For an introduction to what goes on in this column, click here.
If you ask me, you can tell a civilization is in decline when it stops caring about good throw pillows.
Most of us, if we are lucky, spend quite a bit of time with our throw pillows, and they do so much for us. They hide that coffee stain on the sofa from visitors, they add a certain quelque chose to the bed on days when we make the bed, they support our backs as we knit in a favorite chair, they cradle our heads while we fall blissfully asleep during a weekend binge of The Crown or America’s Next Top Cake Hero.
Yet how much thought do we put into the selection of these small but essential elements of the well-appointed home? Judging from the pillows I’ve seen lately (including on my own sofa), shamefully little.
I’ve taken a hard look at the soft furnishings of our nest this winter, in part because for a couple of weeks I couldn’t leave the nest or the Chicago weather would have killed me. And I feel the need of an upgrade.
I don’t even know where that green sofa pillow and its twin came from. They mystify me, because I don’t like that depressing olive green and I don’t like that clammy fabric.
I suspect they came home because I was out at some discount store, remembered that we needed new pillows, and grabbed the least offensive pair off the shelf because they were a) cheap and b) meh, good enough.
Is that any way for a man who claims to be a fancier of fine textiles to act? No, it is not.
Out of the Past
A few years ago I was visiting a friend’s great-aunt, and the friend told her that I knit and crochet. The great-aunt said languidly that the afghan over the back of the couch upon which we were sitting was her own work, circa 1950; and it was the first and last thing she’d ever made because needlework was boring as all hell.
It was quite a showpiece, fashioned entirely from wool, weighing in at about three hundred and forty thousand pounds. Most fascinating to me were five square panels set into the center and corners, each embroidered with florals in cross stitch.
I asked if I could photograph it. She thought that was a weird request, and said no. She changed the subject to the voracious and seismic lovemaking of the newlywed couple in the apartment above. They, on cue, went into action at that very moment and we scrambled to keep the tea service from bouncing off the table. The afghan was forgotten.
Months and months later, I came into possession of a 1916 book of knitting and crochet patterns that included an afghan with cross-stitched panels.
I strained my rudimentary crochet skills to understand the method, which the book called “afghan stitch,” and realized it was what I had seen demonstrated at a couple of fiber shows as “Tunisian crochet,” and had read about in a few Victorian books as “tricot crochet” or “tricot stitch.” (And yes, “tricot” is French for “knitting.” Foreshadowing!)
Ever since, I’ve been looking around for a chance to play with the technique, and at last hit me–why not do up a pretty sofa pillow/cushion cover in Tunisian crochet, and embroider it to suit?
Now, the world of Tunisian crochet is large and varied. This is not the only stitch, but it’s the one called for in all old manuals for cross-stitched panels.
First, a note about the tools for working it.
Tunisian crochet is usually not made with typical crochet hooks, but specialized hooks intended for the purpose. Maker’s Mercantile sells them, and they are usually either double-ended, like these, or have a hook at one end and a stop at the other, like these.
But they also sell a set-up that interested me particularly because of the size of the panel I wanted to make. It looks like this.
That’s a hook from the Addi Click Crochet Hook Interchangeable Set, with an interchangeable cable and, to keep the work from sliding off the end, an Addi HeartStopper. A long panel can be heavy, and using a hook on a cable means the weight of the growing fabric slides down the cable to rest, and won’t wreak havoc on your wrists as it might with a traditional hook–one of the same reasons circular knitting needles have become so popular, even for flat knitting.
Also, I knew I’d be working on this project on a lot of airplanes–and a short hook with a short cable is less cumbersome in an airplane seat and less attention-getting at security than a long metal hook.
The Tunisian Crochet or Afghan Stitch, Part I: The Set-Up
You may have noticed that those Tunisian hooks with an end stop look like knitting needles. That’s no coincidence, because this odd form of crochet acts a whole lot like knitting. (Hence the nineteenth century moniker “tricot crochet.”)
In fact, if you are a knitter and think you can’t possibly do this, let me give you all the fundamentals of the basic Tunisian stitch in two steps:
*1. Pick up and knit stitches into your fabric. Don’t turn the work.
2. Now bind off all but one of the stitches you just picked up. Repeat from *.
I’m not kidding. You pick up stitches and you bind them off. You can do that, right?
Let me show you how.
I’ll demonstrate some of the gold HiKoo Simpliworsted left from Rosamund’s superhero sweater. (If you want to crochet a washable afghan that incorporates this sort of fabric, Simpliworsted is a great choice.)
We have to start somewhere, and that somewhere is with a crochet chain. It’s no different than the standard chain you’d use to start a regular piece of crochet.
The chain has two sides to it. The front shows you little Vs.
The back shows you little bumps.
We will work the next stage, the “forward” row of picked-up stitches, into the bumps.
Set-Up, Forward Row
Insert the hook into bump nearest the hook,
and pull through a loop of the working yarn. Now–and herein lies a great difference between Tunisian crochet and other sorts–we slip this new loop onto the shaft of the crochet hook. That’s right–just as we keep our knitting stitches on the shafts of our needles.
Continue to pick up a loop through every one of the bumps on the back of your chain, keeping all the newly-created stitches on the hook.
