You and I call it crochet, and so do the French, Belgians, Italians and Spanish-speaking people. The skill is known as haken in Holland, haekling in Denmark, hekling in Norway and virkning in Sweden.
Other forms of handwork - knitting, embroidery and weaving - can be dated far back in time, thanks to archeological finds, written sources and pictorial representations of various kinds. But no one is quite sure when and where crochet got its start. The word comes from croc, or croche, the Middle French word for hook, and the Old Norse word for hook is krokr.
According to American crochet expert and world traveler Annie Potter, "The modem art of true crochet as we know it today was developed during the 16th century. It became known as 'crochet lace' in France and 'chain lace' in England." And, she tells us, in 1916 Walter Edmund Roth visited descendants of the Guiana Indians and found examples of true crochet.
Another writer/researcher, Lis Paludan of Denmark, who limited her search for the origins of crochet to Europe, puts forth three interesting theories. One: Crochet originated in Arabia, spread eastward to Tibet and westward to Spain, from where it followed the Arab trade routes to other Mediterranean countries. Two: Earliest evidence of crochet came from South America, where a primitive tribe was said to have used crochet adornments in rites of puberty. Three: In China, early examples were known of three-dimensional dolls worked in crochet.
But, says Paludan, the bottom line is that there is "no convincing evidence as to how old the art of crochet might be or where it came from. It was impossible to find evidence of crochet in Europe before 1800. A great many sources state that crochet has been known as far back as the 1500s in Italy under the name of 'nun's work' or 'nun's lace,' where it was worked by nuns for church textiles," she says. Her research turned up examples of lace-making and a kind of lace tape, many of which have been preserved, but "all indications are that crochet was not known in Italy as far back as the 16th century"- under any name.