What's Uncommon About Crochet?
The '70s defined my childhood: flower power, bell bottoms, feathered hair, and big glasses. My mother was enthusiastic about contemporary American crafts of the time and my grandmother, a more traditional artist, sewed her own clothes and embroidered samplers for the kitchen wall. Between the two of them, I kept busy learning and practicing arts and crafts like macramé, sewing, embroidery, rug hooking, and, of course, crochet. As for fiber, anything could and would be used. At that time, traditional wools and acrylics were abundant in bold, incongruous colors, but the needlework artists of the '70s went way beyond the traditional yarns and threads to express their individuality with fiber-like materials, including twine, hemp, raffia, wire, and leather cord.
Becoming a mother of my own little family reminded me of my crafty roots, so once again I turned to crochet. My first project was a dense, crunchy, acrylic baby blanket that saw only four inches of life before it was retired to what would soon become an overflowing, unfinished-projects bin. I desperately searched for contemporary patterns that would inspire me and when I couldn't find them, I turned to knitting. My first completed knit project was an adorable baby sweater pattern I found in a friend's old copy of Mon Tricot, a popular needlework magazine from the '70s and '80s. Six weeks later, and fueled with the satisfaction of victory over knitting, I decided that I could have crocheted a similar sweater in a fraction of the time. So, I set about designing my first crochet project.
As I began to master basic crochet and design techniques, I realized I was no longer limited to crocheting long, flat squares and tubes. And I didn't need to find the perfect pattern to inspire me--I could create it myself. At first I remained true to the selections of fiber found in the yarn section of my local craft store, but eventually I wanted more. Impressed by crochet's seemingly endless design flexibility, I wanted to bend and sculpt more unusual fiber in a way that would highlight or even contradict its nature: imitating woven baskets or ceramic objects with crocheted plant fibers.
As my options for crochet design and materialsexpanded, so did my collection of stuff. Spools of leather cord bought off the Internet for a steal . . . overflowingtubs of multicolored fabric swatches . . . twisted loops of copper wire, floral wire, and lots of other types of wire . . . I yearned for a way to organize my stash of goods. And so while I'd like to say that the projects in Uncommon Crochet were inspired by seventeenth-century French textiles or the Art Nouveau paintings of Gustav Klimt, the truth is I just needed to get the stuff off my bedroom floor.
I started by designing smaller bags and baskets so I could experiment with new fibers and techniques. Then I revisited traditional fibers with a new purpose. Instead of crocheting a project, I wanted to create crocheted fabric that could be cut and sewn like other textiles. I discovered that wool could be felted into a fabric that defies its natural inclination to stretch, and cute felted bowls quickly filled with extra buttons, stray coins, and a surprisingly large collection of safety pins. And when the pins got out of hand, I made pincushions! No container was safe: totes, baskets, vases . . . they can all be crocheted, and I'll show you how.
In "Building Your Stash," I'll tell you about the huge variety of tools, fibers, and other materials available to the modern crocheter. While many of the fibers used here can be found in traditional yarn shops, some have to be tracked down at the local home improvement store, on the Internet, or possibly in a forgotten corner of your garage. But don't worry, I'll tell you where and how to buy, scrounge, or recycle everything you need.
In "Mastering the Basics," I walk beginners through the standard crochet stitches step by step, teaching you everything you need to know to get started, from how to read the pattern to how to fasten off the fiber when you're done. In "Trying New Techniques," I show you how to work the techniques found in this book (well, actually, in any book) that go beyond the basics. Once you've got the stitches down, I'll touch on alternative ways of using them to create unexpected shapes and textures.
The projects in Uncommon Crochet appear in three chapters dedicated to different crafting approaches: "Create," "Design," and "Experiment." The patterns in "Create" feature both traditional and nontraditional materials. When you crochet with uncommon fibers, complicated stitch patterns can get lost. These projects keep it simple, while allowing you to play with construction techniques.
In "Design," I take things one step further, outlining the basic principles you need to know before you design your own project. Whether you're a dedicated pattern follower or someone who likes to make it up as you go, I provide inspiration and techniques to encourage your creative spirit. After you master a few of the projects in this section, you will have the tools and know-how to design your own projects.
In "Experiment," things get fun and funky with ideas for creating and embellishing your own or other projects. Wire, felted beads, even crocheted sushi--this section encourages you to use everything you know to make every project a reflection of your personal style. There are some great gift ideas here, or just make a few of these projects because they look like fun; either way, this section gives you permission to step way outside the box.
