Something that people ask me all the time is what the difference is between crochet and knitting. If you do either, it’s extremely obvious. But if you don’t work with yarn, most of the explanations I could give you probably won’t make a lot of sense, unless we literally have some WIPs in front of us. The spiel I give, which may or may not be at all helpful, is basically: “To knit, you use two long needles that hold all of the stitches in your project at once. In crochet, you’re using one small hook that holds just the stitch you’re working with.” (We won’t even get into Tunisian crochet, which is like halfway in between, or the various needle-less forms of knitting.)
It’s a totally fair question though, as many people – and this absolutely includes fashion editors and other clothing pros, btw – have trouble telling the difference between knitting and crochet. As crochet has experienced a major renaissance in mainstream fashion, you see all kinds of garments described as crochet. They usually have some kind of holey or lacy thing going on, and if they’re white, it’s pretty much guaranteed they’ll be described as crochet. But are they actually crocheted? How can you tell?
Let’s take a look at three examples. I grabbed these from mall staple American Eagle, but this is the kind of fare you’ll find pretty much everywhere. All of these garments explicitly feature the word “crochet” in the name. On the left, we have the AE Crochet Open Cardigan. The AE Crochet Front Romper is in the middle. And on the right, we’ve got the AE Crochet Button Cami. They look pretty similar, but which is actually crocheted?
To figure it out, let’s take a closer look at the stitching in these garments.
The Crochet Open Cardigan indeed has a hole-y stitch pattern that conveys the look of crochet – but this is knit. How can you tell? A dead giveaway that a garment is knit rather than crocheted is that knitting tends to have very clear differences between the right and wrong sides of the garment. In other words, your sweater (or whatever) will look one way when worn properly, but if you wore it inside-out, the fabric would look totally different. That’s the case with this cardigan for sure, as it uses mainly the basic stitches of knitting – the knit stitch and the purl stitch. In most cases, the knit stitch is what you see on the outside, the purl is what’s on the inside. Most fabrics are knit. Take a close look at a t-shirt: If you really peer at it, you can see the individual threads, and the patterns they make. On the outside of your tee, they look like little V’s – that’s the knit stitch. On the inside, they look more like little dashes. That’s the purl. Why is almost everything knit? Well, because machines are damn good at knitting. Machines can crank out huge volumes of knitted material, and they never complain about their fingers hurting. Even though this cardigan does have some vaguely lacy stitch patterns going on – and you can knit some pretty lacy stuff – this isn’t crochet. You’ll sometimes see clothing described as “crochet knit” – that’s just not a thing. There’s surely a name for the stitches that knitting pattern is using, but it’s not crochet.
How about the Crochet Front Romper? Looking at this you might be reminded of a doily – something that’s virtually always crocheted – or lace, which can be crocheted as well. Take a close look though – this is actually made up of tons of super-flat, super-tiny stitches, almost as if the thread were drawing the doily pattern. That’s because this is embroidery. And yeah, again, this was done by a machine. How can you tell when something is embroidered? Looking at the stitching is a big giveaway – up close, it will look more like a Girl Scout badge than like a sweater. The biggest difference though is that embroidery can’t just be floating out there on its own – it’s always embroidered onto something. In the case of a garment like this, it’s usually a very thin, very sheer, and somewhat stiff synthetic fabric. It helps the lace keep its shape, and gives it something to grab onto. If you think a garment is crocheted, and up close there’s fabric in them there holes? It’s embroidered. In many of cases like this too, the back of the fabric will feel different than the front – often, the embroidery is sealed on the back, and so it might feel a little rubbery or like dried glue. This is to hold the stitching in place, and the fact that it needs that means this garment is unlikely to hold up. This kind of machine embroidery is what most often gets referred to as “crochet” (sometimes even by crochet magazines, when they feature clothes from mass retailers), and it drives me crazy, because it’s actually as dissimilar as you can get. Those scallop-y shorts you always see claiming to be crocheted? Embroidery by a machine. Same goes for most “crochet” shoes (yes, even the crochet TOMS) and undies.
Okay, so what about the Crochet Button Cami? Ding, ding, ding, we have a winner! This one is actually crocheted – well, at least the front pieces and the trim are (the back is just fabric). How can you tell it’s crocheted? Well, unlike with knitting, crochet doesn’t usually have a clear right and wrong side. If you unbuttoned this and looked at the inside of the front, it would not look very different from the outside. Unlike the machine embroidery, the stitches aren’t all just tiny lines – you can see the thread or yarn making what looks like all kinds of crazy, swirly knots. One massively huge difference though, that you can’t actually see? This was made by hand. How do I know that? Simple: Because machines can’t crochet. (Sorry, Terminator.) Any garment (or any other object, for that matter) that you find that’s crocheted was literally made by a human, who had to sit there and craft each and every stitch.
This means that unlike knitting or embroidery, crochet isn’t very scalable – it’s not an efficient process, even for those who can crochet at Doris Chan-level speeds, and it isn’t often cost-effective, since it has to be done by a human. There are a zillion reasons not to buy fast fashion (here are eight), but if you see a crocheted garment that is actually crocheted in a mall store, you can guarantee that it was not made under great conditions (not that the garments that aren’t crocheted are – it’s been noted that stuff like beading and sequins are indicative of the use of child labor). If your garment costs less than $50, and the store is making a profit, the person who actually stitched it is making an unconscionably low amount of money per hour. Something like a hat is a bit of an exception – most crochet hats are relatively simple and quick to make, though those terms are relative here – but for example, the cami above is made up of individual motifs (basically patches – each of those star shapes) that were then joined together.
Want crocheted garments that are ethically made, but don’t know how to wield a hook yourself? You’ve got options – you just need to look for them. They won’t be as cheap as the mall stuff, but you also won’t have to live with the knowledge that someone halfway around the world is paying a steep price so that you can get a deal. Krochet Kids is an amazing nonprofit that sells clothing and accessories (they got their start with hats) made by women in Uganda and Peru, with the profits going back to education, mentorship programs, and employment in those communities. Each piece they sell is literally signed by the person who made it, which is pretty awesome. You can also find crochet clothiers like Emma O, whose dresses and swimwear are coveted by celebs, and who individually makes each piece.
*I wrote this post yesterday – and DAMN, I did a good job – and then Tumblr crashed. And it disappeared. Eff you, Tumblr. The whole oh-it’s-faster-for-pages-not-to-reload-just-type-in-a-widget thing is only helpful if that widget doesn’t fail all the time! Literally, EVERY button functionality worked properly EXCEPT “save draft” or “publish” or basically anything useful. I gave up and copied the whole thing as html to my clipboard, but then got distracted by a work thing, copied something else, and lost the whole post. I feel like it was a better post yesterday, and that sucks. Ughhhhh.