One of the largest hoards of Viking silver ever found was deposited in Cuerdale, England, during the first five years of the 10th century CE. It was discovered in 1840 and Edward Hawkins published An Account of Coins and Treasure Found in Cuerdale in two issues of the 1847 volume of The Archaeological Journal. The first includes illustrated descriptions of a number of silver chains, to which he then adds the following object.
“Fig. 84 is probably a portion of an armlet, in the collection of Mr. Assheton, and may be included among the chains; it is composed of fine wire knitted precisely in the same manner as a modern stocking; it is hollow, so that a large pencil may be easily passed within it; one end is inserted into a flat piece of silver, bent, the side riveted together, to contain the silver ring by which the two ends were united to fix it upon the arm.”
Hawkins makes a series of general remarks about the wire objects in the second part of the article.
“The wires of smaller diameter, scarcely larger than a hair…[were used]…in the production of several useful and elegant ornaments…The article 84 is produced from one continuous wire knitted precisely as a modern stocking is made, as will be perceived by examining the forms of the stitches both on the inside and the outside.”
A similar item was found in the Croy hoard near Inverness in Scotland, dating from some time not long after 820 CE. Joseph Anderson, the Keeper of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, published a Notice of a Find of Silver Ornaments, &c, at Croy, Inverness-shire now Presented to the Museum in the 1876 volume of the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. This includes a description of a 6 inch long silver chain (also shown in a recent photograph taken by the museum).
“The Band of Knitted Work of fine Silver Wire, knitted with the ordinary knitting stitch, resembles the modern Trichinopoly work, and connects this find with those of Cuerdale and Largo, in both of which similarly knitted bands of silver-wire occurred.”
Anderson uses similar terms to describe yet another chain found at a 10th-century Viking burial site at Ballinaby, on the Scottish island of Islay. This was first presented as a lecture in 1881 and published two years later in Scotland in Pagan Times: The Iron Age.
“The chain of silver wire is an object of very peculiar character but its relations are not difficult to establish. A portion of a similar chain occurred in the Croy find; also in the Skaill hoard, to be subsequently described; in the hoard at Cuerdale; and in a small hoard found in the Isle of Inchkenneth. Its total length is 16 inches, and its width is ¼ inch. It is formed of silver wire of the fineness of sewing thread, knitted as a hollow tube, with the common knitting-stitch used in knitting stockings. The knots at the ends of the tube are produced separately and fastened on.”
This chain and the one from the Croy find were examined in 1978 by Helen Bennett of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland (whom we met previously in the discussion of how nålebinding became nalbinding). The results were communicated privately to Braham Norwick who was preparing an article titled The Origins of Knitted Fabric, published in 1980, including a photograph of the Ballinaby chain and Bennett’s report.
“I find them to be of identical looped structure, made from long lengths of wire, which at first sight strongly resembles stocking stitch. Both are in the form of flattened tubes, that from Croy having 16 ‘stitches’ per round (7 stitches and 6 rows per cm) and that from Ballinaby having 6 ‘stitches’ per round (6-2/3 ‘stitches’ and 7-1/2 rows per cm). Although the fabrics strongly resemble knitting, on examining them under the microscope I found the structure to be different. Whereas in knitting the loops are usually drawn through those of the preceding row, in these cases the loops have been drawn through the two preceding rows.”
The final sentence defines compound knitting, which can also be described as two overlapping systems of stocking stitch worked into the same fabric. It is the same structure as that of the Egyptian knitted tubes described in a previous post.
It is puzzling that Bennett regards this as being something other than knitting. In his book from 1987, Richard Rutt — who cites both her and Norwick extensively — goes beyond that and categorically excludes all of the wirework they described (including additional flat-knitted material) from the realm of knitting.
“…as Helen Bennett points out, the method by which they were made is far from clear. Recognizing their knitted structure does not give them a place in the history of hand knitting, unless some direct connection can be shown between the techniques of bending metal and of manipulating yarn.”
It didn’t take long before he reconsidered this. In correspondence with the editor of Piecework Magazine in 1990 (published in its Jan.-Feb. 2017 issue) about an article he had recently prepared where the compound knitted structure was described in detail (Knitted Fabrics from China, 3rd Century BC; more about this in a separate post), he says:
“I went on from that to have another look at the Celtic pieces which have knitted silver in them and discovered that the Celtic work was done with a knitting nancy. Complex knitting is much easier on a knitting nancy than it is on knitting needles.”
Knitting nancy (a.k.a knitting spool) is a common designation for a smaller form of peg loom normally associated with i-cord, although Rutt appears to be using it as a general name for knitting looms regardless of size. I will discuss them together with other methods for the tubular knitting of both yarn and wire in a later post. But first, I want to look at the flat knitting from 8th- or 9th-century Ireland mentioned parenthetically above.