The primary knots of macramé are the square knot (a variant of the reef knot) and forms of "hitching": various combinations of half hitches. It was long crafted by sailors, especially in elaborate or ornamental knotting forms, to decorate anything from knife handles to bottles to parts of ships.
Cavandoli macramé is one variety that is used to form geometric and free-form patterns like weaving. The Cavandoli style is done mainly in a single knot, the double half-hitch knot. Reverse half hitches are sometimes used to maintain balance when working left and right halves of a balanced piece.
Leather or fabric belts are another accessory often created via macramé techniques. Most friendship bracelets exchanged among schoolchildren and teens are created using this method. Vendors at theme parks, malls, seasonal fairs and other public places may sell macramé jewellery or decoration as well.
Macramé comes from a 13th-century Arabic weavers' word migramah meaning "fringe". This refers to the decorative fringes on camels and horses which help, amongst other things, to keep the flies off the animal in the hot desert regions of northern Africa.
Another school of thought indicates that it comes from Turkish makrama, "napkin" or "towel", and was a way to secure the ends of pieces of weaving by using the excess thread and yarn along the top and bottom edges of loomed fabrics.
One of the earliest recorded uses of macramé-style knots as decoration appeared in the carvings of the Babylonians and Assyrians. Fringe-like plaiting and braiding adorned the costumes of the time and were captured in their stone statuary. Macramé traveled from north Africa to Spain with the Moors, and as a result of this conquest it spread, firstly to France, and then throughout Europe.
In the Western Hemisphere, macramé is believed to have originated with 13th-century Arab weavers. These artisans knotted the excess thread and yarn along the edges of hand-loomed fabrics into decorative fringes on bath towels, shawls, and veils. The Spanish word macramé is derived from the Arabic miqramah (), believed to mean "striped towel", "ornamental fringe" or "embroidered veil". After the Moorish conquest, the art was taken to Spain, then to Italy, especially in the region of Liguria, and then spread through Europe. It was introduced into England at the court of Mary II in the late 17th century. Queen Mary taught the art of macramé to her ladies-in-waiting.
Macramé was most popular in the Victorian era. Sylvia's Book of Macramé Lace (1882), a favorite, showed readers how "to work rich trimmings for black and coloured costumes, both for home wear, garden parties, seaside ramblings, and balls—fairylike adornments for household and underlinens ...". Most Victorian homes were adorned by this craft. Macramé was used to make household items such as tablecloths, bedspreads and curtains.
Sailors made macramé objects in off hours while at sea, and sold or bartered them when they landed, thus spreading the art to places like China and the New World. Nineteenth-century British and American sailors made hammocks, bell fringes, and belts from macramé. They called the process "square knotting" after the knot they used most frequently. Sailors also called macramé "McNamara's lace".
Though the craze for macramé faded, it regained popularity during the 1970s as a means to make wall hangings, articles of clothing, bedspreads, small jean shorts, tablecloths, draperies, plant hangers and other furnishings. By the early 1980s macramé had again begun to fall out of fashion as a decoration trend. Macramé jewelry has become popular among the American young and old crowd, starting in the early 1970s. Using mainly square knots and granny knots, this jewelry often features handmade glass beads and natural elements such as bone and shell. Necklaces, anklets and bracelets have become popular forms of macramé jewelry.
Materials used in macramé include cords made of cotton twine, linen, hemp, jute, leather or yarn. Cords are identified by construction, such as a 3-ply cord, made of three lengths of fibre twisted together. Jewelry is often made in combination of both the knots and various beads (glass, wooden, and so on), pendants or shells. Sometimes 'found' focal points are used for necklaces, such as rings or gemstones, either wire-wrapped to allow for securing or captured in a net-like array of intertwining overhand knots. A knotting board is often used to mount the cords for macramé work. Cords may be held in place using a C-clamp, straight pins, T-pins, U-pins, or upholstery pins.
For larger decorative pieces, such as wall hangings or window coverings, a work of macramé might be started out on a wooden or metal dowel, allowing for a spread of dozens of cords that are easy to manipulate. For smaller projects, push-pin boards are available specifically for macramé, although a simple corkboard works adequately. Many craft stores offer beginners' kits, work boards, beads and materials ranging in price for the casual hobbyist or ambitious craftsperson.