Past, Meet Nancy Nehring

Keynote Address, Crochet Guild of America Chain Link annual conference, Oakland, California, July 21, 2005

Good evening. I always enjoy coming to Chain Link for two reasons. First is to see old friends, many of whom I only get together with once a year at this conference. Second is to make new friends, those of you whom I don’t already know but who share my love of crochet.

My mandate for tonight is to tell you about my background and where I get inspiration for my crochet. I’m going to do that but I am also going to tell you about some of the simple ways I pass on my love of crochet to others each and every day.

Like many of you, I learned to crochet and do other types of needlework from my grandmother, Laura Nehring. She made over 200 quilts in her lifetime often incorporating other needlework techniques. My favorite was her unique way of using crocheted appliques and crocheted edgings in her quilts. You can read about her in an article I wrote called “Schoolyard Quilt” coming up in the Sept/Oct 2005 issue of PieceWork magazine.

But my relationship with the past goes back much farther than just to my grandmother. Much of my work is influenced by needlework from the last half of the 1800s, late Victorian times.

My fascination the past and the history of crochet got its beginning back in what I call BC — that’s before crochet — when I worked as a research chemist for the United States Geological Survey studying hot springs and volcanoes. In scientific research one always builds on the work of others. Basic principles were unraveled centuries ago and are the foundation for later advances. These later advances are in turn used as the foundation for even more advances. Sir Isaac Newton, in 1676, summed it up “If I have seen farther than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” It’s quite obvious that any one scientist today can not learn all of the existing science by redoing all of the previous work, so scientists spend a lot of time reading. Then they spend a lot of time writing so that other scientists don’t have to redo the new work. When I left the United States Geological Survey, I had over 40 published scientific papers and I found that I really missed writing.

When I was a senior in high school, my parents, of all people, were betting whether I would go into home economics or science in college. I had been sewing since I was 8 or 9 years old and sewed not only for my family but did custom sewing for other people as well. After I quit working as a chemist, I had time to sew and shop again. I became fascinated with some old crocheted buttons that I found at Lacis in Berkeley, California. I asked the owner Kaethe Kliot about them. She told me how the buttons were made and that there were no written instructions. It turns out that the women who originally made them in the 1880s and 90s were illiterate so instructions were never written. I went home, spent 3 hours learning to make a bullion stitch, and then spent 3 days reverse engineering the button until I could make a reasonable facsimile.

I found more and more of these handmade thread buttons that used a variety of needlework techniques. My actual goal from the day I conceived the idea for my first book 50 Heirloom Buttons to Make was to document patterns for textile buttons made from the late 1600s-early 1900s. Many of the patterns had never been written down as the older buttons were made by illiterate people who could not use a written pattern. Although textiles are durable, they are not permanent. The textile buttons that I had become fascinated with were falling apart, and many were so dirty that I didn’t even want to touch them! Without documentation, the techniques for making these buttons would be lost during my lifetime. By the time I completed the book, I was hooked! I loved examining old needlework, researching old needlework techniques, and passing on what I learned.

I was asked to write my second book The Lacy Knitting of Mary Schiffmann by Mary Schiffmann herself. Mary was a kindred soul in her desire to preserve old needlework and her passion was lace knitting. Mary was 92 when I met her and had collected lace knitting patterns for over 50 years. She had watched as interest in lace knitting died after World War II. Most of her patterns were from samplers or from handwritten instructions from the late 1800s and early 1900s — from women 1 and 2 generations older than Mary herself. Mary was determined to publish a book and had already chosen 10 patterns to send to a subsidiary press if I couldn’t find a publisher. I negotiated a book of 35 patterns with Interweave Press. The patterns are interspersed with short stories of Mary’s life. I have been told that the book is already considered an important work documenting the social history of middle class American women as well as lace knitting. (PS, I was never going to write a knitting book or a biography!)

I’m allergic to wool. So when I learned to crochet, I started with thread. And it is an easy leap to guess Irish Crochet is one of my favorite crochet techniques. I knew that threads we use for Irish Crochet today are much larger than threads originally used in the 1840s. So I decided to do a study/appreciation piece using the original thread sizes. Originally, thread for the mesh background might be as small as size 150, about the size of quilting thread, and this size crochet thread is no longer manufactured. I used size 80 thread for the motifs and size 100 for the mesh background, both at the larger limits of what would have been used in 1840. The dress, sized for an 18” doll, took me about 300 hours over a 3 year period to complete. In 2003, the dress was awarded the PieceWork Needleworker of the Year award for First Place in Crochet. Today I really do appreciate the time and skill that went into the original Irish Crochet pieces which might have taken thousands of hours to produce and which cost upwards of $20,000 accounting for inflation.

There are several reasons the late 1800s have had so much influence on my work. And all of the reasons are directly influenced by the Industrial Revolution: improving literacy rate, improvements in travel and trade, machine production of textiles.

