a specific type of crochet hook – it’s longer than a standard crochet hook and has a stop at the end of the hook, much like a standard knitting needle. You can also work Tunisian crochet in the round, and this looks much like knitting needles in the round, except instead of two pointed needles attached by a cord, you have a Tunisian crochet hook on one end and a stopper on the other.

Unlike standard crochet, Tunisian crochet works on multiple stitches on the needle (hence the extra length). Unlike traditional crochet, Tunisian crochet works on a row of stitches and rather than turn at the end, it’s almost like hitting carriage return on an old typewriter, says Aoibhe. The effect created is stacks of stitches layered like bricks. To create one row, you work two – forward and then the return.

The versatility of Tunisian crochet

According to Aoibhe, Tunisian crochet is extremely versatile, stitches are varied and plentiful, from cables and lace to textured stitches and rib. A useful guide for any Tunisian crocheter is the Tunisian Crochet Stitch Guide by Kim Guzman, which features a rundown of a comprehensive selection of different stitches. In her own blog, Kim Guzman says it would take her forever to name all the stitch possibilities in Tunisian crochet, and Aoibhe told us it would be at least 500 stitches. Some of the basics include: Tunisian simple stitch, Tunisian reverse stitch, Tunisian knit stitch and Tunisian purl stitch.

Although its history is fuzzy, what’s very clear is Tunisian crochet has a lot to offer. The finished look, which resembles knitted or woven fabric, creates a dense fabric that has less stretch than knitting or crochet, however, we’re also seeing shawl designs from Aoibhe that achieve a flowing, lace effect. And while the craft is currently enjoying a resurgence of sorts, it does have a long way to go to achieve the status of its more popular cousins: knitting and crochet.

Our Tunisian crochet design in the current issue is a good starter project for those interested in giving the craft a go. Why not check it out.