Knitting · Structures · Techniques · Tools

More about the structure of early Egyptian knitting

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 had 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 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 through 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. 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 and will be discussed further in a separate post.)

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 definitive structural detail that might otherwise go unnoticed.

In contrast to the compound knitting of the Berlin tube, the Paris tube appears to be conventional untwisted stocking stitch. The reverse side of the fabric can be seen through a separation in the segment to the left in the following image, highlighted by the transition between the brown and yellow yarn. This differs from the characteristic denser reverse side of compound knitting but is exactly that of ordinary stocking stitch.

Additionally, several stitches toward the upper right of the lower yellow band in the right-hand segment are strained open and show that they are looped into the immediately adjacent rows only — again definitive of ordinary stocking stitch. (The full piece is close to 2 meters long and the original photograph shows it in a serpentine position. The detail here was enlarged from a snapshot of the printed page made with an inadequate cellphone camera and is much clearer in the book.)

af6027If the Paris tube is indeed of Coptic origin, early tubular knitting in that region is not exclusively characterized by a compound structure, and the 5th–6th century date can only be safely applied to the ordinary stocking stitch. On the basis of it and the Berlin piece alone, it is not possible to determine whether the single or the compound stocking stitch was the first to emerge in Egypt — although any knitting dating from that period is an eyebrow raiser in itself.

The Berlin report references additional examples of Coptic tubular knitting, and other sources include still more. The detailed examination of a broader selection of them would permit a more certain determination of the balance between the two types of stitching. If it should turn out that a compound structure is indeed a predominant characteristic of Coptic tubular knitting and the tube at the Louvre is an exception, there would be additional reason both to treat its dating as applicable to that piece alone, and to reconsider its geographic provenance. Should the simple and compound structures appear to have developed contemporaneously in Egypt, the possibility of their being associated with different production methods would deserve closer scrutiny.

If, as is often postulated, the knitting needles initially used in Coptic practice had hooked tips, the experimental evaluation of the candidate techniques for early tubular knitting requires the consideration of both smooth-tip and hook-tip knitting needles, as well as the peg loom — which also involves the use of a hook.

2 thoughts on “More about the structure of early Egyptian knitting

  1. HI! Thanks for looking into this further. It may be my eyes, or my screen, but I confess I can’t make out the details you’re describing in the photos of these tubes. However, I do think I can see what you’re talking about on the reverse side of the color change in the tube from the Louvre. What, then, do you make of Benazeth’s statement that this tube has the same structure as the one in Berlin?

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    1. The only inferences I noted her to have made on the basis of the Berlin tube are the possibility of both having been made on a pegged device, and their possible use as belts. If I’ve overlooked additional remarks about the structure of the Paris tube, please point me to them and I’ll comment in further detail. Otherwise, several stitches toward the upper right corner of the lower yellow band in the right-hand segment are strained open and (to me at least) clearly show the same single-knit structure that is visible on the inside of the damaged part of the left-hand segment.

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