To begin with, it was the first time in history (European history) that a large number of people, including women, were being taught to read. Publications for women, such as Godey’s Ladies Book and Harper’s Bazaar, were available for the first time. These publications ran articles on housekeeping, child rearing, fashion, sewing, arts and crafts such as painting and needlework and even serialized romance novels. Many of these pieces were written by women and, for a few, provided socially acceptable employment.

Now needlework instructions in these publications did not come close to the standard for instructions today. In one instance I found a 1½” engraving of a crocheted corset cover that I thought I could use as the basis for a design. The instructions said “chain 168 sts, and you can see from the picture how to complete the work.” Yeah, right…

Another time, while I was working on the book Ribbon Trims, I hit the jackpot. I found a page with engravings of 6 different trims! This may not seem so fantastic but while doing research I can go a whole day or more, scanning and reading thousands of pages, without finding a single reference to the topic I am researching. I learned early on to photocopy any item in the books that I found interesting and save it for future use — assuming I didn’t have to spend too much time convincing the librarian the book was in good enough shape to be laid flat on a copy machine. If I lost the argument, then I had to copy the text or illustrations by hand. I have even been known to take needle and thread in hand to the book!

But sometimes even long hours in the library couldn’t provide the information that I needed. As I said previously, patterns for many of the buttons in the book 50 Heirloom Buttons to Make were never published. When study of the external features of a button didn’t tell me how to make it, I had no choice but to take a button apart carefully documenting each step — in reverse order of course. This would sometimes take me 2 or 3 days and perhaps half a dozen buttons. Fortunately I was always able to destroy buttons that had been damaged beyond repair.

This “reverse engineering” required that I teach myself how to recognize crochet and other needlework stitches in a range of threads and tensions and done both left and right handed.

During the Industrial Revolution, yarn companies also began publishing needlework instructions. DMC led the way with the books edited by Therese Dil Mount. With mechanized machinery, yarn companies could produce vast quantities of high quality thread. They needed markets to buy that yarn. One market was the needlework market but the competition required each company to constantly produce books with new needle work techniques. The companies sent employees into every little village to learn local needlework techniques. This had two effects. First, an amazing variety of needlework techniques was introduced to the world. While, on the other hand, improvements in travel and trade during the Industrial Revolution began the decline in ethic clothing.

So, I look to this period to research the purest forms of regional needlework before needleworkers with no knowledge of the background of the techniques they were using began to mix them all up or began to apply shortcuts.

I also look to this brief period for inspiration based on ethnic clothing, but for a very different reason. Improved travel and trade allowed ethnic clothing to be documented by the outside world but at the same time caused a rapid loss of regional identity. Travel brought in new ideas including fashion magazines. And, just like today, we all want the latest and greatest which was not homespun, home dyed fabric and ethnic embroidery. Trade brought in cheap machine manufactured textiles in easy to care for cotton and in bright colors created with the new chemical based aniline dyes. Home grown, home carded, home spun, home dyed, home woven, home sewn, labor intensive clothing didn’t have a chance.

Ethnic clothing is ideal inspiration because it often used fabric in large rectangles as it came from the loom. Cutting caused loosely woven fabrics to unravel and also a cut fabric could not readily be resized or made into another garment when it was outgrown. This makes the shapes of the garments easy to copy. On the other hand, ethnic garments were often elaborately embellished giving us a large body of material that can be simplified into fast and easy trims and accents. Just what the crocheter wants.

These labor intensive skills from the past can’t compete in our modern industrialized society. There is only 1 way to preserve them. The skills have to make the transition from craft to art. And it is happening. Although textiles as art are not highly valued in the United States, that is not true worldwide. A most notable example is the Japanese Living National Treasures. These are practicing artists who have learned ancient family arts and crafts that are in danger of being lost because of competition from faster, less expensive modern mass production. The purpose of these government sponsored artists is to preserve and pass on traditions and traditional techniques of Japanese arts and craft.

But there is no point in studying the past unless we share the information we learn. Each of us needs to pass on our love of crochet. Some of us, like me, do this in a big way by writing, designing and teaching. But not all of us like to write or design or teach. And even before you can teach someone to crochet, you have to inspire that person to want to learn. Each of you can help in some very simple ways that I use every day.

As an example, at a high school baseball game, I noticed the boy next to me intently watching me crochet. I slowed down so he could see the moves. I told him I was crocheting and that crochet is a series of loops usually worked in a geometric pattern. I spread out the lace I was working on and showed him the pattern. Then I left him with the thought that I knew several men who crocheted. I may show my work to 20 different people. Maybe one will ever pick up a hook but the other 19 still have more appreciation for crochet that they did before.

So try some of my simple ways to pass on your love of crochet –

make a new friend here who you can talk crochet with all year,

share a technique you learn here with your local guild,

let a crochet friend feel that new skein of yarn you bought in the market,

show the person sitting next to you at the doctor’s office what you are working on if she’s eyeing your project,

make a baby blanket for a co-worker’s new baby,

or make an item to donate to a local charity.


Share your love of crochet with others in simple ways everyday.