The World's First Granny Square Pattern
March 2, 2022 8:57 AM   Subscribe

The World's First Granny Square Pattern - A blog post by Mefi's own rednikki, tracking down the origin of this familiar crochet staple. [via mefi projects]
posted by LobsterMitten (21 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Germantown wool still exists! This is really cool detective/archivist work.
posted by rikschell at 9:07 AM on March 2 [1 favorite]

Thank you for this!
posted by Arctostaphylos at 9:30 AM on March 2 [2 favorites]

The article asks why the Granny Square became so popular, but doesn't really answer. My own theory is: because they're actually pretty damn easy.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:39 AM on March 2 [7 favorites]

I saw this in Projects and then sent the blog post to my mom. My sister and I used to get to pick the yarn colors for each square as she made them, and we spent years trying to find the ugliest combinations we could. Somehow they always turned out gorgeous - it was a good education in color theory and a pleasant diversion. The smell of wool.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 9:46 AM on March 2 [7 favorites]

TV commercials for a home knitting machine are the only reason I know what a Granny Square is.
posted by rhizome at 9:54 AM on March 2 [3 favorites]

Gosh, I feel honored to have this posted! To clarify rikshell's note - the current Germantown wool is not a continuation of the original producer but a recreation inspired by the original. This is somewhat complicated by the fact that many companies made a "Germantown" yarn in the 1800s. The last company making Germantown sunsetted Germantown production in the 1990s. The current manufacturer, Kelbourne Woolens, launched in 2008. All of that having been said, the current manufacturers seem like they are trying to uphold the tradition and are making a quality product!
posted by rednikki at 10:12 AM on March 2 [11 favorites]

What an awesome article!
One of the most cherished objects I own is a granny-square blanket my bad-ass grandmother (a dairy farmer) made me when I left for college - she asked me what colors I wanted in my blanket, and since I was peak anti-everything as a sullen skate-punk teenager (spare me, it was 1993) I said "all ugly colors" and she pulled out all this fuzzy acrylic yarn from the depths of her closet and used hot mustard, light poo-brown, and dark poo-brown yarn - to great effect. It lives on my couch, I am under it most days at one point or another.
posted by niicholas at 10:26 AM on March 2 [16 favorites]

rednikki, how did you find it? Was there a chain of evidence backward from its first popularization, or have you been reading through Prairie Farmer's craft section?

Interesting that woven blankets predated knit or crocheted ones by so long, especially in the US. If I wanted to make one blanket now, the latter would be far cheaper than getting a loom. So my intuition about the preindustrial US is wrong - they invested early in a big expensive tool. Because they had to weave almost all their fabric, so had more uses for a loom? Because incredibly good timber was relatively really cheap in most of the colonial US? Because domestic labor, while not paid much in cash, was so necessary for life that weaving saved time spent on being fed and clean? Because they were importing fabric?
posted by clew at 12:00 PM on March 2 [4 favorites]

As an aside, if anyone's interested in the history of textiles I highly recommend The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History by Kassia St. Clair.

Her book really opened my eyes to just how incredibly labor-intensive, and thus profoundly valuable, fabric was up until the industrial revolution.
posted by indexy at 2:13 PM on March 2 [8 favorites]

Interesting that woven blankets predated knit or crocheted ones by so long, especially in the US. If I wanted to make one blanket now, the latter would be far cheaper than getting a loom. So my intuition about the preindustrial US is wrong - they invested early in a big expensive tool. Because they had to weave almost all their fabric, so had more uses for a loom?

During the early (British) North American colonial period almost all textiles were imported: "Imports supplied most of America's textile needs, both for utilitarian and decorative purposes, until about 1750, when the movement toward self-sufficiency in fabric production became serious." Although domestic weaving did occur in British North America as early as the 17th century, "[t]extiles made up the single largest import from England during the 17th and 18th centuries."

This was partly a reflection of English mercantilist policies, under which the colonies were intended to produce raw materials and import finished goods.
posted by jedicus at 2:15 PM on March 2 [4 favorites]

A very interested read, of course now I have an itch to take up crocheting, quilting, and embroidery to try all the methods mentioned in the article- a stretch as it takes me about six weeks to finish knitting a single sock. The page of the 1885 Prairie Farmer magazine that was linked to was also interesting- letters from readers who were planting their first seeds of the season and wondering if it would get too cold again, just like I’m doing now.
posted by acantha at 2:21 PM on March 2 [2 favorites]

Really cool find and great context. Another historycurious question: what evidence is there to declare this the first, or the idea as original to Phelps? I study food history, and some stories have a similar specific origin point that people assert, but then additional sources reveal that the recipe/pattern was circulating in a vernacular way before the first publication and can't be traced to a single point of origin.
posted by Miko at 3:24 PM on March 2 [2 favorites]

Clew, I would love to say that I read through every issue of Prairie Farmer. Instead...I had been stymied by Dorcas, Godey's et al, and decided to do a Google Books search, and I got lucky with a set of keywords. I dug backwards in the Prairie Farmer archives and didn't find anything like it. The crochet examples were nearly all lace-like and used embroidery thread, which is what I had been seeing in Dorcas, Godey's, etc. If someone finds an even earlier example that would be exciting!

