Patterns and Copyright: A Problem Today with Roots in the Nineteenth Century

Patterns and Copyright: A Problem Today with Roots in the Nineteenth Century

With Valentine’s Day around the corner flowers and chocolate are on the minds of many – or in our world crochet and knit flowers. Among the Library Company of Philadelphia’s many treasures is a cobalt blue volume with gold stamping of Miss Lambert’s The Hand-book of Needlework (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1842), the earliest American pattern book in the collection. The book provides a detailed analysis of needlework history, materials, and implements along with a wide variety of illustrated patterns for knitting, crochet, netting, braiding, appliqué, and embroidery.

The author, Miss Frances Lambert, an English woman, was the most popular needlework writer in nineteenth century America. She also wrote The Ladies’ Complete Guide to Needlework and Embroidery, My Crochet Sampler, My Knitting Book, Practical Hints on Decorative Needlework, and Church Needlework With Practical Remarks on its Arrangement and Preparation, all of which were reprinted over and over again.

The publication that has intrigued me the most however is Instructions for Making Miss Lambert’s Registered Crochet Flowers. In the nineteenth century patterns were often reprinted with little or no regard to the original designer. This was evident in the case of Mrs. Stephen’s Crochet Book, also in the Library Company collection, which was a fraudulent printing of The Lady’s Own Book, published by W.S. Johnson, of London. In February of 1855 the matter became so heated that Godey’s Lady’s Book published the following statement:

“As an act of justice to ourselves, we deem it due to state that the patterns we have already published, before Mrs. S.’s book appeared, and which are in her book, and those that we are about to publish, which may also be in her work, were taken from the original source, The Lady’s Own Book, published by W.S. Johnson, of London. This explanation is given, as our readers might suppose that we copied from Mrs. Stephens’s book. We have had the various numbers of The Lady’s Own Book in our possession for more than a year; but other novelties demanded precedence. It is an excellent work, and we will furnish it for 75 cents.”

The problem of illegal distribution of patterns remains a problem today in the world of crafting due to the ease of scanning and sharing digital files. Copyright in itself is a difficult area to grasp in our digital world but was even more so in the early nineteenth century when international copyright was not yet established. This is why many British patterns were reprinted by American publishers as their own – down to nearly identical engravings to illustrate the works, as in the case of Mrs. Stephen’s Crochet Book.  In the United States at that time fancy work patterns did not fall under the premise for federal copyright so few designers sought protection. In Copyright in the Early Republic by Meredith L. McGill it is noted that some items, at that time, were “too ephemeral or too local in their circulation to be eligible for or to benefit from federal protection. Only texts likely to retain their value over time were registered for copyright.”

February of 1853 when Godey’s Lady’s Book published an excerpt from “Miss Lambert’s Registered Crochet Flowers” they were sure to note in that Miss Lambert purchased the rights for the designs from the “inventor” whom she met at the “Great Exhibition.” This leads me to believe the “inventor” registered the designs in England claiming ownership and therefore able to sell the rights. The very public effort to give proper credit to female designers was likely due to the leadership of Sarah J. Hale, editor from 1836-1877.

So with guilt free pleasure enjoy and share the patterns for “Miss Lambert’s Registered Crochet Flowers” available and in the public domain on Google Books here:

Nicole H. Scalessa
Secretary, Center for Knit and Crochet
IT Manager
, The Library Company of Philadelphia


Godey’s Magazine. Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey. Known as Lady’s Book (1830-1839), Monthly Magazine of Belles-Lettres and the Arts, the Lady’s Book (1833-1834), Godey’s Lady’s Book (1840-1892).

Lambert, Miss [Frances]. The Hand-book of Needlework: With Numerous Illustrations Engraved by J.J. Butler. New York: Wiley & Putnam, 161 Broadway, 1842.

McGill, Meredith G. “Copyright in the Early Republic,” A History of the Book in America 2, eds. Robert A. Gross and Marry Kelly, 2007.

Stephens, Ann Sophia. The Ladies’ Complete Guide to Crochet, Fancy Knitting, and Needlework. New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 18 Ann Street, [1854].

Latest comments

  • Karen CK Ballard
    May 24, 2015 at 7:35 pm Reply

    Fascinating!!! I need to make a notation on my webpage on Mrs. Stephen’s book! As a collector of antique/vintage needlework books I have frequently run into similar problems. Although most of my problems may not have been the result of copyright violations. For example, I bought a copy of “Miss Lambert’s Complete Guide to Needlework and Embroidery” (1851) only to discover it was the same book as Lambert’s “Handbook of Needlework” but with a different publisher. No small concern because both of these books were quite pricey. Jane Eayre Fryer’s “The Mary Frances Sewing Book Adventures among the Thimble People” was published under at least 3 different titles in 1913 and Effie Archer Archer’s “Needlecraft” (1911) Was republished with additional patterns by Elizabeth Hale Gilman and Effie Archer Archer as “Things Girls Like to Do” in 1917. I recall running into other books that are identical but with different authors and titles; and I recall the author of one of my antique books bemoaned this in the forward to her book. There are lots of traps for vintage needlework book collectors. Now I understand better why that is true!

  • Lilly Marsh
    July 14, 2015 at 10:20 pm Reply

    I am finding the issues around intellectual ownership in knitting to be a fascinating part of my current research on mid-twentieth century knitting, just as mid-sixties/early seventies designers such as Elizabeth Zimmermann and Barbara Walker were beginning to demand credit for designs, and begin their publishing careers. There seems to have been a kind of snowball effect, beginning with the early book and newsletter publications, local and regional teaching and workshops. There is increasing name recognition in EZ’s case with her two seasons of the Busy Knitter television series, and with Barbara Walker’s national teaching circuit for, JC Penny, I think. There is a major explosion of knitting book publications in the late 70s and early 80s, and the teaching circuit seems to explode with new regional fiber gatherings and periodicals. But it is a big mess around intellectual ownership and very similar to the current situation on YouTube with no one knowing what ‘original’ or ‘derivative’ or ‘transformational design’ actually mean. All sorts of young writers and designers are publishing and selling designs with a tremendous amount of confusion about basic copyright issues, and with little consensus emerging even by the late 80s and early 90s.

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