History of macrame: From ancient times to now

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While macrame is now one of the most popular fiber arts alongside crochet, embroidery, and weaving, the transition from utilitarian knot tying to decorative wall hangings has been a long and interesting journey.

Here’s a brief history of macrame for anyone interested in the origin of those fabulous fringes!

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History of macrame: Origins

History of macrame origins

While people have been tying decorative knots since before history was recorded, the earliest roots of what we now consider macrame date back to roughly the 13th century.

The term macrame comes from a decorative knotting technique used by Arab weavers on embroidered cloths called “migramah”. These knots kept the ends of the cloth from fraying while also creating the beautiful fringe look that we still associate with macrame today.

For an idea of what this looked like, look at the knotted fringes of Turkish towels, seen below, which are still popular today. Granted, the knots in the original works were much more elaborate.

Turkish towels with fringe

As for how the word arrived in Europe, there are two schools of thought. One is that it came through the Moors in the Iberian peninsula, then on to Italy and northward.

The other theory is that it came via Turkey, originating from the Turkish makrama, meaning face towel or napkin. Either way, the original history of macrame lies with Arab weavers.

As this new knotting technique spread throughout Europe, it also gained popularity with sailors, who had a lot of time (and rope) while on long journeys at sea. This helped spread the craft around the world as they traded them for other goods at ports.

Macrame also made it to the highest levels of society. Queen Mary II is said to have taught it to her ladies-in-waiting. However, at this point people were still creating lace-like designs with thin thread, rather than the thicker macrame cord we’re used to today.

But macrame wouldn’t find its first true hay day until nearly two centuries later.

The Victorian macrame craze

Victorian era macrame lace history
Victorian-era macrame lace. Photo via Auckland Museum

The first big macrame boom was during the Victorian era when domestic handicrafts became a popular way to decorate your home.

Book printing also became much cheaper after the Industrial Revolution, and that can be seen in the graph below. It charts the appearance of the term macrame in writing, and there’s a clear increase in the latter half of the 19th century, peaking around 1887.

One of the most popular Victorian macrame books was called Sylvia’s Book of Macrame Lace. Published in 1882, it contained illustrations and instructions for “rich trimmings for black and coloured costumes, both for home wear, garden parties, seaside ramblings, and balls — fairylike adornments for household and underlinen— fringes, edgings, and insertions for towels, pillows, antimacassars — covers for sofa-cushions, work-bags, shopping-baskets, etc., etc.”

Sylvia's book of macrame lace history
Pages from Sylvia’s Book of Macrame Lace

You can read the book online at the Smithsonian Library for free.

Designs in this era were still largely done using smaller threads. They were destined to adorn things like tablecloths and dresses, hence the name, macrame lace. Macrame curtains were also a popular use, although again, with fairly delicate thread.

As times and tastes changed, macrame was once again relegated to niche circles. It wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that it once again became a household name.

Macrame as 1960s counter-culture

Vintage macrame plant hangers

In case you didn’t catch it in the graph above, the 1960s and 1970s were the time when macrame’s popularity reached its true heights.

The hippy movement latched on to macrame as an anti-capitalist symbol of personal expression early in the 1960s. However, these new designs looked nothing like the delicate lacework of earlier eras.

Bold designs using thick cord come to prevalence, both as wearable art and decorative works. Many of the more intricate knots were dropped, but the hanging fringe remained a popular feature.

Macrame owl_Feature image

Macrame had reached the mainstream by the 1970s, peaking toward the end of the decade. Many popular macrame projects today come from this time, from macrame bracelets and earrings to wall hangings and macrame owls.

A lot of macrame books were published at this time, making it easier than ever for people of all walks of life to start.

But as the 1980s rolled around, macrame’s popularity waned. It never completely died off, but the cultural phenomenon of macrame in the 1960s-70s was never matched.

Modern history of macrame

Macrame wall hanging kit on table

Macrame didn’t go away, of course, and although it was mostly dormant for the rest of the 20th century, it’s recently come back in a big way.

The advent of the internet made it easier than ever to find macrame classes and tutorials online, and worsening economic conditions have made many of my fellow millennials look to creative hobbies to find meaning in an increasingly incomprehensible world.

Judging by the Google trends report above, macrame began to regain popularity around 2017, peaking at the start of the pandemic. With everyone stuck at home, it’s no wonder that the meditative craft took hold.

Modern macrame designs are much more varied than any other era. You can find both boho and geometrical designs, and dyed cords have made it easier than ever to incorporate color into macrame projects.

But the one thing that has remained constant throughout the entire history of macrame is fringe. This appears to be the one thing (apart from knots), that makes macrame macrame.

That’s it for this brief history of macrame! If you haven’t already started your knotting journey, check out our favorite macrame kits to get started today!

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