Eléonore Riego de la Branchardière: The Mother of Modern Crochet

Discover the story of the author who first published a book on crochet in 1846, and changed the lives of thousands of women

The origins of crochet are very difficult to trace. As a universal and ancient practice, for which techniques were initially passed down orally, researchers have several theories for when exactly it all began. However, as human beings began to concern themselves with keeping records of creative techniques, documents appeared allowing us to reconstruct part of its history.

One such document is Knitting, Crochet and Netting by French-Irish knitter Eléonore Riego de la Branchardière. Published in 1846, it is considered the world's first crochet book.

In this article, learn all about the life and works of the author, and why her 72 books were so important for tens of thousands of women.

Portrait of Eléonore Riego de la Branchardière.
Portrait of Eléonore Riego de la Branchardière.

A pioneer of crochet

Eléonore Riego de la Branchardière was born in France in 1828 to an Irish mother and an aristocratic French-Spanish father. At a time when few people had the privilege of publishing, her social class allowed her access to the printing press.

In 1846, at only 18 years of age, she used this resource to publish her first crochet book, Knitting, Crochet and Netting. Up to this time, knitting and crocheting were pastimes carried out in the private sphere of women, and Eléonore's book became the first publication on the subject.

The simple and inexpensive copy contained 12 clear illustrations to give others an easy explanation of the technique. Her publication had such an impact that Eléonore became the first influencer of knitting. At the height of English Victorian fashion, women wanted to wear their own homemade lace based on her designs, and she gave them plenty of material. After that first book, she would publish 71 more, each time more specific and detailed.

However, the reason Eléonore's name went down in history in the rest of Europe was not only due to the undeniable beauty of her creations. Her generosity and works transcended social classes and represented a powerful opportunity for thousands of women during a particularly complex historical moment.

First page of the first edition of Eléonore's "Knitting, Crochet and Netting" (digitized version).
First page of the first edition of Eléonore's "Knitting, Crochet and Netting" (digitized version).

Crochet as a survival tool

Eléonore's publications appeared at a time when many parts of Europe were looking for new ways of survival. Many communities had been deeply disrupted by wars, fluctuations in agriculture, and crop failures.

Ireland, in particular, was going through what became known as the Great Famine between 1845 and 1849. A period of starvation and disease, it resulted in the death of more than a million people and drove around 2 million more to emigrate.

The crisis was exacerbated by the agricultural exploitation of Ireland by England, which left its inhabitants almost entirely dependent on a single crop: potatoes. After potato crop failures caused by late blight, Ireland was left facing a catastrophic famine.

In this context, women, and even children, stayed at home weaving clothes and blankets both for warmth and to earn money.

Winter coat pattern, published by Eléonore Riego de la Branchardière.
Winter coat pattern, published by Eléonore Riego de la Branchardière.

A new age for crochet

Until the publication of Eléonore's books, crochet was seen as an unrefined practice that aspired to imitate the luxurious image of lace (made using more expensive and older techniques). Crochet wares were seen to be purely functional and associated with poverty. However, this image began to change when Queen Victoria of England showed herself in Irish crocheted fabrics.

It was in this context that the French knitter started publishing books to disseminate varied and complex patterns. Some of the patterns were of her authorship, and others were compilations of her exhaustive research.

Eléonore not only taught the basics but also published 13 books on what was known in the upper class as the art of "frivolité". This was the art of creating purely decorative accessories, without any function, to embellish garments or the house. Some of her most notable books were Golden Stars in Tatting and Crochet (1861), The Knitting Book and The Crochet Book (1848), and The Point Lace Sampler (1849).

Patterns published by Eléonore Riego de la Branchardière.
Patterns published by Eléonore Riego de la Branchardière.

Characteristics of Eléonore Riego's work

Eléonore's first instructional book focused on the "Irish stitch". This technique achieved results similar to Venetian lace but worked with a single hook, which shortened the knitting time considerably. She claimed that a piece could be created in as little as 20 hours without much experience.

The Irish lace technique emphasized individual motifs: leaves, flowers, or fruits, which could then be joined together in the form of a net. This feature was essential for working as a community; it allowed women to share the work according to availability and skill. Also, unlike other types of weaving, it could be done with cheap and easily available materials.

It's believed this is why, a year after publishing her first book, more than twenty thousand people were weaving using Eléonore's method in Ireland's south.

A digitized page from the book "Knitting, Crochet and Netting".
A digitized page from the book "Knitting, Crochet and Netting".

The heyday of Irish knitting

As her techniques and teachings continued to spread and evolve, Eléonore published dozens of books promoting other craft methods and styles, such as the Andalusian stitch. These influences inspired knitters all over Europe.

Across Ireland, in particular, entire families collaborated on knitting projects and improving their craft. They closely guarded the designs and motifs they were able to create. It is said that, during this time, when a neighbor entered the house unexpectedly, the lace was quickly hidden so as not to reveal the creative forms that many began to export to London, Paris, Rome, and New York. California became one of the major distribution centers for Irish knitwear.

Classic piece of Irish stitch. Ravelry.
Classic piece of Irish stitch. Ravelry.

An illustrious career crochet

As the young crochet artist's work made its way worldwide, her fame and prestige grew, and she won various prizes along the way. In 1851, at the age of 23, Eléonore entered the Great Exhibition in England and won the top award for her exquisite imitation of Spanish lace. Her lace was considered the best of its time.

Her fame also presented challenges. She dealt with issues of plagiarism—a novel problem at the time—as weavers from distant lands tried to emulate her business and copied the book by changing the signature. However, this didn't stop her; she continued to grow her career until the end of her life.

Eléonore Riego de la Branchardière died in England at the age of 59, the day after Christmas 1887. By then, she'd gone down in knitting history as the "Mother of Modern Crochet".

Examples of prizes won by Eléonore Riego de la Branchardière.
Examples of prizes won by Eléonore Riego de la Branchardière.

To learn more about Eléonore's work, access her first crochet book, Knitting, Crochet and Netting for free on Google Books.

English version by @acesarato.

Learn more about the art of crochet

Feeling inspired? Explore all of Domestika's online crochet courses, and read on for more...

- Get started in the world of crochet with our free eBook: A Beginner's Guide to Crochet.

- If you want to craft your own winter warmers, learn how to make a granny square crochet sweater in Katie Jones' online course.

- Discover five websites to download 100s of free crochet and knitting patterns.


Log in or sign up to comment

Get Domestika's news delivered to your inbox