Monday, February 16, 2015

Episode 70: Tools of the Trade - Crochet with Sandy

This article is part of the Tools of the Trade series, sponsored by the Geek Girl Crafts Podcast. The author, Sandy Jacobs-Tolle describes the basics of crochet and what you need to get started. 

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Crochet Basics

by Sandy Jacobs-Tolle

Crochet is the fiber art of making material (I hesitate to call it fabric, for reasons I’ll get into later) with a crochet hook and a length of fiber.

For most crochet techniques, a slip knot is the structural basis for many stitches, and loops pulled through other loops form the body of the work.

Slip stitch. The beginning of all crochet

Since you usually work with only one loop “live” at a time, and you have the yarn in one hand and the hook in the other, it’s a pretty easy technique to learn.

Crochet chain

I caught on to it quickly as a little girl. I taught myself from a book when I was about 7 or 8.  When you’re self-taught, you often get the freedom of experimenting since nobody’s given you a project to complete in a certain way.  That’s where I learned that the really cool thing about crochet is that it’s sculptural.  You can pull up a loop almost anywhere you want on your work.

Rows of Single Crochet

 You can grab another color and make a chain on the flat surface of your project.  You can double up stitches in the same space and make ripples and corkscrew spirals.

Treble Crochet

As a result, I’d say my favorite things I make in crochet are toys and animal/monster hats. With novelty yarn and sculptural stitches, the possibilities for making crazy and cool stuff are endless.  I’ve made a stole that looked like an opossum (playing dead) with a matching furry purse, I’ve made hats that look like the Yipyip aliens from Sesame Street.

 Elegant hats are par for the course too!

I’ve made pirate octopi, and even Calvin’s beloved tiger, Hobbes. 

I’ve also made a very elegant lace cardigan, so it’s not all silly stuff, either.

Sounds fun, right?  Well, you’ll be happy to know that there’s no prerequisite skill you need to get started.  I’m still learning new things with this hobby because of its versatility, so you’ll be pleased to know that it’s easy to pick up and get really creative. The fact that only one loop is live at any time means that mistakes are easy to prevent or fix.  When I’ve made a mistake in knitting stranded colorwork or cables, or when I’ve forgotten to place a lifeline in a lace knitting project only to have a dropped stitch ladder its way down-- that’s when I long for the simplicity of giving a single strand a good tug and erasing the mistake, as one can do in crochet. 

There are two things you’ll absolutely need to crochet: hooks and fiber.

Crochet Hooks

Crochet hooks are sold in many sizes, here in the US there are two category types: standard and steel.

Standard hooks are labeled by letters of the alphabet and the diameter of the shaft.  B is the smallest of the standards, at 2.25 mm, and the biggest you can easily find in stores or online is S, which is 19 mm, but Chiaogoo sells a size U which is 25 mm across!  Of the standards, I tend to use sizes G through J most, as they correspond to DK through bulky weight yarn. Steel hooks are for fine gauge lace and thread work, for the most part.  They are labeled with numbers from 00 to 14.  This is pretty confusing, since 00 is the biggest and 14 the littlest, so I definitely advise going by millimeter size. Size 14 is only .75 mm, while 00 is the same size as standard hook size B, 2.25 mm.

As you can imagine, the material of the hook can be constrained by size, but the most common materials hooks are made of are aluminum, plastic, and wood.  There are advantages and disadvantages to each, most having to do with the relative “stickiness” of the material.
  • Slippery cotton on slick aluminum hooks might cause you to choose wood or plastic for a better hold on your work. 
  • If you have a sticky yarn (some acrylics practically squeak on the hook!), you’ll want to use a slick metal hook. 
  • If you have a splitty yarn, you might want a hook with a pointed head carefully constructed from wood or metal to better pierce each loop and catch all the loose fibers in the hook.
When selecting your hook size for a new project of your own design, it’s good to take a look at the fiber you’re using.
  • If your fiber looks like it will “pop” out of the hook, go up a size so that it fits neatly inside. 
  • If it looks like it will shift around and be difficult to control, go down a size. 

In time, you might want to experiment with fiber weight that doesn’t match the hook size, since there are cool things you can do with that, but when starting out, you should keep it simple.

My personal experience  -- I learned on Boye aluminum hooks, and have not strayed far from this type.  The throat and head of the hook are like an extension of my fingers, and I have very regular gauge, so it’s pretty obvious they work great for me.  If you want to get a starter kit, about $13 at a Joann’s or Michaels will buy you a pouch of sizes D through K, which is a great jumping-off point for a variety of projects. Roughly $30 will get you a full range of the small steel hooks. As for organizing the lot, I have standards in one pouch, all my steel hooks in another, both pouches were about $12 each.


