Macramé: The 13th-century craft that made a huge comeback in the 1970s

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Milica Sterjova
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Despite the fact that we mostly link macramé art with the 1970s, the decade when it enjoyed major popularity, it actually originated several centuries ago. There are different information about its origin but it is believed that macramé was started by Arab weavers in the 13th century. The term macramé comes from the Arabic word migramah which translates to “ornamental fringe” or “embroidered veil.”

The Arabs used it to finish the edges of towels or veils with decorative knots. When the Moors conquered Spain they brought the craft with them. From here it spread to France and Italy, arriving in Britain in the 17th century. It is the craft of knotting in various geometric patterns without using needles or hooks. It spread very quickly because almost every country already had a craft similar to macramé.

European and North American sailors had a major role in spreading macramé around the globe in the 18th and 19th centuries. They had already been using several kinds of knots for the ropes on the ships and they used the macramé craft in their spare time to make hammocks, belts, or hats. The sailors also used it to make bottle covers and to cover the handles of their knives to prevent slipping. They would sometimes sell or trade their objects, spreading the craft in China and the New World. The craft was usually called “square knotting“ among sailors due to the most commonly used knot.

Page/illustration from Motifs pour broderies (1922).

Queen Mary was a big fan of the craft which arrived in her court in the 17th century. She liked it so much she started studying macramé techniques in Holland and was responsible for spreading it to England. King George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte, was also known for knotting and using her pieces for decorating the court.

Macramé bag from the 17th century at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. CC0 1.0

The macramé craft was also famous and practiced in the Victorian era. Many Victorian women used knotting to create inexpensive lace. Sylvia’s Book of Macramé Lace from 1882 was an important read at the time and it educated people how to make macramé clothes and adornments for their homes. Decorating curtains, pillows and tablecloths with macramé was a favorite pastime of women in the Victorian era.

Italy, 17th-century textiles; fragments from linen macramé.

There is a variety of materials used in the process, depending on the object made. A plant holder, for example, is made of a different material compared to more elegant and decorative objects. Cotton twine, linen, hemp, or yarn are among the most commonly used materials in the process. In the making of jewelry, apart from the usual material, various beads or pendants are added.

A bracelet made with waxed polyester string. Author: Macrame Engineering. CC BY-SA 4.0

In the 20th century, the popularity of macramé began to decline. However, the late 1960s and the early 1970s saw a rise in the craft mostly in the new hippie and grunge cultures. There was an abundance of macramé pieces in the shape of dresses, jewelry, bags, plant hangers, and much more. This lasted until the 1980s when, once again, the art of macramé almost died out. Another revival happened at the beginning of the 21st century, as a part of 1970s nostalgia. It has had a role in fashion, and major fashion houses have included the techniques in making clothes as they did back in the 1970s.

Decorative macramé owls.

Macramé allows people to be creative but also practical because of the large variety of objects that can be made. It is quite easy to learn, inexpensive and has been said to be amazingly relaxing. Another great feature is that the tools needed for making a macramé object are pretty basic. Apart from the string, all that is needed is a pair of scissors, pins, and a small board for easier knotting.

Macramé napkin ring. Author: Laura Lauragais. CC BY-ND 2.0

Unlike other crafts, it doesn’t take much space and can be done virtually anywhere. Nowadays people are getting more and more creative with the designs. Macramé can be seen used in wall hangings, lampshades, clothes, and jewelry, giving them a classic and vintage appearance.