The British late autumn weather is at its most typical as my train pulls into Swansea: it’s dark, drizzling, and windy. The Christmas illuminations are up, and the tumbling castle is lit in blue, but my train was late so I’ve no time to enjoy the view. I put my head down and walk briskly down the high street.
I spy a Hackspace logo through metal railings and press the intercom to go in. Buzzed through the doors and, after climbing the stairs, I’m welcomed into Swansea Hackspace by Tim Clark, one of the Hackspace directors.
It’s Crafternoon (second and fourth Wednesday of the month), and there’s already a group of people working on their projects. Swansea Hackspace member Sophia has kindly agreed to teach me a new skill, crochet – the art of knotting yarn into fabric using a hook.
I can sew just about well enough to repair clothes, but that’s about as far as my textile skills progress. Crochet seems the perfect place to start, as it’s the fabric-making craft with the smallest number of instruments – you need only a single crochet hook to get started – so I assumed it’s the easiest to learn, though this thought isn’t backed up by any evidence.
Sophia begins with a demonstration. She makes a loop with the yarn then, with a hook, beings to loop and pull the yarn, then some things happen that I don’t quite catch, and there’s a little square of fabric.
At its most basic, crochet is similar to finger-knitting, where you pull a loop of thread through another loop, and tighten the first loop around the second. However, with crochet, these loops are intertwined and sometimes you’re pulling a loop through two other loops. The skill, as far as I can tell, is in remembering where you are in the pattern and pulling the right bits through the right loops.
Sophie sets me to work trying to make a granny square – essentially a chess-board pattern of square knots of crochet and holes.
Before I can start to get into patterns and loops and in-and-out bits, there’s a much more basic skill to learn – I’m struggling to master keeping the yarn on the hook. The difficulty is that there are three things to control (the hook, the yarn, and the thing that I’m crocheting) yet I only have two hands.
Sophia encourages me to solve this by wrapping the yarn around my finger, but it’s hard to keep it tight and, without the yarn under tension, the crochet becomes loose, and the whole thing becomes more of a tangled mess than it’s supposed to be. When some loops are tight and some slack, the distinction between loop and not-loop starts to fade and the result is anarchy.
Crochet has one saving grace when compared to knitting (the other main way of making fabric from yarn): it’s straightforward to undo mistakes. You can take the hook out of the material, pull the loose end, and watch the mistakes gradually pop out, much like going back to a saved point in a computer game when things go wrong. Without this, I’m pretty sure I’d still be in South Wales tangled in a ball of yarn.
First starting to crochet is a deeply unsociable thing. I spend most of the first hour in Swansea Hackspace staring fixedly at a tangle of yarn trying to work out if what I’ve done is correct, and if it is, what I’m meant to do next. However, building up the granny square is fundamentally a pattern: three double crochets, one link, three double crochets, one link, three double crochets, three links and then repeat. After a few iterations of this loop, my muscle memory starts to develop, and I can do each of these steps without staring fixedly at the yarn. It starts to become an automatic process, a rhythmical movement that relaxes my mind as the fabric slowly (and slightly irregularly) appears in my hands.
Swansea Hackspace Crafternoon is a social event and, as the rhythmical toing and froing of the crochet hooks helps people unwind, the conversation flows. I’d love to be able to report the gossip from my night at Swansea Hackspace, but unfortunately my muscle memory hadn’t quite built up enough yet to join a conversation for long enough to work out what was going on before having to return my attention the tangle in my hands.
I’m not going to claim my granny square was a triumph (if you look closely you might notice that there’s a square missing), but it is roughly square and it is crocheted.
Sophia’s keen to put me to the test, and ups the challenge from two to three dimensions. Unlike most methods of converting a thread into a fabric (like knitting or weaving), with crochet you can vary the amount of knots in each line (or loop in the case of circular crocheting). This means that you can make the fabric curve into a third dimension. The simplest way of doing this is by creating something that’s broadly spherical, by starting with a circle and varying the number of knots in each ring.
The inner ring has six knots. The second twelve, then eighteen – well, approximately anyway. I never quite mastered the art of remembering where I was in this pattern. With this pattern, the fabric gently curves upwards, and it can be reversed to bring the curve back together again to form a complete sphere.
You can judge my success for yourself, but I must confess that Sophia finished the ball off for me. Not because I couldn’t do it, but because I was pressed for time with the last train home leaving shortly – at least, that’s what she told me.
So, can you learn to crochet in an evening? With some guidance, you can learn to make something in an evening, and end up knowing enough to learn more by yourself. Applying the same basic skills, but in different patterns, you can build up complex 2D and 3D designs.
Learning to crochet
The basic equipment for crocheting is just a crochet hook and some yarn. If you start with just the basics, you can easily get everything you need to start for under £5 (and that’s if there’s not a hackspace or makerspace near you with equipment you can use). You do need to make sure that you have the right-sized hook for your yarn (check with the seller for details).
It’s easiest to learn from an experienced crocheter, if possible – this may be a crocheter you know – or there are courses run frequently around the UK. That said, it’s certainly possible to learn from either a book or a set of videos, but you will need a little more patience and problem-solving ability to work out what you need to do. As with so many skills, practice is the key to learning to crochet.
Things to make
Once you’ve mastered the basics of crochet, you can move on to more advanced projects. There’s loads of ideas to inspire you at ravelry.com. A few popular options are:
Using basic granny squares, you can build up a large (or small) blanket to keep you warm through the winter months
The technique we used to create a ball can be used on a larger scale to create a beanie hat
As you master more complex patterns, you can knot your way to complex cuddly toys
The patterned fabric created from crochet can create striking-looking bags