Crochet · Knitting · Nalbinding · Terminology

Knitting and stitching in 1730

Olof Johan Broman’s text from 1730 divides yarnwork into two categories: knitting and stitching. The first of them is the well-known form of looping that is still designated as knitting. It can be traced back before Broman’s day in both fashionable and utilitarian contexts, and in urban and rural traditions. His stitching is an older looping technique, frequently referred to as nalbinding in English discourse.

One problem with this knitting/stitching dichotomy is that the definitive tool for stitching, the eyed needle, can produce a structure (cross-knit looping) that is indistinguishable from a basic knit structure produced on the equally iconic tool of hand knitting, the long eyeless needle. Indeed, the understanding of the early history of knitting was once occluded by a failure to recognize the distinction between these methods of production.

Although that difference cannot always be described in terms either of the employed tool or resulting fabric structure, the production methods themselves can be categorized unequivocally by the way they work a strand of yarn. With an eyed needle, the tool is at the leading end of the yarn and worked away from the burgeoning fabric, to which the other end of the yarn is anchored. The entire length of yarn is pulled through each successive stitch, limiting how long that yarn can be.

In knitting, the tools are placed between the yarn supply and the fabric, and move one or a few loops worth of yarn from the one to the other with every stitch. A new stitch is formed next to the preceding one without pulling more yarn through the existing fabric than is needed to form the new stitch. This places no intrinsic limit on the length of the unworked yarn. Yarn used for stitching is measured by the needle full, and for knitting by the ball full.

This applies neatly to nalbinding and ordinary knitting. However, the knitting made on a small hook defined in the 1790s Swedish dictionary is a further distinct type of looping. It is not clear that it was practiced in Sweden by 1730 but it begins to appear in the European craft literature after the middle of the century. The oldest extant object made in that manner noted so far has been dated to around 1780.

In retrospective analysis, this technique is referred to as slip-stitch crochet but all descriptions of it in documents prior to the 19th century call it knitting. This is an entirely reasonable categorization if the decisive criterion is the interposition of the tool between the work and an effectively unlimited source of yarn. It is unknown if such hooked looping only coincidentally fits into Broman’s framework or if he was deliberately accommodating it. If the latter, it indicates a date by which the technique had set root in Sweden (or at least in the province of Helsingland).

At some similarly indeterminate point, slip-stitch crochet began to share the same name (påta) with nalbinding despite a rich alternative vocabulary. Both techniques were applied within the same community to the same kinds of garments (caps, socks, mittens, etc.), suggesting that the functional commonality weighed more heavily into the naming process than did the differences between fabric structures or production techniques.

Similar relationships between needle-based and hook-based looping are seen in a number of additional contexts at widespread locations. One example is the mochila bags that are buttonhole looped by the Arhuaca people in Columbia, and crocheted by the neighboring Wayuu. Another is in Papua New Guinea, where bilums are made under the same roof both by crochet and hourglass looping (“double interconnected looping” in contrast to the single interconnected looping of nalbinding, but produced with the same basic technique).

A quick look at Norwegian terminology may be an appropriate way to wrap up this discussion of classification and nomenclature. It’s the source language for the word nålbinding where this whole excursion began, and one of the designations it includes for slip-stitch crochet is krokbinding (more widely called pjoning). This translates literally to ‘hook binding’ and is a reasonable counterpart to ‘needle binding.’ It also illustrates the term ‘binding’ used not just to categorize knitting and nalbinding, as seen in the previous few posts, but also to include at least one form of crochet.

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