While crochet itself isn't necessarily uncommon, what you choose to make and work with can be. My purpose in writing Uncommon Crochet was to motivate others to play with structure, fiber, and design, to abandon the norm, to ask questions, and to simply create with what you know or what you want to discover.
Building Your Stash
You know what truly rocks about crochet? All you really need to get started is some sort of fiber and a crochet hook. These two things are all you need for most projects, but since we all like acquiring cool stuff, of course there are a few additional items you'll want to pick up to make your crochetin' life a bit easier. In this chapter, I explore a variety of fibers you can crochet with along with the necessary (and sometimes not so necessary, but nice to have) tools you need to finish up your project. Although I only discuss fibers used in this book, there are plenty of other materials you can experiment with if the mood strikes, including nylon twine, plastic grocery bags, gardening tape, video tape, plastic lace, string licorice--even cooked spaghetti. The possibilities are endless, so let's get started.
Your personal collection of yarn or fibers that sit around in a pile waiting to be stitched up is called a stash. Whether you bought a skein of yarn for a specific project or found a spool of bright blue wire at a yard sale, it's easy to suddenly find yourself with an overflowing stash bin.
Today, the options for fiber are countless and limited only by your imagination. Of course, you can buy traditional yarn and thread in yarn stores, but there is lots of life beyond the craft shop. Think about crocheted jute doormats and plant hangers that were all the rage in the '70s and hit your local hardware store to sample thick cord and twine. If colorful wire is more your thing, jewelry supply stores offer an abundance of materials ready for the hook. If it can be sewn, glued, or somehow made into one continuous strand, you can probably crochet with it. Flip through the projects in this book and I'm sure you'll find something that piques your interest.
Following is a list of the fibers used in Uncommon Crochet, whether they are traditional, uncommon, or downright unexpected. I tell you where and how to buy each fiber, and I've listed projects that use each type of fiber in case you are trying to figure out what to do with that spool of hot pink raffia you bought last summer.
These are traditional yarns in which at least 50 percent of the fiber content comes from an animal (like sheep's wool or alpaca). In their natural state, animal fibers typically work up into a soft, stretchy fabric; however, with a little hot water and soap they will become a sturdy, felted fabric that can be easily cut, sewn, or formed into three-dimensional projects like bags, flowers, and bowls. Because animal fibers have more stretch than plant fibers, projects that require strength or need to maintain their structure, like baskets and bowls, must be combined with inelastic materials like cotton thread, lined with fabric, or felted (see page 42). Most animal fibers are available at yarn stores and craft shops. Projects made with animal fibers include: The Tube Bag (page 57), Vintage Satchel (page 73), The Perfect Bin (page 93), and Martini Bag (page 153).
Cotton is a natural plant fiber that yields beautiful stitch definition. It is also soft, strong, durable, and inelastic, which means it's highly adaptable and perfect for a variety of projects: sculpted vases, stiff containers, even loose and lacy bags. Cotton takes on a supporting role when carried along with fibers that need added strength or rigidity (like animal fibers above). Cotton is available in different thicknesses, from threads to cords, and can be found in craft, fabric, and yarn shops. Projects made with cotton include: Vintage Satchel (page 73), Sake Set (page 131), and Sushi (page 135).
I love strolling through fabric stores, letting the bold colors and patterns spark my creativity while I run my hands across the funky new textures. Although I enjoy cruising wall after wall of fabric, I usually end up buying from remnant or clearance bins, where you can find small pieces of fabric at great prices. If you build a stash of remnants, you'll always have some material ready for a last-minute project.
Choose your fabric based on its intended use, whether it's for lining a bag or creating a long strand of material to crochet with. Although most bag linings aren't seen from the outside, I honestly think that a lining can make or break a piece--even if I'm the only one who knows it's there! Since a lining bears the weight of the bag's contents, choose a sturdy and easy-to-use fabric like cotton or a cotton-blend that contains at least 50 percent cotton. Silky fabrics are more difficult to sew, but they make a gorgeous swishy and loose lining.
