I have been using the definitions of fabric structures provided by Irene Emery as starting points for the discussions of several forms of looping. Along the way, I tacitly noted that her definition of knitting is not as clear-cut as the others are and realized that it would be useful at some point to consider it here.
Emery defines the basic element of all looping as follows:
“A complete loop is formed (and will be retained in the fabric) if the element crosses over itself as it moves on to form the next loop.
Loop: a doubling of cord or thread back on itself so as to leave an opening between the parts through which another cord or thread may pass.”
Applying this specifically to knitting, a strand of yarn worked into a row of twisted-stitch knitting forms one complete loop after the other.
In contrast, the yarn in open-stitch knitting doesn’t cross over itself at all as it is worked across a row. It does cross over the yarn in the adjacent rows but those can be separate elements (and arguably are intrinsically so). The preceding definition of loop therefore does not properly accommodate this form of knitting.
Emery addresses this in her definition of knitting by introducing an incomplete “open loop”:
“Knitting in its simplest form consists of successive rows of ‘running’ open loops, each loop engaging the corresponding one in the previous row and being in turn engaged by the corresponding one in the following row.”
This correctly places twisted-stitch and open-stitch knitting in the same category but glosses over the contradiction in terms between a loop explicitly defined as an element that crosses over itself, and a loop as a u-shaped segment of an element that undulates along its length but does not cross over itself.
The qualifiers “complete” and “incomplete” offset this, and treating the twisted stitch as a complete loop allows the open stitch to be an incomplete variant. However, if knitting is classified as a form of looping (as Emery does), twisted-stitch knitting would then be its primary type with open-stitch knitting as a variant.
Emery also discusses the need to distinguish between twisted-stitch knitting and the structurally identical cross-knit looping, noting (but not necessarily ascribing to) a widespread belief that I will say more about in a separate post:
“Crossed knitting is quite commonly said to be the oldest form of knitting.”
She uses the term “true crossed knitting” to narrow its scope to fabric produced by knitting techniques and not those of any other form of looping, but ultimately concludes:
“…even complete specimens (and many ancient ones are fragmentary) offer little reliable evidence of the process of fabrication. An unfinished fabric with associated implements would probably be necessary for positive determination.”
From the nominal perspective of this blog, it would be reasonable to discuss knitting exclusively in terms of looping. In that light, twisted-stitch knitting is “true looping” and open-stitch knitting is what could be termed pseudo-looping. Conveniently, there is no need to develop the latter concept unless Emery’s definition of looping is treated as inviolable, which she doesn’t even do herself.
In any case, much writing on the topic treats what is sometimes called “true knitting” as the reference point for both the historical and structural analysis not just of knitting, but of fabric produced by some other technique “that resembles knitting.” The definition of true knitting varies depending on whether focus is on the fabric structure or on the methods of its production. Regardless of the specific wording of any such definition, open-stitch hand-knitting would lie within its scope. Such fabric cannot realistically be produced with a single eyed needle, as can the twisted-stitch structure, so a qualifier similar to the one in Emery’s “true cross knitting” is not needed for it. Nonetheless, her formulation does recognize twisted-stitch knitting as true knitting.
The concept of true knitting ought reasonably (if not tautologically) to include knitting as defined by the practitioners of that craft. Current tutorial texts distinguish between Eastern style and Western style knitting. The sole difference between them that is visible in the finished fabric is whether the completed stitches are twisted or open. (I’ll discuss the origin of these terms in a separate post but will note for now that the material evidence does not establish twisted-stitch knitting as the older form.)
The Western knitting style is more widely practiced and therefore the one for which printed instructions are most commonly prepared. Eastern style knitters need to know how to deal with such patterns but the difference between the schools is otherwise of little practical concern. There is also a “combination” knitting that employs a hybrid of Eastern and Western elements to produce an open stitch structure, but this does not occupy a niche of its own in the present discussion.
A detailed classification system needs to recognize production methods. The two primary techniques for hand knitting employ a peg loom (subdivided into round and straight forms, using a single hook for working stitches on them) or knitting needles (with smooth tips or hooked tips and several ways to manipulate them). Both can produce twisted and open knit stitches with equal ease and neither can normally create other forms of looping.
This suggests that true knitting can usefully be defined both as the application of those implements to the manufacture of knitted structures, and as fabric resulting from that process. This does disallow machine knitting, but that includes many structures that cannot be produced by hand knitting and is generally discussed in a terminological and conceptual framework of its own. For present purposes, knitting machines will be seen as automated cousins of the peg loom, without encumbering the definition of true knitting.