Looped Fabric

Knitted tubes from Egypt

Hi there.  Your regular blog writer has graciously allowed me to submit this guest post. Following up on his recent posts about knitting and nalbinding in Egypt, this post will talk a bit more about some lesser-known archaeological finds.

There are several controversies in the history of knitting, but possibly the biggest one is the question of when and where knitting was invented.  It is now widely acknowledged that many non-woven textiles were labeled as “knitting” by early archaeologists who did not necessarily have the detailed knowledge of textile production that has since been cultivated.  For the most part, non-woven textiles from the pre-Medieval period have since been identified as having been made with other techniques such as nalbinding or sprang.  Most recent histories of knitting (such as Richard Rutt’s A History of Hand Knitting) say that the oldest surviving examples of true knitting date from 11th or 12th century Egypt.  While it is definitely possible that knitting could have been invented independently by more than one culture, it seems that the most popular hypothesis at the moment is that knitting in early modern Europe was introduced via the Iberian peninsula by Muslim craftspeople.  This hypothesis thus traces the development of knitting in Europe back to Medieval Egypt.

The surviving knitted material from Medieval Egypt consists of a number socks.  In general these socks utilize complicated two-color patterns, so it has been theorized that the technique of knitting is probably somewhat older than this.  And this theory turns out to be right (with some caveats, that we’ll get to below).  Although they do not seem to have gotten much attention, there are at least three surviving knitted tubes from Egypt which date to the pre-Islamic era.

Explaining why these tubes are interesting requires a bit of a discussion of the earlier nalbinding from Egypt.  There are numerous nalbound socks from Roman-era and post-Roman Egypt in museum collections around the world.  The majority of these are made with “Coptic stitch” nalbinding.  Other terms for this are ‘cross-knit looping’ and ‘encircled looping’.  It is a fabric structure that is identical to ‘crossed-stitch’ or ‘twisted-stitch’ knitting when worked without increases or decreases.  However, as was recently discussed on this blog, nalbinding is made by using a single needle with an eye, pulling the entirety of a finite-length yarn through each stitch.  Each stitch forms a loop whose legs are crossed one over the other.

In contrast, true knitting forms stitches which are loops whose legs do not cross.  Each stitch appears as a ‘V’ shape on one side of the fabric.  While there are several methods that can produce true knitting, this structure can not be made with nalbinding.  Any method of producing the true knitted structure with soft yarn requires some tool or mechanism to hold the loops until they have been stabilized by having the next row worked through them.  The exact same structure can be made using knitting needles (straight needles with a blunted point at one or both ends), hooked needles, or a peg loom.

The earliest of the Egyptian knitted tubes was found at Maximinion (Cardon, D. “Chiffons dans le désert: textiles des dépotoir de Maximianon et Krokodilȏ” in La Route de Myos Hormos, 2003).  This was dated between the 1st and 3rd centuries CE, although the description of the piece does not detail how this conclusion was reached.  Cardon does not describe in detail the structure, but only notes that it was “tubular knitting” 0.9cm in diameter stuffed with 15 z-spun pieces of wool.  Since Cardon did not provide a detailed description of the knitted structure, it is possible that this piece was nalbinding mistaken for knitting.  The black-and-white photos in this book are low resolution and it’s hard to tell.  However, by 2003 the distinction seems to have been pretty well understood among textile archaeologists.  Also, the similarity with the following pieces argues that this was a true knitted structure.

There is another tube from Krokodilopolis held at the Museum für Byzantische Kunst in Berlin (Finneiser, K. et al., Georg Schweinfurth — Pionier der Textilarchäologie und Afrikaforscher, 2010).  The dating on this one is more uncertain; they list it as 4th – 11th century.  However, the authors clearly illustrate that the structure is not only a true knitted structure, but it is a double-deep knitting, also referred to as “compound knitting”.  Unlike typical knitting in which each stitch is pulled through a loop of the previous row, in this piece each stitch is pulled through stitches in the 2 previous rows.  Therefore, each stitch is pulled through two stitches: the one immediately below it and also the one below that.  The authors also mention similar tubes found in two Nubian graves from a comparable period (8th-10th century), which were used as belts.  They therefore speculate that this was also a belt.

Lastly, there is a tube currently held in the Louvre.  (Bénazeth, D. “Accessoires vestimentaire dans la collection de textiles coptes du musée du Louvre” in Dress Accessories of the 1st Millenium AD from Egypt, ed. Antoine De Moor & Cäcilia Fluck, 2011)  This item’s provenance is unfortunately unknown.  The author believes that this is from a female grave that was excavated in 1900-1901 at Antinoé, but this is based on a vague description in the notes from that dig.  Regardless, radio-carbon dating places it as from the 5th-6th centuries and they do seem confident that it is from Egypt.  Bénazeth states that this piece has the same appearance as the one held in Berlin, mentioned above.  She also mentions the two Nubian belts as justification for assuming this piece to also be a belt.  I have not managed to track down more information on the Nubian belts.

So, these three pieces attest to the creation of true knitted structures in Egypt as early as the 5th-6th century, and possibly as early as the 1st century, CE.  It still remains an open question whether these knitted tubes were produced on knitting needles or on some sort of peg loom.  The double-deep structure can be produced in either manner.  This blog has some posts on how to do it on needles: here and here.  However, it is MUCH easier to achieve using a knitting loom, where the technique does not differ substantially from ordinary, single-deep knitting.  Also, there is no evidence that anyone had figured out how to make other sorts of shapes (like the heels in socks) this early.  It’s entirely possible that this was one of the things which spurred a move from peg looms to knitting on needles.  But that’s just speculation for now.  Unless someone digs up some looms or needles with unfinished work still on them, we may never know for sure how these items were made!

Putting aside the question of needles vs. looms, these pieces push back the date of the development of knitting in Egypt by at least 500 years compared with the patterned socks from the Medieval (Fatimid) era.  This is of great interest to those who would like to find “the oldest known examples of knitting”.  While not the only candidates, these knitted tubes provide the early part of a strain of development that may be the root of knitting in early modern Europe.

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8 October 2017 14:06

Very interesting, thanks Matthew!

8 October 2019 03:22

Irena Turnau mentions Nubian finds in her History of Handknitting Before Mass Production, and the footnote says that they are in the private collection of a Dr. Andrei in Budapest. Not sure if this is any help, but perhaps useful for tracking them down. That book refers to several items in various parts of the world that it would perhaps be useful to examine, and she says that it has not been established if they are knitting or nalbinding. There’s detective work for someone since she did not have an opportunity to see them. I wonder if references to supposed early two-needle knitting, which she seems to think came first, are cross-knit looping. Anyhow, I hope I’ve helped somewhat with the Nubian trail.