A previous post discussed several pieces of tubular knitting reported to have been made in Egypt during the 1st millennium CE. (Thanks to Matthew Pius for spotting the earlier studies and guest blogging their central details, summarized and commented on below.) One of the tubes had been radiocarbon dated to the interval 425–594 CE (in this test report) and is thus the oldest such object of substantiated age that has yet come to light. It was described by Dominique Bénazeth in a conference report from 2009 titled “Accessoires vestimentaires dans la collection de textiles coptes du musée du Louvre.” The conference proceedings were published in 2013 as Drawing the threads together; Dress accessories of the 1st millennium AD from Egypt.
The direct indications of this item having been made in Egypt are too weak to establish its provenance. However, its similarity to other knitted tubes that have a clearer Egyptian nexus — particularly one that is currently at the Museum of Byzantine Art in Berlin — was accepted as sufficient for grouping the Louvre piece with them. The Berlin tube is not clearly dated but is of certain geographic provenance, and has been analyzed in greater structural detail. A report about it was published in an exhibition catalog from 2010 prepared by Klaus Finneiser, Petra Linscheid, and Meliné Pehlivanian, titled Georg Schweinfurth; Pionier der Textilforschung und Afrikaforscher.
The structural analysis concluded that it was likely to have been knitted on a peg loom, which is generally an efficient production device for narrow tubular knitting. Since the Paris tube is both longer and narrower, the same method of production was reasonably assumed for it, as well.
The fabric structure of the Berlin tube is what a present-day knitter would call untwisted (or uncrossed or open or Western) stocking stitch, albeit in a compound variant where each stitch is worked over the corresponding stitches in both of the two preceding rows (discussed and illustrated in another previous post). Loom knitters call this “1-over-2” (or “double-stitch”) knitting. Its twisted (e-wrapped) form commonly appears in stitch dictionaries for loom knitting but an untwisted 1-over-2 stitch can readily be made with a u-wrap.
Compound knitting is not similarly established in the stitch repertoire of contemporary needle knitting (nor is the term itself in widespread use). Nonetheless, as long as the action is restricted to tubular knitting, there is no particular difficulty in making compound stitches with ordinary knitting needles. (The applicable techniques include the tubular variant of “double knitting”, which uses only two needles.)
The photograph included in the Berlin report shows the compound structure from both the front and back of the fabric. The tube is not intact and several rows can be seen on its inside. The photograph in the report on the piece at the Louvre shows similar damage, revealing structural detail that might otherwise go unnoticed.
The Berlin tube is clearly compound knitted throughout but there may be some reason to question if that also applies to the Paris tube. Both display the notable vertical compression of the individual stitches that is typical of compound knitting. However, the second yellow band from the left in the lower segment in the following photo of the Paris tube has several stitches that are strained open and appear to be looped into the immediately adjacent rows only, which is characteristic of ordinary stocking stitch. (The full piece is close to 2 meters long and the full published photograph shows it in a serpentine position.)
The reverse side of the fabric can be seen through the damaged part of the upper segment. I had initially taken the stitches of alternating colors at the transition between the brown and yellow yarn to be a further indication of regular stockinette (and said so in the initial version of this post). However, my attention has subsequently been called to the compound aspect of the stitches at the left side of that opening. It was also pointed out that mistakes in compound knitting can easily appear as ordinary knit stitches, thus providing an alternate — and I now feel more correct — explanation for the deviation in the lower segment.
The Berlin report references additional examples of Coptic tubular knitting and other sources include still more. Both simple and compound stocking stitch are represented and the detailed examination of a larger number of samples would permit a more certain determination of the balance between the two types. Some of the tubes are also closed at one end by decreases in the final few rows of stitches. The analysis of those structures might well reveal whether they were made on a peg loom or with needles.