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 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 assumed for it, as well.

The fabric structure of the Berlin tube is what a present-day knitter would call open (or uncrossed or untwisted 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-wrap” 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 doesn’t appear in the glossary of contemporary needle knitting but the structure itself appears in “false seams” worked with a crochet hook, such as Elizabeth Zimmerman’s  phony seam (alternating 1-over-2 and 2-over-1). Otherwise, as long as it 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 as though they might be looped into the immediately adjacent rows only, which is characteristic of ordinary stocking stitch. (The 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.

5 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?


    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) show the same single-knit structure that is visible on the inside of the damaged part of the left-hand segment. The appearance of single knitting may also be a result of damage or a production mistake, so I can’t claim any certainty.


      1. I know this is delayed, but I finally had time to pull out the article by Benazeth.
        My translation of the relevant sentence, referring to the fragment in Berlin, is “Its technical study the observations made on the object at the Louvre.” The word she uses is “rejoint”, literally “rejoins” – there may be a subtlety to the language that I’m missing. I will try to check with a native speaker. She also refers to the fragment in Berlin as having “meme aspect, bien qu’il soit monochrome.” (the same appearance, except that it is monochrome).


    2. Bénazeth uses the word rejoint to indicate the adjacency of Böttcher’s study to her own. She says nothing about the structure of the object at the Louvre based on direct observation beyond its physical measurements and that it is stitched in multicolored wool (formée en mailles de laines multicolores).

      I’m not sure how much depth of detail can be read into même aspect. It is difficult, if not impossible, to recognize the difference between simple and compound stocking stitch from the front of such fabric. That’s why I took a really close look at both photographs. I’ve tweaked the text in the blog post a bit to clarify my observations. [ETA and have since tweaked it again.]

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve re-revisited all of this in light of comments from a friend with far greater knitting skills than mine, after hands-on experimentation with compound knitting. The blog post has now been edited to indicate that the structural details I had been wondering about do not contradict the identification of the Paris tube as compound knitting, which there are other indications of it being. So even if Bénazeth didn’t go into sufficient detail to avert my concerns, they were unnecessary.


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