From knitting to embroidery and beyond, here's the origin story behind some popular pastimes.

By Caroline Biggs
June 11, 2020
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Emilija Manevska / Getty Images

While certain crafts are popular in modern times, you might be surprised to learn that many have actually been around for centuries. "Quilting in America, as it is more commonly practiced today, has existed since the Europeans first formed the colonies," says Sung Kim, trend manager at JOANN. "Some other crafts that have been around for centuries include needle arts (knitting, crocheting, weaving, and embroidery), sculpture and pottery, jewelry making, and floral arranging.

And while some craft techniques pass as mere fads—bedazzling, anyone?—others seems to stand the test of time, often making major comebacks in the design world. "Embroidery has gained popularity in the past ten years because of the internet and social media," says Lucy Barter of the San Francisco School of Needlework and Design. "Crafts like macramé, which was huge in the 1970s and then fell out of favor, are now back in fashion in a big and hip way."

Interested to hear more about the history behind some of your favorite crafts? From knitting to pottery and more, read on to discover where five of our favorite craft techniques originated from.

Knitting

One of the oldest forms of sewing, Kim says knitting is theorized to have originated centuries ago in the Middle East, specifically in Egypt and Syria. "The oldest known knitted artifact is a pair of socks," she says. As the craft gained popularity over the years, it became both a hobby craft and a way to create clothes out of necessity. "During the revolutionary war, knitters gathered together to support patriots by mending and making them garments," she adds. "Today, knitting is popular for many of the same reasons; you can make projects for yourself, loved ones, or to donate."

Crochet

While the exact origins of crochet are a source of debate, Kim says that it is believed that the craft as we know it today dates back to the 16th century. "It was originally known by several names including 'chain lace' and 'crochet lace'," she says. "It was used for a vast array of things including nets for catching fish and game, home décor, and articles of clothing." According to the Crochet Guild of America, crochet's place of origin can be traced to 16th century France and England, as well as parts of Arabia and South America during the same time period.

Embroidery

Although the art of embroidery is practiced worldwide today, Barter says the earliest examples of the craft technique date back to the Warring States period in China, between the 5th and 3rd centuries BC. "China is the first country in the world that discovered the use of silk," she explains. "Silkworms were domesticated as early as 5,000 years ago, the production of silk thread resulted in high quality silk fabrics and the rise of the art of embroidery."

Pottery

Arguably the oldest craft technique of all time, historians say the ancient art of pottery originated before the Neolithic period; particularly, ceramic vessels dating back to 18,000 BC were recently discovered in a cave in the Jiangxi province of China. "Pottery has a somewhat unknown, muddy back story (pun intended)," she says. "It's theorized to be one of the oldest human inventions."

Beadwork

Beadwork, or the art of attaching beads to one another by stringing them with a sewing or beading needle or sewing them to cloth, is another example of a popular craft that's been practiced around the world for centuries. "Ancient tribes strung together different objects—natural items and animal bones—for spiritual protection as well as to show status," Kim says. "Ancient Egyptians were master glass bead makers; Romans traded beautiful beads throughout the vast Roman empire; and in the Americas, Native Americans considered beadwork, including bead quilling, to be sacred."

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