Now for fiber, the other must-have! Crochet uses a lot of yardage, up to a third more than knitting a similar-sized piece might.  As a result, many crocheters tend to keep fiber price high in their minds when planning a project. 
  • Cotton is one of the nicest fibers to work with for crochet for the money, and there’s a multitude of options, from kitchen cotton to pretty mercerized thread, to work with. 
  • Acrylic and crochet is almost inseparable, since a lot of folks automatically think of the ubiquitous granny square afghan over the couch made in space-age fibers and hippie earth tones. The cool thing about today’s acrylic is that it is softer, stronger, and much, much less squeaky than it was 20 years ago.  The price is still nice, too.  The wacky novelty yarns are usually acrylic, too, so it’s worth having fun with that option. 
  • Pure wool and other animal fibers are always wonderful to work with, but can be very warm in some climates when made into dense crochet. Consider a blend of wool and acrylic for a lighter weight and lower cost option. 
If you simply can’t decide, or want to experiment with your own blend, it’s really easy to hold two strands together in crochet without dropping a stitch.

Even with all these options at the store, it’s possible to crochet in anything fibery.  I’ve crocheted with raffia, strips of cotton fabric, VCR tape, butcher’s twine, fine-gauge metal wire, and cut-up grocery store plastic bags, to name just a few possibilities.  I find tempting things at HomeDepot almost as much as I do at the yarn store!

 Purse made for my Etsy shop. 
Raffia and cotton rags cut into strips -- cute and tough as nails!

Other Notions for a Crocheter

Here’s the rest of a well-stocked toolkit.  Some you might already have, some are not hard at all to get at craft stores. 
  • Stitch markers: you’ll really only need the kind that open and shut like little locks (Clover, about $5.50), or split rings, since solid loops would get stuck in your work. I’d caution against safety pins since fiber can stick in the coils. For very little projects, I use a French earwire slipped into the work, since it won’t get stuck, is less bulky, and is easy to get if you have an orphan earring you can sacrifice.
  • Tapestry needles are usually a couple of bucks.  I buy metal ones with sharp points, because I work with more slippery fiber when I crochet. When finishing my work, I split the yarn in places as I bury the thread end so that it won’t slip out.
  • Scissors: most households have them, and you probably won’t need fancy ones.  Smaller is nice if you can manage it.
  • Tape measure: I buy cheap ones because they go walkabout so often.
  • Big box craft stores often sell kits of these accessories on their own, usually for $20 or less. 

Optional fun stuff:
  • Project bags, of course! I don’t need to tell fiber artists how to accessorize, do I?
  • Afghan hooks are long hooks with a button or a cable on the end, designed for a specific kind of crochet called afghan or Tunisian crochet. Unlike regular crochet, Tunisian crochet has several live loops in use, necessitating a long shaft or cable to keep them all on.
  • Pencil grips or other ergonomic tools: some folks find that adding mass to the shaft helps them hold the hook more comfortably. Some enterprising folks make their own Sculpey handles for their hooks. Whatever works! There are video tutorials on how to do this, a good jumping-off point is a video by Carol Ventura, who does tapestry crochet.
  • Stitch counters: I’m never quite sure why folks have them except for super-huge projects, like casting on over a hundred stitches.
  • If you want to search for really good quality supplies, your local yarn store can have some wonderful options to check out, from fancy yarn to hand-turned wooden hooks. Etsy and eBay are full of woodworkers who turn out crochet hooks that are as lovingly crafted as Harry Potter’s magic wand from Ollivander’s. But what got me into it as a child, and what kept me at it as an adult, is its inexpensive starting point and its forgiving nature to busy, sometimes clumsy hands. 



There are a couple of books that I recommend for a great start at the craft.  I can’t recommend the book I learned from as a child, since it had flaws that I had to unlearn, but these should get you started in the right direction with lots of pictures, ideas, and stitch diagrams.
    • Stitch and Bitch Crochet: the Happy Hooker, by Debbie Stoller, Workman Publishing Company; Later Printing edition.  Edition matters in this book, the first had lots of errata to sort out.  This one is a lot of fun and would be great to get kids and teens interested in the hobby. The patterns are cute, sexy, cool and unfussy.

    • Donna Kooler's Encyclopedia of Crochet (Leisure Arts #15906): I bought the 2002 edition, there is a 2011 update which I have not yet seen.  This book teaches you the history, methodology and technique of crochet, with lots of pictures and (hooray) help for lefties. It’s where I learned how to read and write crochet stitch symbols, which becomes invaluable in working with patterns from other countries.  It has a lot of stitch patterns you can learn, but it’s not as “encyclopedic” in that regard as other books that are just stitch pattern collections.

On the web: 

  • The Crochet Guild of America and the Craft Yarn Council of America: if I need reference for yarn weights, gauges, hook size to needle size conversions, and fashion size charts from baby to large adult, these two sites have it.
  • Video tutorials: I’m open to the idea, but I learned from static pictures, so I can’t say for sure that there’s anything I’d recommend.

First Project Recommendations

As for getting started, I’m just going to give my standard advice for any new needlework you decide to pick up: don’t do scarves.  Potholders and scrub cloths in kitchen cotton will be the best place for you to learn your stitches in crochet, and if you don’t like how they turned out, you can put them under your pans instead of wearing them in public.

Happy hooking!

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