Crocheted blocks of color made up into garage-sale afghans and late-hippie-era skirts and vests bring the 1970s to mind, but the truth is that granny squares have been a mainstay of American needlecraft for over one hundred years. Information about their origins is scarce, but most sources suggest that granny squares were first made by thrifty settlers faced with a dearth of warm textiles.
Yarn was difficult to come by in the early days of our country; too expensive to be wasted, it had to be used sparingly and any remnants set aside for future use. Mismatched scraps, worked into squares and stitched together into blankets, resulted in the hodgepodge of color and texture we now associate with the quintessential granny square.
But hodgepodge isn't the only look possible with granny squares. Yarn today is hardly the scarce commodity it once was, and the sheer quantity of weights, colors, and fibers available lets anyone working in granny-square mode emphasize appearance over utility.
So why not reinterpret the granny square for the twenty-first century? In these projects we used a basic pattern -- two crochet stitches worked into four rounds -- but updated the materials, sizes, and choices of color. Squares can be subtle and monochromatic, tiny and colorful, traditional or modern. They can be made from cotton, linen, wool, or silk. In short, the design possibilities are endless.
Think of the granny square as the yarn version of a painted tile. Let color drive design. Work with hues that draw attention to the center, then add a border to accentuate the lines. Use contrasting rows of vibrant color for one square, muted shades blending outward for another. A square can be as brilliant as a cathedral window or as gentle as a watercolor.
Turn to Nature for Inspiration
A garden walk is a good way to see firsthand how many shades of yellow, green, and brown there are to choose from. Observe textile designs; upholstery fabrics and antique quilts can teach you a lot about balance and contrast. Even a favorite painting can spark an idea. The challenge is to showcase interesting color combinations without deviating from the simple symmetry of the basic pattern.
Experiments with texture also add interest to granny-square design. Juxtaposing fuzzy mohair with Shetland yarn will give your squares a richly varied surface. By changing the size of the hook as you work from row to row, you can alter the heights and lengths of the stitches, which will make the squares less repetitious. And if you position lightweight yarns next to heavier ones or tweedy yarns next to glossy ones, the result will be a textile that looks at once homespun and sophisticated.
Like decorative tiles, squares have a complex symmetry when combined into a single piece. Stitch them together as you go, or arrange and rearrange them on the floor until you have a pleasing pattern. Whether you make a blanket or a bookmark, a pot holder or a shawl, your goal should be the same: to position each square in a complementary relationship to the others. Composed successfully, your work will suggest both the artistry of a tiled fountain and the warmth of a craft rich in American folk history.
Intricately worked from fine cotton thread, each tiny square of this handmade bookmark suggests a mosaic tile. Tuck one inside a literary classic for a niece or grandchild, and mark a favorite page. To create a border for a completed granny-square project, you can crochet clusters into the spaces all around the work. This acts to unify the piece.
Below: A pot holder can be made in an afternoon and is a good project for learning how to create a color palette. Printed fabrics and china patterns can be sources of inspiration; so can wallpaper designs. Experiment with color combinations -- they are what determine a granny square's appeal. We used nine small squares for two pot holders, four medium squares for two more, and a single large square for the center one above. Sew six granny squares together to form a block whose soft sides and gentle colors are perfect for baby. Foam cubes give these blocks their shape, but stuffing will work as well.