Do not turn the work. That’s right–don’t turn the work. In fact, never turn the work.
Instead, we will now work a “reverse” row and bind off all these new stitches.
Set-Up, Reverse Row
Yarn over the hook, and pull a new loop through the stitch at the left end of the row.
Yarn over the hook, and pull a loop through the first two stitches on the hook.
**Yarn over the hook, and pull a loop through the next two stitches on the hook.
Repeat from ** until you have only one stitch left on the hook.
Your set-up is now complete. The next section will tell you how to work the remainder of the fabric.
The Tunisian Crochet or Afghan Stitch, Part Two: All the Other Rows
You’ll continue to work your fabric in much the same way–with forward rows (right to left) in which you make new stitches; and backward rows (left to right) in which you bind off all but one of them.
Look at the fabric you’ve created in the set up. You will see a series of vertical “bars.” I’ve marked them here to make them obvious.
Each bar you see has a mate on the back side of the work. We will work only into the bars on the front until the last bar of the forward row.
Put the hook under the second bar in from the right selvedge of the work. Yarn over the hook and pull up a loop.
Slide the new loop onto the shaft of the hook.
Repeat into the next bar, and all remaining bars until you reach the final bar–the one at the left selvedge.
Create the stitch at the left selvedge by sliding the hook under both the front and back bars, yarn over the hook, and pull up a loop.
This little change gives you a neat left selvedge that matches the right selvedge.
DO NOT TURN THE WORK.
Note: This is pretty much identical the reverse row in the set-up!
Yarn over the hook and pull a loop through the first stitch on the hook only.
***Yarn over the hook and pull up a loop through the first two stitches on the hook.
Repeat from *** until one stitch remains on hook.
DO NOT TURN WORK.
Begin the next Forward Row, as above.
Bind off as you would any flat piece of crochet.
The fabric this stitch creates is intriguing: dense, cushy, and with a surface texture that reminds me of the little square cells in a waffle.
Destination: Throw Pillow
CoBaSi Plus (a mix of cotton, bamboo, and silk–get it?) is strong, soft, durable, springy, lustrous, washable, and feels nice against your face–all important in a cushion you’d like to be beautiful and useful.
In setting about making my fabric, I learned a few things very quickly.
First, when guides to Tunisian crochet tell you to use a hook size that seems large for the weight of your yarn, they mean it. This fabric is tight. Use a hook that would be reasonable for, say, a granny square, you may find very that your fabric is impossible to work without damaging your fingers.
How do you figure out which hook to use? SWATCH. No way around it.
I tried three sizes of hook. The smallest (at the bottom of the photo above) made a fabric so dense that was nearly impenetrable on forward rows. The largest (at the top) made a fabric loose enough for the fabric of the pillow form to show through…tacky. The hook in between (in the middle), a 5mm, was just right. You can barely see the difference in the photograph–but it’s there.
Also, Tunisian crochet has a reputation for being tough on the hands and wrists. I won’t disagree with that–it can be. Using the loosest suitable tension (therefore, the largest suitable hook) will help, as will avoiding yarns (like pure cottons) that don’t like to stretch.
I also found it was far easier on my hands and wrists when I grasped my hook knife-style (in the palm of the hand, rather than resting pencil-style on the thumb), and held it nearer the lower end of the hook, where it joined the cable.
The making of the fabric was quite pleasant, if occasionally monotonous. But what I was really looking forward to was turning it into a big, bold piece of cross stitch.
For that more on that, see you in two weeks.
Tools and Materials Appearing in This Issue
HiKoo CoBaSi Plus (55% Cotton, 16% Bamboo, 8% Silk, 21% Elastic Nylon; 220 yards per 50 gram hank)
HiKoo Simpliworsted (55% Merino Wool, 25% Acrylic, 17% Nylon. 140 yards per 100 gram hank)
Addi Click Crochet Hook Interchangeable Set
Designer, teacher, author and illustrator Franklin Habit is the author of It Itches: A Stash of Knitting Cartoons (Interweave Press, 2008). His newest book, I Dream of Yarn: A Knit and Crochet Coloring Book was brought out by Soho Publishing in May 2016 and is in its second printing.
He travels constantly to teach knitters at shops and guilds across the country and internationally; and has been a popular member of the faculties of such festivals as Vogue Knitting Live!, STITCHES Events, the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, Squam Arts Workshops, the Taos Wool Festival, Sock Summit, and the Madrona Fiber Arts Winter Retreat.
Franklin’s varied experience in the fiber world includes contributions of writing and design to Vogue Knitting, Yarn Market News, Interweave Knits, Interweave Crochet, PieceWork, Twist Collective; and a regular columns and cartoons for Mason-Dixon Knitting, PLY Magazine, Lion Brand Yarns, and Skacel Collection/Makers’ Mercantile. Many of his independently published designs are available via Ravelry.com.
He is the longtime proprietor of The Panopticon, one of the most popular knitting blogs on the Internet (presently on hiatus).
Franklin lives in Chicago, Illinois, cohabiting shamelessly with 15,000 books, a Schacht spinning wheel, four looms, and a colony of yarn that multiplies whenever his back is turned.