I have an affinity for all things ’70s. But amidst the heaps of olive green Pyrex, orange enamel fondue pots, and trippy floral-printed everything is a particular type of item that smacks of the era more than any other: macramé. As a child growing up in the ’80s, the textile-craft created by knotting twine, cord, or hemp — often in the form of hanging plant holders and intricate wall hangings — was already a vestige of a past era, mostly relegated to reruns of Three’s Company and my aunt’s outdated living room decor. As far as I knew, it was something uniquely ’70s, but as it turns out, macramé was around long before. In fact, this textile art has a rich and varied history that involved ancient weavers, crafty sailors, and lace-loving Victorians before it made a pop culture comeback in the days of Chrissy, Jack, and Janet.
Even better, sometime between then and now, macramé became cool again, and I couldn’t be happier about it. Home design bloggers are posting about their vintage macramé finds, crafters are creating knotted DIYs, and a few contemporary artists are even taking the technique to the galleries.
But to understand where macramé is, let’s take a look at where it’s come from. According to The Complete Encyclopedia of Needlework, the word itself is derivative of the Arabic term migramah, meaning ornamental fringes and braids. Back in the 13th century, Middle Eastern weavers were knotting “the excess thread and yarn along the edges of hand-loomed fabrics into decorative fringes on bath towels, shawls, and veils,” according to Reader’s Digest Crafts & Hobbies. Following the Moorish Conquest, the technique made its way to Spain and was introduced to England by the 17th century. That’s where British sailors picked up the practice, and according to Mod Knots: Creating Jewelry and Accessories with Macrame, helped spread macramé around the world. It makes sense that knotting would appeal to a sailor, and they supposedly made belts, knife handle covers, and even hammocks.
Not only was macramé popular with the seafaring men of the era, but Victorian ladies were also all about the knotting, particularly since macramé provided a cheap and easy way to make lace. In the 1882 tome Sylvia’s Book of Macrame Lace, the author purports that “materials are inexpensive, and the lace lasts almost for ever [sic].” She goes on to say that the craft “can be unhesitatingly recommended as a pleasant occupation and pastime” while touting the refreshing lack of materials needed: “not even a thimble and needle are wanted to produce the charming effects of our macramé work.” Lace trimmings adorned nearly every dress, curtain, and pillow, and macramé parasols were all the rage. But shortly after the art form went dormant until the 1970s, when it was revived with a boho vibe by the decade’s hippies eventually making its way into nearly every home in America.
These days, macramé has returned to a place of clout thanks to design-savvy bloggers with impeccable taste, whose stunning photos make knotted décor items seem like a necessary addition. (I’m talkin’ about you, The Brick House!). Vintage macramé wall-hangings and plant holders are the perfect accents for the mid-century modern aesthetic, adding just the right amount of earthiness without feeling retro or kitschy. Throw a succulent in a hanging macramé plant holder and you’ve got instant desert chic.
While vintage macramé finds are being touted around the blogosphere, plenty of artists and crafters are updating the ancient technique. At the Ace Hotel and Swim Club in Palm Springs, CA, interior designer Michael Schmidt created an impressive macramé installation in the lobby — a decorative hanging curtain of knotted rope. Michigan-based fiber artist Sally England creates gorgeous wall hangings, room dividers, plant holders, and even lampshades that look as natural in a gallery as they do in a home. Australian designer Sarah Parkes is also getting attention with her modern take on macramé housewares and jewelry under the name Smalltown. Etsy, of course, touts some pretty fantastic contemporary macramé as well. Kitiya Palaskas adds pops of neon to her knot work to make it feel fresh, and the simple, natural pieces designed by Emma Radke are stunning — I’m completely in love with this hammock, but her delicate garlands are perfect for a more subtle touch.
If you feel like getting knotty yourself, you’re in luck. The simple side of the macramé spectrum is relatively easy to learn (generally all you need is some twine or cord and a desire to tie it up!) and there are some awesome DIY projects you can try. Heather Moore (better known as Skinny laMinx) has a tutorial for a lovely hanging garden, and Honestly…WTF’s take on a macrame bracelet moves the art form out of the ’70s and puts it squarely in the here and now — right where I like it.
Lisa Butterworth is a writer and editor soaking up the eternal sunshine in Los Angeles. When she's not on the hunt for the latest and greatest in girl culture as the West Coast editor of BUST magazine, she's flea marketing, taco trucking, and generally raising a ruckus.