Saturday, April 19, 2014

Historical Australian Crochet – Margaret Ann Field[1]
Artist Profile

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

The history of crochet is very obscure - largely because pattern designs and instructions on how to create crochet items were handed down by word of mouth, leaving few written records.

Nevertheless, amongst the world legends is a charming tale about how crochet came into being. Apparently thousands of years ago a snow-white serpent, the king of the reptiles, was roaming the land when he met a woman called Eve (not Adam’s left rib!), who invited him to come to live with her. At first he declined, but after much cajoling on Eve’s part he agreed provided that she should knit or crochet a pattern on his back in order to make him more attractive. Eve created a beautiful design for him – a pattern that is found on the back of all pythons today. That is how crochet was created – according to the universe of legends.

Shatter Pattern Ghost Ball Python.

In reality it is generally thought that crochet has much the same history as knitting, being develop in the East and spreading to the Mediterranean area.

The word “crochet” is of French origin, from the word - crocher - meaning “to hook”. Hence the French played a vital part in the development of it and in the increasing popularity of this form of lace making.

In the 16th Century crochet became known as “nun’s work”, since nuns made altar cloths and other crochet items for Church use. By around 1785 the center of the craft became Cork in Ireland and many thousands of women were involved in a thriving industry. The crochet work they produced was based on patterns derived originally from Italian, Greek and French lace designs.

A mid-19th Century crochet parasol, which makes delicate use of floral motifs on a lacy background.

The “traditional” Irish rose pattern was in fact taken from Venetian lace. It was during the 19th Century that crochet came into its own for personal and house-hold use. The Sisters of the Ursuline Convent in Ireland taught Irish crochet lacemaking to children, a subject that spread to become part of the curriculum in most convents in the country.

Ursuline Convent (Ireland).

Crochet has become very popular because it is quick and easy to do. It is a very adaptable craft; lengths of crochet work can be used with other materials, or it can be made into fabric in its own right. Besides making complete clothes and household items you can make borders and edgings for things such as table cloths and window shades.

Irish crochet is a particular style of crochet invented during the 19th Century to imitate Duchesse or Honiton bobbin lace, or various needlelaces. It is distinguished from the more common crochet by having raised and layered parts. The motifs are worked densely in shapes to imitate plant forms like petals and leaves, and some parts are worked over a thick cord to give a raised or relief effect. The grounding is usually chain stitch with picots, to imitate bobbin lace braids or needlelace buttonholed bars.

The only tool you will need is a crochet hook. These are generally made from lightweight coated metal or plastic, rounded at one end with a hook and at the other - similar to a shepherd’s crook. The size of the hooks is directly related to the quality of yarn being used. Fine, small hooks are suitable for thin cottons, rayons and baby yarns, and large thick hooks should be used with heavier yarns and string.

Crochet hook sizes.

Historical Australian Lace – Margaret Ann Field
Amongst the large number of handmade fancy work “treasures” kept by generations in Australian households, by far the majority are crocheted.

The technique threaded its way to Australia in the 19th Century most likely via the convict migration of Irish women. Hence Australian women used Irish crochet techniques to make collars, cuffs and yokes for dresses and children clothes, and scores of different edgings for clothes and household linen.

Crochet sample book made at Miss Francis Yates’ Finishing School, Jamestown, South Australia (1902).
Photograph courtesy of J. Emmett.

Part of the popularity of crochet throughout Australia was the ease with which it could be picked up and put down, even in the most unusual situations.

Crochet corner of a large tablecloth made by Mary Delabenty, Euroa, Victoria (ca. 1910).
Photograph courtesy of K. Atkinson.

The story of the Australian crocheter – Margaret Ann Field – is important in the history of crochet in Australia, since it typifies Australian life and creativity early in its European history.

Margaret’s mother, Matilda Ann Lang, was well connected in the UK, having once been engaged to Coats of the “Coates Cotton” fame, but according to her family she fell in love with Thomas Lang.