Crocheting with fabric is a great way to use scraps or recycle old clothes and linens. Consider the weight, fiber content, and width of the fabric before you start crocheting. Heavy fabrics like denim will be difficult to work with and require a larger hook than light- to medium-weight cotton blends. Fabrics that have some stretch, like polyester, are easy to work with, but keep in mind that your final crocheted piece will also have some stretch. Cotton, linen, and silk tend to be quite durable. Avoid thick fabrics or fabrics that fall apart when cut. The width of the strips you use determines the size of the hook you'll need: the wider the strip, the larger the hook. Before you buy new fabric off the bolt, rummage through your closet for unwanted clothes or linens, or visit a local thrift store for something that's new to you. Projects made with fabric remnants include: Vintage Satchel (page 73), Patchwork Handbag (page 77), Yo-Yo Basket Bag (page 101), Strappy Clutch (page 107), and Geometric Pincushions (page 119).
Commonly used for making jewelry, macramé pieces, and many other crafts, hemp is a perfect fiber for crochet projects that require strength and firmness. Usually found in craft or jewelry stores, hemp comes in a variety of sizes and colors, and tends to be labeled by thickness (in millimeters) or the amount of weight a strand can hold before it breaks (in pounds). For ease of use and flexibility, 1.0 mm or 20 lb hemp twine is best for most crochet projects (and those found in this book). Hemp works well for structured, three-dimensional projects like vases and boxes, but it can also be softened with a simple wet block (see page 45) to create soft yet sturdy fabric for bags. Projects made with hemp include: Patchwork Handbag (page 77), Petite Fleur Vases (page 145), and Lace Vases (page 149).
Jute is a strong plant fiber that's ideal for bags, containers, or any project requiring a stiff fabric. When you crochet with jute, you end up with an interesting fibrous texture and beautiful stitch definition. Natural jute, which comes in neutral shades, is readily available in a variety of thicknesses (measured in millimeters or plies) at hardware, gardening, or craft stores. You can also find an assortment of colored jute twine at gift or packaging supply stores. Use 2 to 3 mm (or 2 to 3 ply) twine for the projects in this book. Projects made with jute include: Jute Filet Bag (page 69), The Perfect Bin (page 93), Geometric Pincushions (page 119), Jute Vase (page 127), and Lace Vases (page 149).
Leather is truly a luxury to crochet with because it retains its form and stitch definition beautifully. You can buy leather cord in 25- and 100-yard (23 and 91 m) hanks or spools or by the yard, and it comes in several colors and thicknesses (measured in millimeters). Right off the spool, leather tends to be pretty stiff, so wind it up into a ball before you attempt to crochet with it to soften up the cord. (Or if you're lucky enough to live in a warm climate, set up your chair in a sunny spot and the leather will soften with the sun's warmth as you work.) Look for 1.0 and 2.0 mm spools to make the sculpted crochet projects in this book. Although leather cord is easily found in the jewelry department of your local craft store, it may be less expensive to buy through online jewelry supply and auction sites, where you may get a discount for buying in bulk. Projects made with leather include: Red's Goodie Basket (page 95), Leather Grannies (page 99), and Petite Fleur Vases (page 145).
Natural raffia, made from strands of palm fiber, is commonly used as packaging string. It can be tricky to crochet with, as it tends to be fibrous and lacks a uniform texture. Synthetic raffia, which creates a crisp and crunchy fabric when crocheted, is similar to crocheting with 1/4- to 1/2-inch (0.5 to 1 cm) ribbon. After blocking (see page 47) raffia, the strands will loosen up and the stitches will relax, softening the fabric and creating a more fluid drape. Natural raffia is usually packaged in bags and synthetic raffia is available in a wide range of colors on spools; both can be found at craft, floral, or packaging supply stores. Projects made with raffia include: Random Stripe Tote (page 111).
Like jute, sisal is a thick plant fiber with lots of texture. Strong and durable, sisal is suitable for crocheted planter boxes, baskets, floor mats, and bags. Because of its thick-ness, working with sisal requires a large crochet hook--6.5 to 10 mm--and a bit of arm strength. If your sisal fabric curls along the edges as you work, try wet blocking it (see page 45) to relax the fiber, smoothing out the stitches and flattening the edges. Sisal can be found in home improvement, gardening, and some craft stores. Projects made with sisal include: Yo-Yo Basket Bag (page 101) and Pacific Coast Basket (page 115).
Usually made with 100 percent cotton, linen, or a cotton-acrylic blend, household or kitchen string is a strong, inelastic material that shows beautiful stitch definition. Because of its strength and durability, it's well suited for bags and structured containers. Buy string at hardware, grocery, packaging, or kitchen supply stores. Projects made with string include: Strappy Clutch (page 107), Sake Set (page 131), Corde Market Bag (page 139), Petite Fleur Vases (page 145), and Lace Vases (page 149).
