[There’s an update to this post because now we have more information. Link at the bottom.]
My grandmother came home from school at age ten to crochet hats for her family to sell. They needed the money.
It was New York in the late teens/early 1920s. A few years later, my grandmother quit school to work. She helped the family by crocheting and sewing. In later years, she married my grandfather and together they opened “the shop.”
I’m sure the shop had a name, but I never heard it called anything other than “the shop.” (Help me out here, Mom.) Their workers were “the girls.” The Shop dominated their lives (as all privately-owned businesses do) but it’s all nebulous to me. I know my grandmother had a patent on a kind of lacy pillow with a pocket on the front, and I know they made dresses and other garments. I know my grandmother was the one with all the business sense and my grandfather was so cheap he could make a penny cry. But the thing I know most is that grandma could make lace.
The lace handkerchiefs were the things I always heard about, and I actually have two preserved here in Angeltown. My mother and uncle have most of the rest of the extant handkerchiefs.
Check this out:
And check out the detail:
I can’t imagine anyone blowing his nose into this. I mean, it would be sacrilege. And yet, she made them to be used. Hundreds of them. Thousands.
I recently saw my mother’s treasure chest, a hard-sided box the size of a pencil case with rusted hinges that makes a “kop” sound when it springs shut, and inside, dozens of Grandma’s crochet hooks, some so small you could perform cardiac surgery with them.
It wasn’t until this weekend that I learned the most amazing thing: my grandmother didn’t need a pattern to do these. In fact, she couldn’t read patterns at all.
If you don’t knit or crochet yourself, that doesn’t sound like much, but even with my rudimentary knowledge of what it takes to make lace, I’m flabbergasted. From my minimal understanding, lace requires using increases and decreases in order to create a pattern. More than that, it means managing the increases and the decreases so they come out even at the end of the line, so they “lean” correctly one way or the other, and yes, so they look pretty.
My grandmother? Did all that in her head.
Can you imagine just picking up some thread and a hook and making this?
My mother says the same is true of my stepfather’s grandmother, that she too never read a pattern, that she just pictured what she wanted a lace border to look like and then set to work, creating the openings and the closing spaces in order to make it happen, like ascii art (remember that?) as it emerged line by line.
Mom says, “It was a different time.” But surely not so different that people always thought in mathematical terms? That everyone could just see in their heads what happens when you increase here or decrease there, and when to lean an opening one way or the other, or decrease without leaving an opening at all? And that two “average” women, neither of whom exceeded a seventh grade education, could reverse-engineer any garment they came across in order to re-create it themselves, by hand, at home in the evenings with nothing other than some steel hooks and a few skeins of yarn?
My grandmother would be stunned by what I can do with MS Word, and today, I’m stunned by the magic she could work with a crochet hook.
We have an update to this post, by the way, based on Ivy’s comments and a phone call from my mom.