They had eight children, of whom Margaret Ann was the first, born at Kilmarnock, Scotland on the 22nd of April 1842. Margaret, or Maggie as she was known, was thirteen when the family followed their father to Australia on the Star of the East. The family settled in Ballarat (Victoria). Less than ten years later Margaret married Edwin Richard Field, a mining engineer with whom she had two sons and a daughter.

The young Mrs. Edwin Field (nee Margaret Ann Lang) with baby.

Ballarat had rich gold fields and a gold rush ensued (not too dissimilar to the gold rush in California, USA). Nevertheless her husband was required to travel to distant places in order to conduct explorations and to pioneer mining operations. Hence, her life included periods of extreme isolation in remote and difficult places - such as in Normanton - near the Gulf of Carpentaria in the far north of Australia.

The Ballarat gold rush was a revolutionary event and reshaped Victoria, its society and politics.

Her husband died in Victoria (Australia) in 1902, whereas Maggie died some 30 years later in Hampton Victoria at the age of ninety-four. She is best remembered in Australia for her book – “Australian Lace-Crochet” - in which she described herself as a, “Briton Beyond the Seas”. The book was published in London in 1909.

Cover of “Australian Lace-Crochet”.

When crochet was achieving great popularity in Australia and the UK, she had invented a new form of Crochet, which she called “Australian Lace-Crochet”. She wrote in her foreword of her book that:
I would like to make Crochet, that could be properly described as lace... Many beautiful pieces of lace will, I hope be made from these new and easy patterns…Should this be so, it will greatly recompense me for years I have expended on this development of Crochet.”

Plate from Mrs. Field's book.

At the time Mrs. Field was hailed as a celebrity. Details of her work and interviews appeared in the Melbourne (Australia) and London (UK) press. The Melbourne Herald commended her for elevating crochet, “...the scullion wench of needle art, to the rank and honours that befit hand-made lace.”

Another plate from Mrs. Field’s book.

Mrs. Field sought Royal approval of her invention and so she had lengthy correspondence between herself and Queen Alexandra’s ladies-in-waiting over a period of several years.

The above three pictures are a crochet bonnet and samples of her work, designed as “real lace”. She accomplished her work whilst rearing children in the remote outback of Australia.

Detail of a crocheted tablecloth of Mrs. Foster based from patterns in Mrs. Field’s book, Freemantle, Western Australia (pre-1920).

Mrs. Field’s crochet did not achieve lasting popularity in Australia. However, recently interest in the 1970s in her work resurfaced. She has been successfully reinstated as one of Australia’s most important original artists and designers. For example, Francis Budden paid a tribute to Mrs. Field in her 1976 work, which is basically embroidery on a net surrounded by a border of Australian lace-crochet. She has, in true sampler tradition, embroidered the words, “Needlework provides all the information needed for a history of women’s creative thought”.

Frances Budden (1976).

[1]J. Isaacs, The Gentle Arts, Ure Smith Press, Willoughby (1991).


epocktextiles said...

Marie-Therese, I have just been reading the "gentle arts" and have trouble identifying exactly what part of the crochet was different to the irish crochet, what made it unique enough to be called australian lace crochet. was it the relative simplicity compared to the irish work?
Jane Bodnaruk

Art Quill Studio said...

Hello Jane,
I believe you are right ! Her 'Australian' claim is based on the unique simplicity of her designs re: the patterns in her book.

Karen C.K. Ballard said...

Very interesting blog!!! I enjoyed learning about Margaret Ann field and will need to check out your other blog entries! But I was most intrigued by the origin story of crochet. Where did you find it? Where did the story originate?

Art Quill Studio said...

Hello Karen,
Thanks for your kind comments ! Most of the information regarding the 'origin of crochet story' was researched and sourced from various legitimate web sites and compiled for the blog article. I am pleased to hear that you enjoyed the content.