Historic reenactment of canal narrowboat crochet, photo via wow4water
Last November I wrote a post here about how one museum was honoring canal narrowboat crochet, a unique niche of crochet history. Since that time it’s been in the back of my mind as something I wanted to learn more about. I finally did the research. Here’s what I learned.
What is a Canal Narrowboat?
I learned the basics of the canal boating history from a pdf from a kids’ educator. Between 1760 and 1960 the waterway canals of Britain were used extensively to transport goods. People worked and lived on boats there. Boat jobs provided jobs for many men during this time. Their wives and children began to live on the boats with them and they often helped with the work although only the men were typically paid for the job.
Life on the Canal Narrowboat
A canal narrowboat was designed to fit into very narrow waterways, so it was a maximum of about seven feet wide, and therefore living on one of these boats meant living in cramped conditions. A lot of the families moved on to the boats after living in regular houses and so they really had to make some adjustments. Prior to 1877 the boats were usually overcrowded; in that year The Canal Act was passed and offered some regulation.
Canal Narrowboat Crochet
The pattern book for this is available through Crochet & Cabin Lace
The aforementioned pdf says (in chapter five) that “the most popular craft amongst boat women was crochet”, beginning around the end of the nineteenth century, early in the history of crochet. Since the living space on the boats was so incredibly cramped, the options for personalizing this “home” were limited. It’s not as though you could move in a bunch of furniture to express your own sense of style. That’s where crochet started to come into play. The women living on these boats could crochet small items to add a little bit of cozy, personalized decor to their space. The Victorian style of decorating, with its decorative lace, was popular on the boats and crochet was an affordable way to bring that style into the small space. It was common to see crocheted curtains and decorative crochet edging hung on cupboards and shelves. The style is typically filet crochet. Some narrowboats had portholes and so doily crochet was used to cover those circular holes.
Porthole doily, via Boaty Bits
The women also crocheted garments and accessories for their family members. Bonnets, shawls and aprons were commonly crocheted items. And the women even crocheted accessories for the horses that sometimes pulled the boats, according to crafter Elizabeth Bryant. Bryant also explains that the majority of the crochet at this time was done in natural cotton that could be boiled to white but occasionally colors were used in small pieces of work. My favorite part of Bryant’s article is when she says:
“During those long days of relentless toil, it must have been therapeutic for a woman to be able to tuck the tiller of the boat she was steering in the crook of her arm, and get out her latest piece of lace and crochet hook. Boats have even been steered ‘by foot’, whilst the boatwoman sat on the cabin roof and crocheted!”
Canal narrowboat lace has also been called “cabin lace”, which I learned from a woman who crochets replicas of this lace today.
Canal Boats Today
Canal narrowboats aren’t used anymore in the way that they once were. However, some people of Britain have recognized the importance of this part of their history and so have restored boats and created museums like the National Waterway Museum that celebrate this time. Some of these places make sure to also celebrate the crochet of this period of history.