Micaela Marini Higgs
Micaela Marini Higgs
@micaela_mh
Craft

The History of Macramé: From Arabic Weavers to Coachella Fashion

  • by Micaela Marini Higgs @micaela_mh

Discover the creative link tying together everyone from old-timey sailors to English Queens

From nuns to ladies-in-waiting, and from sailors to hippies, for centuries macramé has served as a creative outlet for people across the world.

But how has something as simple as decorative knot tying been able to connect with so many audiences and be reimagined in so many radically different ways?

Join us as we untangle the fascinating history of macramé, exploring how each generation keeps adding their own twist on knot tying to transform something as humble as a bundle of rope into a canvas for creativity.

Humanity's Long and Knotted History

Though most experts believe that macramé began in the last thousand years, humans have been tying knots for millennia.

Across the world, from Asia to the Incan empire, there are examples of knots being used as a method for record-keeping, with other practical uses including the tying of fishing nets in ancient Greece.

Decorative knot tying also has a storied history, and there are many ancient knots still in use today. For example in China, the pan chang knot dates back to the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279 AD) and is one of the eight symbols of Buddhism, reflecting the religion's belief in a life cycle with no beginning or end. Sometimes also called a butterfly knot or mystic knot, it is also believed that it offers good fortune to those who wear it.

Examples of the Chinese pan chang knot
Examples of the Chinese pan chang knot

Other examples of decorative knots can be found in art, where we can find records of details and objects that have been otherwise lost to time. In carved Assyrian wall reliefs, for example, you can see figures wearing clothes edged with fringe, a decorative detail created through the tying of threads.

Detail of an Assyrian wall relief featuring figures in fringed clothing
Detail of an Assyrian wall relief featuring figures in fringed clothing

The Beginning of Macramé

Despite our long history of knot tying, most experts believe that macramé, as we think of it today, began in the 13th century, with Arabic weavers tying excess threads at the edges of fabrics. For an example of what these simple knotted fringes looked like you can look to Turkish towels, which remain popular today.

Turkish towels featuring a simple knotted fringe
Turkish towels featuring a simple knotted fringe

What began as a practical exercise would soon turn into an opportunity for embellishment, evolving simple utilitarian knots into their own art form.

With the Moorish invasion of the Iberian Peninsula, which began in the 8th century, Arabic traditions were carried to Europe through Spain and then France. Crusades to the Middle East also brought the wives and servants of crusaders into contact with macramé, which they carried home with them, especially to Italy in places like Genoa.

European nuns, who were traditionally experts in needlework and lace-making and used their crafts to create pieces that could be sold as well as used by the Church, were quick to recognize the benefits of this new type of handiwork. Because of how easily it could be made, macramé offered a simpler alternative to complicated lacemaking techniques. Introducing the use of finer material, rather than thick wool as had traditionally been used, they created beautiful knotted lace in decorative panels that could be added to clothes or linens. Examples of their work can be spotted in religious vestments and paintings.

Detail of a macramé tablecloth hem from "Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee," ca 1748 by Maria Felice Tibaldi-Subleyras
Detail of a macramé tablecloth hem from "Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee," ca 1748 by Maria Felice Tibaldi-Subleyras

By the Renaissance, women from all walks of life were practicing “punto á groppo”, which translates as knotted lace. In the 17th century, Mary II carried the technique to the English court, where she taught it to her ladies-in-waiting, and biographers and satirists documented her obsession with “knotting threads.”

Panels of macramé lace which could be added to clothes or linens.
Panels of macramé lace which could be added to clothes or linens.

Macramé Takes to the Sea

Women and the church weren't the only ones responsible for popularizing macramé or finding new and inventive ways to use it.

Sailors, who needed practical knot-making knowledge for a life at sea, also embraced the technique, using the same basic knots as macramé though sometimes under a different name. Also known as square knotting, fancy work, or McNamara's Lace, macramé offered a way to combat boredom during long stints at sea. The unique objects that sailors produced also gave them something to barter with once on land, and knot-related knowledge was so valuable that they would even barter knot tying techniques between themselves.