But when I read Mrs. Phelps' explanation of why she created it – well, it absolutely makes sense, and I haven't found any other example in which the designer explains why she created a granny square pattern. It made me think of modern day crochet design blog posts. It also makes sense for timing. There was an inflection point right about 1885 in which people were attempting to emulate crazy quilting in literally every other craft. There are embroidery examples, clothing examples and also this thing where people would glue broken pottery and other stuff to the outside of a teapot or other household objects. It was a massive, massive trend.
posted by rednikki at 3:30 PM on March 2 [8 favorites]

Miko, to expand on the above (which mostly answers your question), it is possible that this was circulating in a vernacular way, but I was unable to find any evidence for it. I would love it if someone else would! The previous examples of crochet squares are generally similar to what you would find in Théreèse de Dillmont’s Encyclopedia of Needlework - they are lacework and use crochet thread rather than yarn. That's not to say that there wasn't any crochet work being done with yarn. There's a citation for a worsted crochet afghan in the Thirty-Sixth Annual Report of the American Institute for the City of New York from 1876. But it was absolutely the exception and not the rule.

It is also radically different from the designs that were contemporary to it and the designs that preceded it. The other element that is in Mrs. Phelps' favor is that she clearly explains that the design was meant to emulate crazy quilt squares, as detailed above.

We know for sure that the pattern likely does not date back much earlier than that; see the section in the article about the history of knitted and crocheted blankets in the USA.

And lastly, crochet historians had previously not been able to find a pattern that was prior to 1891. We were lucky enough to find two. Well, really, one that appeared twice. Re-using content is nothing new. If it was good enough for the Gospels...
posted by rednikki at 3:46 PM on March 2 [4 favorites]

As much as it pains me to admit it as a knitter, weaving is a more useful and versatile technique, especially prior to the invention of machine knitting.
posted by praemunire at 5:15 PM on March 2

Reading this made me happy, thank you.

If I ever have access to a time machine I will use it for finding out more about Mrs. Phelps and other stupid shit like that.
posted by bq at 7:44 PM on March 2 [3 favorites]

Thank you! This is great, and it surprised me that the pattern was fairly recent, though on reflection it shouldn't have.

I grew up thinking of crochet as a very country thing to do, something grandmothers did and taught, and I adored my great-grandmother's afghan blankets. It was only much later I learned crochet wasn't actually a descendant of a practical skill. My great-grandmother also taught my mother tatting -- fine crochet for lace and doilies -- but when I asked Mom about it, she warned me off. It gave her a ganglion cyst, she said. As it was, I had to stop my own crochet several years ago because I couldn't combine the stress on my wrist with the stress of computer use. I miss it!
posted by Countess Elena at 8:10 PM on March 2 [2 favorites]

Cool article! Thank you for posting it. I love to read about the history of fibre craft.

I’m quite a proficient knitter but not very good at crochet. However, I LOVE the way crocheted blankets look and have found a knitted blanket that approximates what I like about crocheted blankets: POP Blanket by Tin Can Knits
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:21 PM on March 2 [2 favorites]

Granny squares are great because you don't have to carry the whole blanket with you to work on it. You can just bring along the equipment for a few squares, which could easily fit in a small pouch and get pulled out at any time when you have a few minutes to spare.

My mom sleeps under a crocheted afghan (zig zag, not granny square) that my grandmother made, and has for as long as I can remember. I'm pretty sure it's made of an inexpensive 70s acrylic yarn, but it is well-loved.
posted by that girl at 10:24 PM on March 2 [5 favorites]

clew - weaving predates knitting and crochet by *thousands* of years. Even naalbinding is significantly newer. A woven blanket can be done on a very simple loom (all you really need is two straight sticks and something to hang them from, although most colonial weavers used box looms), and doesn't need to cost a lot. There was a thriving professional weaving industry in the American colonies by the late 1700s (weavers were recruited to come to the colonies, iirc).

My mother made me a granny square afghan when I went off to college in the early 1980s. I still have it, although it's starting to fray in a couple of places -- I need to find some cheap black acrylic yarn and fix it.
posted by jlkr at 7:20 AM on March 3 [2 favorites]

Here’s the official Granny Square music video by Zombie-Chang.

It is glorious, and on topic…
posted by rambling wanderlust at 11:43 AM on March 3 [2 favorites]

« Older It happened all over the world   |   Do It Yourself Wooden Boat Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments