Looped Fabric

New article on the history of the slip stitch

I am pleased to announce the publication of the article “Three objects catalogued as vantsöm in the collections of the Museum der Kulturen in Basel, Switzerland,” in the Archaeological Textiles Review No. 64 (2022).

It was coauthored with my friend Anne Marie Decker after a joint visit to the museum to examine the described material. Anne has made a corresponding announcement of the publication on her own blog, Nalbound. The complete ATR volume in which the article appears is freely available for downloading here, and this blog’s document repository includes an offprint. Here is the abstract:

The looped structure termed a slip stitch in the craft glossary of crochet can be produced both with a hook and an eyed needle. These implements are not equally amenable to working that structure into complex constructs such as the toe and heel of a sock. This article describes the examination of three objects that have been misidentified as nalbinding. Two of them are certain to have been crocheted and the third is highly likely also to represent that technique. The provenance of the objects is recorded as “Coptic Egyptian” on anecdotal evidence and without ascription of specific dates. If scientific dating were to establish that any of them approaches even the youngest age this might imply, the accepted date for the advent of crochet would require major revision.

Musical Instruments

Fifes and pastoral pipes in 1862

An earlier post examined evidence of the fife and flageolet interchangeably occupying the same niche in the accompaniment of dance in late-16th-century France. The fife was otherwise more clearly associated with military music, leading to a question about whether it had a more prominent role in civilian contexts than is generally recognized. Evidence of that being the case toward the end of the 18th century is provided by published compilations of Irish and Scottish dance tunes that explicitly list the fife as one of the instruments to which they are suited.

A notice of a forthcoming uilleann pipes festival called my attention to an etching presented below that also provides the banner image for the present post. It illustrates a fife in a manner that bolsters the notion of it having filled the musical role now commonly played by the tin whistle. (The flute is named as a separate instrument in the referenced compilations.) Of perhaps greater interest, the painting also depicts bagpipes of a type that is widely believed to have fallen out of use before the artist was even born.

Continue reading “Fifes and pastoral pipes in 1862”
Musical Instruments

The Autoharp in Irish Traditional Music — Part 2

This is a direct continuation of the preceding post and its discussion of characteristic decorative elements of Irish traditional music (ITM) that are not commonly heard on the autoharp. The music has a prominent position in the repertoire of that instrument and there are many examples of its skillful melodic rendition. However, such performances and the autoharp itself, are rarely encountered near the ITM mainstream in its home country.

The same can, of course, be said about countless other instruments. The suitability of one or another to ITM is a recurring topic of discussion in dedicated online forums, with a recent example here. Opinions vary about how well whatever is being put forward for consideration might fit into, say, a trad session at a pub. However, there is always clear consensus about the overriding importance of the player of any candidate instrument having a thorough understanding of the traditional Irish musical idiom and the ability to project it through their performance.

One essential aspect of that idiom is the extensive use of ornamental grace notes in patterns of varying complexity. The specific embellishments commonly heard on a given instrument are taken from a broader repertoire according to the player’s assessment of what best suits that instrument’s technical capabilities. Shared preferences are often observed within a performer community — both regionally and instrument based — but there is no native Irish style of melodic autoharp playing that can be examined in these or any other regards.

If there were such a thing, it is safe to assume that one of its attributes would be the far heavier use of grace-note ornamentation than in the American style. One purpose of such decoration is to maintain rhythmic momentum. This is done with a separate battery of techniques conceptualized as “fill” in the American frame of reference.

Continue reading “The Autoharp in Irish Traditional Music — Part 2”
Musical Instruments

The Autoharp in Irish Traditional Music— Part 1

My interests in the autoharp and Irish traditional music (ITM) should be apparent from the topics of the most recent dozen or so posts on this blog. I’ve approached them separately as a musicologist specializing in the history of musical instruments. This post marks a shift toward their intersection in performance from the perspective of a musician who started on the autoharp seventy years ago and found his way more deeply into Celtic music a decade later via the Highland bagpipes. I’ve since become comfortably conversant with the Irish idiom on the tin whistle and would like to be able to say the same with regard to the autoharp.

Irish dance tunes and airs figure prominently in its repertoire. However, the instrument does not conversely have an established position among those normally associated with ITM in its home country. Some instruments that are now fixtures in that context became so more recently than might be imagined. Tenor banjos and guitars are regularly encountered in such things as trad sessions at pubs but both had been more or less in the periphery until the 1960s, when alternate ways of tuning them became popular.

Barney McKenna is credited with having lowered the tenor banjo a fourth to place it an octave under the fiddle and mandolin, and the DADGAD guitar tuning came into widespread use. Perhaps the best known foreign arrival during that decade is the Greek bouzouki, which was also retuned in the process. Andy Irvine discusses its naturalization in this video. He names Johnny Moynihan as the primary agent, who summarizes his own perception of the upshot here.

I find it intriguing to speculate about what might result in the autoharp traversing the same path. Tracking what can be seen as tentative steps in that direction, the instrument was filmed at a fleadh (traditional music festival) at what again appears to have been some time in the 1960s, in a performance of The Mountains Of Pomeroy. A brief clip is included in a documentary produced by the Irish-language television channel TG4, seen here.

Continue reading “The Autoharp in Irish Traditional Music— Part 1”

Musical Instruments

De Good Autoharp

I’ve taken the summer off from blogging, tending instead to academic commitments and catching up on overdue reading and research. One of the areas I’ve been drawn into is the use of numeric, mnemonic, and letter-based alternatives to staff notation in the teaching of music. This has been a contentious topic in writing on the theory of Western music ever since the emergence of staff notation many centuries ago. The initial primary concern was how best to help unskilled singers gauge the size of intervals in vocal performance. In the late-18th century interest was additionally turned toward the desirability of music being printable using systems that “bring all its characters within the compass of a common fount of printing-types.”

The design of musical instruments expressly intended to bolster the pedagogical process became a focus of innovative activity that can be traced back at least to 1830. This was targeted both to use in schools and supporting members of church congregations in psalmody. Charles Zimmermann developed his autoharp with tutorial intent, incorporating a system for numbering the strings and the corresponding steps of a scale that could be indicated in simplified printed music. He also devised lesser known schemes for the similar notation of music for the button accordion and labeling the piano keyboard.

Zimmermann presented his contributions to the long-standing broader process as singularly inspired and profoundly significant, leaving obviously coopted prior art without mention. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that the variant autoharps that began to appear in the US subsequent to the release of his, were directly inspired by it. One such patent makes direct reference to the established pedagogical aim, noting that “this instrument is designed more particularly for use in church or Sabbath-school music.”

On 10 February 1891, US Patent No. 445978 was issued to Joseph L. De Good, a music teacher residing in Detroit, Michigan who assigned half of it to Lucius A. Randall, a travel agent in the same city who presumably funded the project. The application  was filed on 20 September 1890, for a “Musical Instrument” and specified a device that could be affixed to “a stringed instrument — such as a harp, zither, dulcimer, or the like.”

It claimed two primary inventions. One was an arrangement of twenty-one damper bars in three-bar groups of major, relative minor, and dominant seventh chords rooted in each of the seven steps of a diatonic scale, with the buttons for each chord type placed in the same one of three rows. Continue reading “De Good Autoharp”

Musical Instruments

New article on the history of the autoharp

I am pleased to announce that my article “Northern European Contributions to the Development of the Autoharp” will appear in the next issue of The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 76 (2023). As noted in an earlier post, that is where my first research article was published fully fifty years ago and I contributed to the journal regularly for a long while thereafter. Readers of this blog who are interested in the history of musical instruments but are unfamiliar with that publication will find it worthwhile to visit the website of The Galpin Society.

Here is the abstract of the forthcoming article.

Several means for simplifying the playing technique of the concert zither were devised during the latter decades of the nineteenth century, some significantly changing its physical design. The autoharp has its roots in that process and was greeted by the zither establishment with particular scepticism. It was a popular success notwithstanding and numerous patented variations on its definitive system of damping bars appeared in rapid succession. There are blurred lines between original invention and plagiarism, and assigning priority for the seminal innovation is itself problematic. The contending instrument makers were Charles Friedrich Zimmermann and Karl August Gütter. Both were born and trained in Germany but Zimmermann subsequently relocated to the US and became a naturalized citizen. They appear to have tracked each other’s work closely. This article reviews the basis for the uncertainty and attempts to clarify it. The persisting popularity of the autoharp in the US has diverted attention from European involvement in its development. Although Gütter’s initial role has been recognized, his engagement in the instrument’s subsequent development is less well known, as is that of other autoharp makers known only for their production. Swedish contributions are discussed as a case study in the broader northern European participation.

The volume of The Galpin Society Journal that includes it will be distributed to the members of that organization early in 2023 and will become available in digital format via JStor at a later date. This post will be updated to reflect changes in the publication status and further information can be requested directly from the author.

Musical Instruments

Penny whistle, tin whistle

The earliest use of the term “penny whistle” attested in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1730, in the play Bays’s Opera by Gabriel Odingsells.

Musicians with Halters about their Necks — Their Instruments strung behind, penny Whistles, Trumpets, and so forth, in their Hands.

This doesn’t tell us what a penny whistle was but clearly refers to a musical instrument of that name. The term appears in less certain contexts prior to 1730 and a question about what it designated still applies to the review of a performance at the Covent Garden Theatre, in the 22 September 1809 issue of the London newspaper The Morning Chronicle. An announced increase in ticket prices triggered an organized wave of disruption throughout the event.

A pause of some minutes ensued, and then the cat calls, bugle horns, and posthorns began discord afresh. … This was succeeded by the usual concord of sweet sounds proceeding from penny whistles, squeaking trumpets, watchmen’s rattles, horns, catcalls, &c. &c.

A letter to the editor in the 9 September 1810 issue of The Examiner complains about the noise caused by street criers.

… persuade them, if instrument they must have, to change the hoarse window-shaking and nerve worrying mail-horn, for the light and softer cadence of a penny whistle.

The 15 June 1818 issue of The Huntingdon, Bedford, Cambridge and Peterborough Gazette and Midland County General Advertiser, notes the following about the visit of a contentious politician.

… he entered the town amid the braying of trumpets, the beating of drums, and the shrill piping of fifes and penny whistles …

Compilations of Irish and Scottish traditional music began to name the flageolet shortly after the initial printed evidence of its English form (discussed in the preceding post). The first such collection I know of was published ca. 1804.

Continue reading “Penny whistle, tin whistle”

Musical Instruments

Fifes and flageolets

The preceding post discusses a tune found in the third volume of “Aird’s Selection of Scotch, English, Irish, and foreign airs; Adapted for the Fife, Violin, or German Flute.” This is a six-volume series produced during the final two decades of the 18th century. The title page of the first volume illustrates a fife in a military context and the following volumes are dedicated to the British and Irish armed forces.

The collection does not include a noteworthy amount of military music and there is no obvious musical intention behind the dedication. This raises a question about whether the fife was highlighted at the start of the list of instruments simply as part of the homage, or if it had a more prominent role in civilian contexts than is generally recognized. A hand drawing on the back of the illustrated page sheds light on this and will be examined more closely below.

A fife is seen in a similar setting in this post’s banner image, taken from a French textbook on dance by Thoinot Arbeau, Orchesographie, published in 1596. His list of instruments used for military march and dance includes a “fifre” and an “arigot,” seen at the right and left sides of the illustration, respectively. In a subsequent discussion of recreational dance, he defines the fifre — fife — as “a small transverse flute with six holes, which the Germans and Swiss use, and since it has a very narrow bore the size of a pistol ball, it produces a sharp sound.”

Arbeau’s arigot is an end-blown duct flute — flageolet (“flajol”) — that “due to its small size has more or fewer holes; the best made have four holes in front and two behind.” This arrangement permits a closer placement of the fingers than does the one with all six holes on the same side. Arbeau otherwise regards the fife and flageolet as equivalent and notes that musicians accompanying recreational dance who find the sound of the fife too strident use the flageolet instead. (It may be more than a passing coincidence that the terms arigot and flageolet are echoed by the designations for the similarly diminutive haricot and flageolet beans.)

Marin Mersenne describes both the fifre and the flajolet in his monumental Harmonie Universelle, from 1636. He also clarifies the association of cylindrical transverse flutes with Germany. His discussion of the Fleute d’Allemande explicitly states that it had a cylindrical bore. The segment pierced by the toneholes was redesigned with a conical bore by French makers between 1660 and 1680, without giving the instrument a new name. The latter design is the one labeled a German Flute in Aird’s collection and numerous others like it.