Knot-making was both a necessary skill and popular pastime for sailors
Knot-making was both a necessary skill and popular pastime for sailors

Visiting ports across the world and carrying these pieces with them, sailors helped spread this handicraft around the globe, where it was further developed and sometimes given different names, such as Mexican lace.

A Very Victorian Revival

In the late 19th century, macramé found a new life in the Victorian home. Pairing perfectly with the era's over-the-top interior decor, which to modern eyes might look cluttered and crowded, the lace-like detailing of macramé saw it widely added to linens, mantles, and curtains.

But its beauty wasn't the only reason why macramé took hold. During a time when middle-class women were expected to busy themselves with handiwork as an important part of domestic life, macramé was an appealing option because of its comparative simplicity versus other types of needlework. With its basic repetition of a few basic knots, macramé was easier to learn and master but produced equally beautiful and desirable results, making it a simpler way for women to fulfil their domestic duty and experiment with creative handicrafts.

The printing boom of the Industrial Revolution also helped, with publications like “Sylvia's Book of Macramé Lace” in 1890 empowering even more women to take knot tying into their own hands, showing them how to create macramé for everything from umbrellas and bags to clothing and curtains.

Publications like “Sylvia's Book of Macramé Lace” offered instructions for the many ways macramé could be interpreted and use
Publications like “Sylvia's Book of Macramé Lace” offered instructions for the many ways macramé could be interpreted and use

Macramé's popularity eventually waned as tastes shifted and larger cultural moments impacted crafts and creativity. As more women entered the workforce, for example, there was less emphasis on handicrafts as a necessary part of domestic life. Wartime shortages of materials also pushed a shift to more "practical" crafts, such as sewing and knitting.

A Radical New Reputation

When macramé returned to the forefront of popular culture, it would make a defiant splash.

In the 1960s, macramé became a symbol of the new youth movement
In the 1960s, macramé became a symbol of the new youth movement

Adopted by the love children of the late 1960s, macramé became an anti-industrialist symbol in their larger counterculture movement. Using handmade crafts as a way to rebel against capitalism and mass production, hippies used macramé not just as a way to connect with their own creativity but also as a canvas through which they could express these radical sentiments. Creating pieces that looked nothing like their grandparent's delicate doilies, macramé became bold and loud, finding its way not just into home decor but also into fashion. If something could be embellished with macramé, it probably was.

Macramé's extreme visibility soon spread to the wider culture and it became a popular pastime that was taught to children and eventually appeared in the homes and wardrobes of “regular” people who weren't part of the larger counterculture movement.

Macramé went mainstream, enjoying larger popularity
Macramé went mainstream, enjoying larger popularity

The Birth of Modern Macramé

Though the over-the-top aesthetic of the 1970s and its onslaught of macramé animal wall hangings eventually went out of style, macramé never fully has. Especially popular in interior design, today macramé tapestries and plant hangers add a friendly touch to the enviable images seen everywhere on Instagram.

In recent years, macramé plant hangers have become an interior design staple
In recent years, macramé plant hangers have become an interior design staple

Though modern macramé practitioners are using the same knots and techniques used by queens, sailors, and Victorians, they continue to find new ways to make the medium reflect the current moment, producing everything from boho-chic clothing and handbags to ultra-modern jewelry and home decor.

Using centuries old knots, today's macramé practitioners can still add their new twist on tradition
Using centuries old knots, today's macramé practitioners can still add their new twist on tradition

In an age of digital connection macramé has also transformed into an opportunity for relaxation, digital disconnection, and self-care, allowing people to slow down and express themselves creatively.

Part of a rich learning tradition, with techniques passed down from generation to generation, macramé continues to be a reflection of how a single material can be endlessly reinterpreted, meaning that it's never been easier to discover new ways to add your own twist on this centuries-old tradition.

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