The Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has received a large collection of materials documenting the history and practice of the art of crochet. The collection was donated by Gilbert Witte, long-time employee of the University Library. Named the Tennyson Library of Crochet for Witte’s great-grandmother Flora Emily Tennyson, the collection documents the history and practice of the craft through journals, patterns, samples, and manuals.
The Tennyson Library of Crochet consists of some 7,000 items in all, ranging in date from 1843 to the present. The majority of items comes from the United States, but there are also pieces from Canada, England, Scotland, Australia, France, Japan, Switzerland, Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Russia, Sweden, and Argentina.
Witte began collecting in earnest after receiving copies of Workbasket magazine belonging to his great-grandmother and other materials from his grandmother Flora Dell Adams. He was inspired in his search for rare and often ephemeral crochet literature by his own interest in learning the craft. Witte’s own library training led him to look for answers in books and journals. He has been systematic in his acquisitions, at one point acquiring another large collection, that of Pauline Claussen of Iowa, to merge with his own.
“Although my collection now resides in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, I still plan on collecting and filling in gaps,” said Witte, who learned to crochet in 1987. “It is my hope that it will interest and be of value to not only sartorial savants, but also students and scholars of arts and crafts, art history, theater studies, photography, and cultural history.”
“The Tennyson Library of Crochet came with the added bonus that Mr. Witte, a consummate cataloger himself, cataloged and prepared every item for addition to our collection,” said Rare Book & Manuscript Library Director Valerie Hotchkiss. “Not many donors can make such a claim!”
While the origins of crochet are unknown, the first printed crochet instruction materials appeared in women’s magazines of the late 1800s, such as Godey’s Ladies’ Magazine, Frank Leslie’s Ladies’ Gazette, Peterson’s Magazine, and, somewhat later, Harper’s Bazaar, Ladies Home Journal, and Ladies’ National Magazine. Needlework instructions are also found in household management books such as the famous Mrs. Beeton’s series. But the earliest publications devoted solely to specific needle arts were published in 1843; authored by artists such as Mrs. Gaugin, Mrs. Gore, Miss Lambert, Mrs. Ann S. Stephens, G. Curling Hope, and Mdlle. Riego de la Branchardiere.
The Tennyson Library of Crochet will be featured in a “Knot Forgotten: The Tennyson Library of Crochet at Illinois” exhibition in July 2014. For more information, visit www.library.illinois.edu/rbx.