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  • Writer's pictureErin Salthouse

Museums and Crafts

Aside from family programs or museums with craft-based collections, most people don’t see a place for craft in museums. But there is a strong need for some crafts. People want to touch things in museums. Many with tactile learning or low or no vision need to touch things. To fill the demand, some museum education departments use an education collection.

Education collections are often deaccessioned on non-accessioned items of the museum collection. Items which are accessioned are legally required to be preserved, to be cared for in a way that limits the natural deterioration process as much as possible. In the case of many items, they cannot even be on display because the light, humidity, etc would be too damaging. Deaccessioning is a fraught and tedious process, and it does not happen very often. So when museum education departments cannot get deaccessioned artifacts they may purchase historically accurate replicas. Often, many items made from fabric must be replicas, and this is where craft can help.

Historically accurate sewing or knitting can produce garments that really give a sense for the time. Wool World War 1 army socks, tenement sweatshop aprons or dress pieces, even lace or replicas of children’s toys could help explain the past or tell a story. I have done some research for crafts I created to donate to the Museum of the City of New York’s educational collection, including a pair of WWI socks and some samples of tatted lace edging. See more on that below. Beyond replicas, crafts can help to model artifacts or ideas. I’ve seen tapestry replicas, plushie space shuttle models with velcro attached rockets, felt fish with removable guts, human cell models made of fabric, and even images enhanced with raised outlines in wire or string. 

Crafts can also be used as fidgets for learners. These crocheted examples of exponential expansion can visually explain a maths concept as well as function as a soft fidget.  Many visitors, including though with autism, can benefit from soft fidgets.

Think about the last museum you visited. What crafts did you see on display? Did you have a chance to handle any touch objects? What would you have liked to be included?

More on historical crafts

History of Tatting

Known as Tatting in America, and frivolite in France, this likely developed from “knotting” a craft with roots in sailors rope work. The earliest written record is a 1707 poem by Charles Sedley about tatting and it gained popularity, which can be seen in a number of paintings of high rank ladies in the 1800s. Tatting involves knotting thread or string into intricate looped patterns, which creates a stiff lacework. Tatting can be done with fingers, needles, shuttles and a crochet hook. Shuttles could be highly decorated silver, mother of pear, wood, or made from celluloid and offered for free like this Liza Pinkham version. Many patents for improving tatting shuttles in the early 1900s reveal the popularity of this craft.

There are many literary references to tatting during its resurgence in the early 20th century, which frame it as a feminine, leisurely activity. In fact, there were pattern books as well, like The Art of Tatting, published in 1910, by Katharin L Hoare emphasizes the Queen of Romania’s tatting designs. However, it makes the list of tenement workshop tasks.

“…many tenements included at least one, and often multiple, workshops. Mothers toiled long into the night sewing buttons, linings, and cuffs on clothing; fashioning corset covers and tassels for dance cards; rolling cigars; tatting lace; stringing beads for moccasins and handbags; sorting human hair for wigs; picking meat from hundreds of thousands of nuts; stitching collars; assembling brushes; making doll clothes. Children worked alongside their mothers.” p. 100, Triangle: The Fire that Changed America.

Tatting, as an Irish craft may have been brought to America by Irish immigrants in the late 1800s. One of the only named patterns, which is seen in some work from the early 1900s is called “Hen and chickens” or “Ingra” and would have been used as a lace trim on linens. “The Hen and Chickens pattern was the only one Marilyn’s grandmother ever learned, but it is one of the oldest and most well known in tatting. It is also one of the only antique patterns with a name.” In fact, similar pattern the Etruscan border, is dated in an 1861 pattern book, so it may have been in use earlier. 

History of knitting

Knitting has traditions in many parts of the world, but generally consists of two or more needles and a plied yarn. Immigrants made some knitted items like mittens in early New York for themselves and to sell. It is possible their traditional motifs and patterns like the …were spread this way. Like tatting, there was a social divide in the late 19th century with upper class women selectively knitting as charity work and lower classes knitting to survive. In fact, knitting “Continued to provide an important source of income for many others, including freed slaves; Hermanson wrote that in 1864, the abolitionist Sojourner Truth taught “sewing, knitting and cooking” to refugee camps of emancipated slaves to help them financially support themselves.” To make things more efficient, a portable circular knitting machine was common in the 19th and 20th century and some versions were produced in a Buffalo, NY, these machines would have been used to make socks. However many would continue to hand knit in tenement workshops. In response to WWI, many campaigns like those by the Red Cross urged everyone, including children and boys to knit for soldiers, especially socks, wristlets, and scarves. And even earlier, during the Civil War, Johnston Eastman depicted a child “knitting for soldiers”.



Resource on Civil War demonstrations


Red Cross Patterns NY historical society painting titled “knitting for soldiers” from 1861

Portable circular machine knitting was common mid 19th cent. Part of industrial revolution.

Yarn names from 1920s book

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