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Looped Fabric · Musical Instruments

The Cardin’ o’t

The following song appears in the The Works of Roberts Burns, by Allan Cunningham, published in 1834, vol. 2, p. 430.

        THE CARDIN’ O’T.
 Tune—“Salt-fish and dumplings.”
                       I
I coft a stane o’ haslock woo’,
   To mak a wat to Johnny o’t;
For Johnny is my only jo,
   I lo'e him best of ony yet.
      The cardin’ o’t, the spinnin’ o’t,
         The warpin’ o’t, the winnin’ o’t;
      When ilka ell cost me a groat,
         The tailor staw the lynin o’t.
                       II
For though his locks be lyart grey,
   And tho’ his brow be beld aboon;
Yet I ha’e seen him on a day,
   The pride of a’ the parishen.
      The cardin’ o’t, the spinnin’ o’t,
         The warpin’ o’t, the winnin’ o’t;
      When ilka ell cost me a groat,
         The tailor staw the lynin’ o’t.

The title expands prosaically to The Carding of it and ‘wat’ appears as ‘coat’ in other sources. The remaining Scots vocabulary is:

coft a stane = bought a stone (14 lbs.)
jo = darling
winnin’ = weaving (winding)
ilka ell = all else
groat = small coin
staw = stole (overcharged)
lyart grey = silvery
beld aboon = bald above


Beyond the significance of this edition to the study of Burns’s poetry, Cunningham follows the song with a commentary that is relevant to the histories of both textiles and music.

The little of this song to which antiquity lays claim is so trifling that the whole may be said to be the work of Burns. The tenderness of Johnnie’s wife can only be fully felt by those who know that hause-lock wool is the softest and the finest of the fleece, and is shorn from the throats of sheep in the summer heat, to give them air, and keep them cool.

Burns was born on 25 January 1759 and died on 21 July 1796. The song initially appeared in a manuscript from the latter year. Cunningham’s commentary proceeds with a description of the provisioning of Highland wool to the Lowlands at that time. If the present text were intended solely for inclusion in the facet of this blog relating to fabric production, I would cite it in full and then delve further into wool processing in Scotland when my perennial favorite, shepherd’s knitting (aka Scottish knitting), was in its heyday. However, one of the thoughts underlying this post is to see if a single essay can prove worthwhile both to readers with an interest in textile history and to those more focused on music and musical instruments.

Continue reading “The Cardin’ o’t”
Musical Instruments

Passing the bar exam


This post takes another look at the often blurry lines separating what are regarded as categorically distinct types of chord zithers. The focus this time is on variant forms of the autoharp that branched off before it had fully acquired its current identity. The baseline is an unmechanized zither with free strings only, tuned to a continuous scale that can be anything from single-key diatonic to fully chromatic.

It becomes an autoharp by the attachment of a battery of movable bars with damping pads — but there’s more to it. Adding that the pads on a given bar have to be arranged to mute the strings that don’t belonging to a specified chord still doesn’t cover everything. The lock bars now commonplace on two- and three-key diatonic autoharps mute strings that don’t belong to a specified scale, rather than chord. Systems that produce chords by pressing two bars simultaneously entail further variation, so it is also necessary to distinguish between one type of bar and another.

There are also instruments where the damping action is reversed, muting all strings until a bar is activated. Such arrangements are also scale-oriented, with a bar opening every instance of a given note, and typically present the player with a piano-type keyboard rather than one or more rows of buttons. However, both operate damper bars and the requisite additional qualifier is whether they cause strings to be muted — ‘additive action’ — or unmuted — ‘subtractive action.’

Instruments with additional devices that strike or pluck the strings, sometimes in elaborate hybrid configurations, are aggregated under the apt heading ‘gizmo’ harps. In terms of family relationships, they are cousins of the autoharp and don’t need to be weighed into any precise definition of it. However, plucking mechanisms appear side-by-side with damping mechanisms in early patents for instruments that are presented as autoharps and would otherwise be seen as such. The following closer look at them is intended to inform the discussion of how current notions of design specificity developed.

I’ll wade into it midstream with an illustration taken from a patent for a “Harp” applied for by John St. John on 11 December 1890 and issued as US Patent No. 463368 on 17 November 1891.

Continue reading “Passing the bar exam”