What is Fancywork Crochet?

Aug 26, 2013

During the Civil War, there were two types of crochet projects. There wast the plain shirts, socks, hats, etc that were utilitarian and made in great abundance to be donated to soldiers and the needy. And then there was fancywork. I think we could all use a little more fancywork in our queue.

Children's Soldier's Fair. Engraving by Davis. Originally published in The Tribute Book by Frank Goodrich, (New York: Derby and Miller, 1865).

Fancywork for Charity

The Charity Fair was perhaps the most important social event in both North and South during the American Civil War (1861-1865). It was an entertainment that people could enjoy with abandon since it was raising money for "the cause." "Ladies' fairs" had been popular since about 1830 as a way to support benevolent and political causes such as abolition (church fairs were not yet common, and the  term "bazaar" would not be used until later in the century). Whatever they were called, it was women who organized and start­ed these fundraisers....

  Although named a "Charity Purse," Bart Elwell's spectacular
crocheted purse will become a favorite treasure bag. It's shown here with the page from the January 1862 issue of Peterson's Magazine showing the instructions and illustration he used to re-create the purse.
Photograph by Joe Coca.

Nearly any woman could contribute to a fair by supplying handwork to sale booths. The objects that were considered appropriate were not the practical "plain work" (shirts, socks, and bedding) that was sent directly to the troops, but "elaborate nothings"-"fancywork" such as whimsical pincushions and other sewing accessories, pen wipers, and lamp mats. Made to "please the eye, gratify the senses and tickle the fancy," fancywork was associated with good feeling and with abundance. Th­e saleswomen at Civil War-era fairs typically were attractive young ladies (their elders ran things behind the scenes), who made the objects look especially appealing. Flirtatious "wheedling" of male shoppers by the young ladies was expected and added to the fun.

--Beverly Gordon, PieceWork September/October 2013

My center motif for the Charity Purse.

I love the idea of fancywork, and if I had seen this charity purse at a ladies' fair, I would have quickly added it to my collection. And with Bart Elwell's interpretation of the 1874 Peterson's Charity Purse pattern I can create my own. I'm thinking an elegant little classic clutch to go with the modern little black dress.

Delve into crochet's history and discover historical patterns with PieceWork magazine. You will also find tales of tatting, embroidery, knitting, and more. Order your PieceWork subscription today and take a trip back into history.

Best wishes,

P.S. What is your favorite fancywork project?


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on Aug 26, 2013 6:46 AM

I made a "fancywork" purse last year with off white Sugar & Cream cotton yarn, embossed flowers on 5" squares.  I'll put a picture on "favorites" if possible.

nevinss wrote
on Aug 26, 2013 9:36 AM

Toni, Thank you for the "fancy work" article. At my ladies group we do different things for charity. My question is about the patterns that come out old magazines'  or Great Grandma's gifts way back when, does copyright apply. One of our ladies had picture out of a mag and made a quilt. Entered it in a county fair, next thing she knew, a lot of trouble. Any advice or guidelines?

nevinss wrote
on Aug 26, 2013 9:45 AM

Toni, Thank you for the article on fancy work.  We need advice. Our ladies group make things for "fairs'. One of our ladies made a quilt to submit to county fair. All she had was a pic no info. She was in trouble. What do you do with Great Grandma's gifts that we copy, or the pattern  tucked in that favorite book? Do copyright apply? Any advice or guidelines would be thankful.

Toni Rexroat wrote
on Aug 26, 2013 11:52 AM

Understanding copyright issues for old patterns can be confusing. Unfortunately it’s never black and white, but in general, if something was published prior to 1923, then it’s considered in the public domain. However, someone may have purchased the rights to it after that, or the original publisher renewed the copyright, in which case it’s not public domain.

We have put together a free eBook that might help you understand some of the copyright issues. I hope this helps.