Cross-knit looping · History · Knitting

Coptic needlebinding and Islamic knitting

The preceding several posts examine older documents about the production of looped fabric in Scandinavia. The earliest of them, a Swedish text from 1730, makes a clear distinction between garments that are knitted (stickes) and those that are [needle]bound (bundna). Texts from the following decades use those terms with greater ambiguity. Although the crafts remain separate and distinct, either of the two terms could be used as a generic designation for both. The incipient confusion was offset by applying the more specific name vantsöm (“mitten stitch”) to what ultimately became nålbindning — a process of developing nomenclature that has also been discussed here.

The structural identification of looped fabric and its association with contemporaneous terminology is a recurring concern. It was examined in a number of German texts starting in the 1890s, all noting that many objects in museum collections that had been classified as knitted were, in fact, needlebound. I’m going to work through these in more or less reverse order, starting with an article that appeared in ten installments in the German industrial journal Wirkerei- und Strickerei-Technik (“Warp and Weft Knitting Technique”) from 1954 to 1956.

This was written by Regina von Bültzingslöwen and Edgar Lehmann and titled Nichtgewebte Textilien vor 1400 (“Non-Woven Textiles Before 1400”). They examined a large number of objects in public and private collections and promised a subsequent book edition which, as far as I can determine, never materialized. The preliminary description of its intended scope is interesting nonetheless.

“The book edition to follow these essays will, as already stated, take the form of a catalog with a structured overview of about 140 textiles from Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The largest part of them appear in the catalogs and inventory lists of private and public collections, incorrectly regarded as knitting. Only about sixteen of them can have been made beyond doubt with a knitting technique.”

Lehmann and von Bültzingslöwen go on to describe the distinctive characteristics of  what has subsequently been called “true knitting” and the often confusingly similar technique of cross-knit looping produced with a single eyed-needle. They then present two other structures found in the examined material: “Språng” and “Vantsöm.” (I hadn’t initially intended to discuss the former but have stumbled across what may be the earliest published instructions for its production, which I will provide more detail about in a future post. In contrast, vantsöm has already figured prominently here.)

Thirty-three items are listed as vantsöm and include a number of stitches that are well known in Nordic needlebinding. The eyebrow-raising thing is that they are also found in Coptic Egypt, upsetting at the very least the established notion that Coptic needlebinding was restricted to cross-knit looping (which present-day needlebinders often term the “Coptic stitch”). Three of the observed stitch structures differ significantly from all the others and are put in a class of their own pending further investigation. One of them is a crochet-like structure that will also be the subject of additional commentary here.

One of the more significant observations von Bültzingslöwen and Lehmann make is that  three of the objects that are knitted rather than needlebound include calligraphic Arabic script as a repeating decorative element. They pose a question about whether such fabric was made on multiple knitting needles or a pegged knitting loom (on the basis of a non-Egyptian piece they feel likely to have been loom-knitted) and expect that to clarify as additional relevant objects come to light. Either technique readily supports the stitch-by-stitch change in yarn color required to embed text. This is not seen in any of the Coptic material, where color changes are made (if at all) in bands that are a number of rows wide. This is consistent with the use of yarn by the needleful that is an intrinsic property of single-needle looping. Both multi-needle knitting and loom knitting use larger continuous sources of yarn and are far more amenable (if not a practical necessity) to the alternating use of different colors within a single row.

Quite a bit of additional material has subsequently been added to the list of knitting with Arabic calligraphic decoration. Richard Rutt provides a useful review in his A History of Hand Knitting, and a description of the reproduction of a frequently illustrated stocking details one common such motif — the name of the deity Allah. This would appear to establish an Islamic nexus but subsequent studies note problems with that interpretation. Additional readings were proposed in a report about the radiocarbon dating of a number of other stockings containing the inscription. I’ll provide details in the next post but will note for now that those, and other authors suggest that it may have non-Islamic significance.

The inscription is of Arabic origin in any case, and also appears on the object about which von Bültzingslöwen and Lehmann posed the question discussed above. It therefore seems reasonable to extend that question to include the possibility of knitting having been devised to meet a specific need in Arabic design that had no counterpart in Coptic practice. If so, it would be consistent with the widespread belief that (at least one instance of) knitting arose in Egypt at some time after the year 1000 CE, and places the innovative action at the interface between the Coptic and Arabic communities.

3 thoughts on “Coptic needlebinding and Islamic knitting

  1. Thanks for this blog and your Facebook posts as well. They are all very informative.
    In the vein of nalbinding vs knitting, are you familiar with some knitted tubes from Nubia? Is one of these the non-Egyptian piece you mention that is likely to have been loom-knitted?
    They are contemporary with the Coptic socks, but are a true knitted structure (ie, no crossed loops). Petra Lindscheid in Berlin was gracious enough to send me information on then when someone else who had attended the European Textile Symposium in 2015 had pointed me to her and her work. They are a double-deep knitted structure, which is easier to achieve on a knitting loom/dolly than on needles.

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    1. Thank you for the kind words — it’s nice to know that the material I’ve been reporting on is useful to others. The non-Egyptian piece is a fragmented tubular belt found in a grave in Worms, dated to circa 1000 CE. I’ll translate the full description and post it as soon as I can manage. It seems as though enough evidence of loom knitting survives from the earliest times documentably associated with knitting, for it to be worth compiling a list of it and seeing if it leads anywhere conclusive. Loom knitting also appears as a significant technique at various later times and I have more information about that in the queue. If anyone feels this blog to be a useful platform for the discussion of such material, I can authorize other contributors to post here directly.

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      1. On re-reading this, I realized (as I should have the first time through) that any loom-knitted material contemporary with the Coptic socks would provide evidence of the peg loom predating sets of knitting needles. Although pure speculation (and without suggesting its applicability to any other period or region) it may at least be worth wondering if multiple straight needles were devised to provide a more flexible alternative to the fixed number of pegs on a round loom. If so, one of the relevant questions might be whether there are any structural details identifiable on archeologically recovered material that differentiate fabric knitted on a peg loom from that knitted with multiple needles (paralleling the process by which true knitting and cross-knit looping were initially seen to differ).

        Also — thanks, Matthew, for calling my attention to Petra Linscheid’s work. I assume that she’s already answered several of the questions I’m wondering about. So it’s off to the library again after the weekend!

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