The Poetry and Mathematics of Crochet

There may be poets who can sit in front of their computer or notebook and spontaneously compose a poem, but I am not one of them. Generally, my poems have a long gestation. I tend to mull them over while doing other things: gardening, walking, cleaning the bathrooms. Crocheting.

My best friend Joanne taught me how to crochet when I was thirteen. I’ve never been particularly good with my hands and at school I struggled with activities such as knitting or sewing or art; but crochet, with its single hook and simple knotting technique, was relatively easy and I took to it straight away. My first project was a poncho (dear reader, we were the hippie generation! – ponchos ruled!), constructed of granny squares in shades of blue. 

Over the years I’ve progressed from granny squares to scarves, baby blankets, cardigans, filet crochet placemats, soft toys and amigurumi for my grandchildren. 

Crochet is relaxing and meditative. Stitches are looped in rows, integrating texture, shape and colour to create a beautiful object. It’s a process analogous to writing a poem, where lines of words, imagery, metre and form are crafted together to become something much more than the sum of the component parts.

We can of course make this comparison with other handcrafts too. Listen to Samantha Vazhure reading her richly sensual love poem ‘One by one rib stitch’, and note how skilfully she knits her imagery together.

Ron Aharoni has observed that ‘both mathematics and poetry are searching for hidden patterns.’ In a sense this also applies to crochet: the ‘hidden pattern’ gradually reveals itself as the written code of stitches and rows is translated into fabric and form. 

We can use crochet to give tactile expression to mathematical objects. I have crocheted a Fibonacci scarf and a Möbius strip cowl, both of which were quite simple to make. In recent years, dexterous mathematicians have employed the medium of crochet to create complex and beautiful structures that are not easy to visualise in two dimensions, including hyperbolic planes, hexaflexagons and the Lorenz manifold.

Fractals have long been a love of mine, both mathematically and aesthetically. It was therefore natural to turn to fractals for inspiration when I decided to embark on an extended crochet project during lockdown. After several false starts, I designed my own pattern for a triangular Sierpinski shawl. 

As is characteristic of fractals, the Sierpinski triangle is self-similar, with detail at every scale, and can be defined by a simple recursive procedure. Once you understand how the pattern works, it’s easy to follow and can be continued indefinitely, until you run out of wool, or time, or both. My shawl is still a work in progress! In the meantime, it offers me the mental space and quietness to contemplate life, the universe and everything – including poetry. 

This interaction between poetry and handwork is a two-way process. My thoughts are woven into the shawl’s fabric; its fabric is woven into my poems.

The shawl provides the cover illustration for my poetry collection Triangles, which can be ordered from Penteract Press. And yes – it features in some of the poems too.

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