Canal Narrowboat Cabin Crochet – by Elizabeth Bryant
Like so much of the canal art traditions, the origin of Cabin crochet is lost in the mists of time, but it probably originated from the Victorian habit of adorning every conceivable surface with some form of decoration, even to the extent of trimming shelves and mantelpieces with edgings of cut paper or lace, and after the middle of the 19 century when crochet was introduced to this country, these styles could be emulated in the humblest homes with the use of ‘poor man’s lace’, or crochet work.
As the tradition of enhancing the appearance of canal narrowboats with painted designs grew up over the second half of the Victorian era, so did the boatpeople’s pride in their boats. When married boatmen began taking their wives to live on board in the tiny cabins, the women must have wished to make their homes as pleasant as possible, but the adornments had to fit in, without taking up space that could be more usefully utilised.
With her crochet work, the boatwoman was able to create with her own hands, beautiful articles to adorn her home. Originally, one supposes, some of the wives brought their crocheting skills on board from life on the bank, and, copying their land counterparts, hung narrow strips of crochet lace around the edge of the shelf above the stove, and the small shelves inside their cupboard. This trimming usually had one straight edge, by which it would be pinned to the wood, and one edge of ‘Vandyke’ points, also sometimes called ‘the pointed Rover’ by some boat women. Deeper lengths of lace would be pinned up around the cabin, where the walls joined the roof, and in any other available nook or cranny. The bed ‘ole was screened from the rest of the cabin by curtains which could also be edged with crochet, as could aprons, hanging pockets, and the elaborate bonnets the women wore in Victorian times and on into the twentieth century, long after the fashion for such headgear had died out on the bank. Shawls for the women and babies would also be crocheted. Some boatwomen made brightly coloured embroidered and crocheted belts and braces for their husbands, and sewed and knitted the clothes for their children.
Canal boats were originally horse-drawn, this tradition lasting up until the middle of the twentieth century for a diminishing number of boat people. A good horse or mule was highly valued, and would be provided with crochet earcaps, often decorated with a multitude of brightly coloured tassels, which would help to protect the ‘hanimal’ from the clouds of flies as he plodded along the towpaths. Naturally, as many of the boats carried dirty cargoes, and visited filthy wharves, the women had to work very hard to keep their small homes clean and neat. The crochet lace must have become grey quite quickly, but being made of cotton it could be boiled white again, and pulled back into shape easily. An insular group, boat people often married into other boating families, and loaned older children out to help crew other boats. To meet with family members and friends at regular mooring places must have been a much-enjoyed but infrequent pleasure. Whilst the women caught up with the news they would haul their heavy wash tubs onto the towpath and boil and pound their clothes into cleanliness, before hanging them to dry along the boat.
At such times I imagine they would also have passed on to each other new crochet patterns, demonstrating how they were made, and maybe supplying a friend or relative with a small sample of lace, which could then be kept in a pocket and copied. Most of the women had no opportunity to attend school, so were unable to read, but once the basic crochet stitches had been learnt, a pattern could be copied from a sample without the need of literacy skills. The local names of the patterns and stitches would be handed on from one generation to the next, along with the skill. Patterns may have had regional or family traditions. There are many variations of daisy patterns for example, which may have come about as each woman copied a piece of crochet, but gave it her own touch, or made a mistake which was then adapted into the design. The patterns are constructed from filet crochet, which is a net of square holes and filled blocks. The design is ‘drawn’ in filled blocks, and usually consists of a repeat pattern which makes up one ‘point’ of the net. Once the crocheter has mastered the first ‘point’, she can then refer back to that as she works, until she has completed the required length.
Original old boat lace is hard to find nowadays, but I have been lucky enough to be given access to some samples of laces made by Rose Whitlock, a notable crochet woman, from their old family boats. Rose herself also handed on the advice to make a good firm top edge to the lace, so it would be easier to hang or pin up.
Other designs used on boats varied from the very simple, using geometric shapes such as diamonds, triangles, and hearts, to more complex patterns, such as horseshoes, stars, and flowers. I feel sure that many boat women had fun experimenting and making up their own designs, with which to impress their friends when they next met along the cut. Although usually made from natural cotton which could be boiled white, some women added finishing edges of reds, pinks and blues, to enhance their work. 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!
With the demise of most of the trade on the canals, the old canal art and crafts could have died. Thankfully, they haven’t been allowed to, and craftsmen and women continue to use their skills on restored working boats, and have expanded them to include the holiday industry. In the same way, the tradition of using crochet to decorate cabins ‘hung on by a thread’ through the sad years of canal decline, and is now, with the resurgence of boating as a leisure activity, happily being adapted for use on leisure boats. Some of the last of the working boatwomen were asked to make shelf edgings for the holiday trade, and as examples for the restored boats and museums, and now, in addition to seeing hand crocheted nets at some boat windows, one can see them as porthole covers, and trimmings around the interior woodwork, where the boaters enjoy feeling that they are helping to carry on this small piece of the folk art of the canals.