Using recycled sweaters, bags, and belts for your crochet projects not only makes you an environmentally conscious crafter, but it also gives you a bounty of unique project supplies. When searching for items to recycle, consider the following: What is the fiber content of the material (will it felt, will it unravel when you cut it)? How much effort will it take to deconstruct the item (can you just cut it into pieces, do you have to take it apart stitch by stitch)? Is the deconstruction effort worth your time?
Old handbags have a lot to offer. Before you buy, take a moment to consider how much of it is recyclable. Look for straps, closures, drawstring cords, split rings, zippers, and reusable fabric. Straps on swivel hooks are super easy to use; just unhook and you're done. A strap that is connected to the bag with a ring can be easily detached by cutting through the connecting tab. A bag with straps that have been sewn on will require a seam ripper and a lot more time. Take time to inspect the item carefully to make sure you're getting what you're looking for. Is the leather real or fake? Are the straps and closures sewn or glued to the bag? Do the zippers and closures work? By understanding how the item was originally created, you'll have an easier time taking it apart and reusing the pieces.
Old belts have great potential for becoming bag straps. Novelty and web belts with rings can be attached to a bag with a simple fabric or crocheted tab that is looped through the ring, then sewn to the sides of the bag. Leather belts make good, strong straps, but they may need to be cut, sewn, or otherwise altered before use.
The easiest way to reuse a sweater or scarf is to felt it (see page 42), then cut it up and use the pieces for quilts, bags, scarves, and so on. To determine whether a sweater can be felted, check the label for fiber content and care instructions. Sweaters made with 85 to 100 percent animal fibers can be felted, but keep in mind that many sweaters are treated so they can be machine washed. If the care instructions say something like "hand wash in cold water" or "do not wring," the sweater will probably felt. Machine washable items won't felt.
A more complicated way to recycle a sweater is to take it apart at the seams. You can either reuse the shaped pieces (sleeves, back, neck) to make bags and accessories or embellish other projects, or unravel the yarn entirely to add to your stash. If the seams have been serged, which is a machine-made overcast stitch usually worked on raw edges to keep them from fraying, move on to the next sweater. Serged seams tell you that the edges have been cut and the yarn won't unravel in one continuous strand. Stretch the seam to determine how it was created. If the seam stitches are easily discernible, the stitches can be quickly snipped to separate the pieces. Once a section has been detached, simply snip the last stitch and begin to unravel. Also check the item's fiber content. Acrylic yarns might not be worth your time, and fuzzy yarns are likely to get tangled when you try to unravel them. Finally, look at the size of the stitches. If they are itty bitty, the yarn is pretty thin. Do you really want to reuse super thin yarn with a tiny little hook?
Whether it's being "green," cheap, or resourceful, recycling will open up a lot of creative opportunities. Projects made with recycled materials include: Hong Kong Bag (page 59), The Perfect Bin (page 93), Strappy Clutch (page 107), and Random Stripe Tote (page 111). Recycling and reusing never looked so good!
Readily available in craft, bead, and home improvement or electronics stores, wire comes in a variety of metals, colors, and sizes. Wire is measured in terms of gauge, which describes the diameter of the wire. The higher the gauge number, the thinner and more flexible the wire will be. I like to crochet with wire that measures 24 to 30 gauge for bigger projects and 28 to 30 gauge for delicate projects like jewelry or small containers. In my opinion, wire that has a gauge lower than 24 or a gauge higher than 30 is too difficult to manipulate. Whatever gauge you choose, be sure to handle the wire carefully because it can break easily. The wire's thickness and the desired tightness of the stitches will determine the appropriate hook size for your project. If you use a thick wire or want a loose, lacy look, try using a hook in the 6.5 mm to 9 mm range. If you use a thin wire or want a tight, solid-looking fabric, try using a hook in the 1.8 mm to 4.0 mm range.
If you've never worked with wire, resist the urge to use silver tone craft wire for your first project. Although it's cheap and easy to find, craft wire is more difficult to work with than other wires. It will eat up your hooks and leave you with calluses on your fingers. A gentle, beginner-friendly wire is copper. It's soft and pliable, comes in a variety of colors, and tends to be less expensive than other fine metal wires. Projects made with wire include: Jute Vase (page 127), Wire Flower (page 143), and Petite Fleur Vases (page 145).