[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.


  1. xdpaul

    We should all be stunned that her crochet work would now be featured on something called the internet, viewable by almost anyone on the planet.

  2. Ivy

    For most of history people didn’t read patterns. Patterns issued to people knitting during WW II and the Civil War were more like specifications. “Using a medium weight yarn and size 1 needles, cast on 72 stitches. Work 2 inches of 2X2 ribbing then 5 of stockinette. Work a 2.5 in heel flap and then a 6.5 inch foot. Decrease the toe in the normal way.” Vague guidelines. Today it’s more like.

    “Using a sock weight yarn and size 1 needles cast on 72 stitches. Join, being careful not to twist.

    Row 1: Knit 2 Purl 2.
    Repeat row 1 until cuff measures 2 inches from start.

    Row 1: Knit.

    Repeat row 1 until leg measures 5 inches from cuff/7 inches from cast on edge.

    You will begin working back and forth on half the stitches (36).
    Row 1: *Slip 1. Knit 1. Repeat from * across.
    Row 2: Slip 1. Purl across”

    You get the idea. This was normal. This was what people were expected to know how to do.

    There are some rules in place, even for lace. If you know what you’re doing you can break them, but for knitting you normally want to lean your decreases away from your yarn overs, so “K2Tog YO” or “YO SSK”. For crochet you chain and skip stitches, so there are no decreases to lean.

    Sc chain 1. Skip next sc. Sc in following sc. If you want a bigger hole, you chain a longer chain.

    Sc chain 5. Skip next sc. Sc in following sc gives a long dip.
    Sc. Chain 19. Skip next 5 sc. Sc in following (sixth) sc. Gives more of a long oval. And when you’ve done it enough times you can picture what’s going to happen.

    After that, it’s basic math. If you do two yarn overs, you have increased 2 stitches. You must decrease 2 in order for it to work out. You want about half of your decreases to learn one way and half to lean the other or your garment will lean one way or the other. You can use that for effect, to spiral a pattern around a sock for example.

    It looks to me like what you have there is some of her sewn work. The center looks, at least from the picture, like it’s woven not crocheted. The lace portion shows seam lines radiating diagonally from the square, and that’s not a normal feature of crochet. Look at your own granny squares and you’ll see what I mean. The lace work itself looks a lot like tatted lace.

    That said, the lady had some mad sewing skills there. A project like that isn’t easy, especially in the bottom piece where she’s connecting the mesh to the square after cutting the shape out so perfectly. And she works it out perfectly with no puckering and extremely tiny stitches. The corners where the lace meets are perfectly mitered. Clearly, she was a woman of remarkable ability, not just with a crochet hook, but with a needle and thread as well. These are fabulous.

  3. philangelus

    The piece in the center is definitely woven. I didn’t realize that made a difference. And yes, she could sew incredibly well too. I’m very fabric-art-stupid, but what you said makes sense. 🙂

    Of course, to her generation, it wouldn’t have been “fabric art.” It was just what you did when you made a handkerchief, or a baptismal gown, or a whatever.

  4. Ivy

    It’s not so much that the center piece is woven. Originally crochet, then called “nun’s lace” was worked around a woven fabric. This was used to decorate such things and the cloth that covered the alter in church and the hems of baptismal gowns. Only later did the idea of “crochet in air” that is to say, without a starting fabric, come into being.

    The give-away is the seam on the corners. Were it crochet she could have just continued the pattern around. Sadly, sewing gets the short shift of all the fabric arts. People don’t often give it the respect it’s due, but just look at the die cut around the bottom piece, especially the way she has it wrap the corner. Now realize how thin that fabric is and how much it must have moved under her scissor as she worked. That takes some real skill to do that.

  5. philangelus

    Clearly I’m going to have to go to my mom’s and photograph the “real” lace, then. I didn’t realize what I had here wasn’t representative of The Good Stuff.

  6. housewife2000

    I would love to see photos of her lace, and don’t ever insinuate that what is here isn’t the ‘real stuff’. She had amazing talants, amaziong, and I am glad that you shared them with us!

  7. Pingback: Lace, part two « Seven angels, four kids, one family

  8. hookedonstring

    Great story, not matter how you “lace” it. Thank you for sharing. 🙂

  9. Pingback: Grandma’s crocheting « Seven angels, four kids, one family