History · Knitting · Sprang · Structures · Tools

Early knitting with hook-tipped needles

Texts about knitting often present needles with hooked tips as limited regional preferences to the commonplace smooth-tipped needles. The hooked form is considered to be the older of the two and initially used in Egypt where the craft is also believed to have originated. Such needles have been documented in Eastern Europe, Portugal, and Southern France — all on or near routes along which knitting would have been carried into Europe from Egypt before diffusing more widely.

One problem with taking this as an indication of hook-tipped needles in prior Egyptian practice is that the presumed origin of knitting there and the more recently observed distribution of hook-tipped needles, are circularly taken to provide evidence of each other. Another problem is that there is no way to determine if the local European hooked-needle traditions all date back to the period when the Egyptian technology would have been transferred, or if they reflect later intra-European cultural exchange or even independent development.

Needles with smooth tips were illustrated in European portraits of “Knitting Madonnas” not all that long after the craft would have arrived in the locations where the paintings were made. The earliest is Italian from ca. 1345. Perhaps the best known of the genre, and certainly the one with the clearest detail, appears on the Buxtehude Altar from ca. 1400. (A set of five needles is shown in an illustration of a sock being knitted from ca. 1450.)

KnittingMadonna

This either gainsays the northward importation (or at least its dating) or indicates that the hooks were dropped in rapid order thereafter — assuming that they were present in the first place. Assessing this also requires account to be taken of the Celtic and Viking knitting in wire prior to the putative arrival of knitting with non-rigid fibers via southern Europe.

It is also often suggested that the first device used for narrow tubular knitting in Egypt was a peg loom. This is based on the relative ease with which such implements can be used to knit all of the stitch structures seen in extant material, with a single hook. If that is accepted as correct, it could then be posited that needle knitting was spawned by the realization that a number of identical hooks (cylindrical, if the loom hook was not) could be used in a manner that obviated need for the loom. However, it could be suggested conversely that loom knitting is the younger technique, devised to provide a more easily mastered alternative to multi-needle knitting, also reducing the battery of needles — whether smooth or hook tipped — to a single hook.

There is no conclusive way of determining if loom knitting and needle knitting appeared sequentially in the same lineage or developed independently, perhaps even before either was introduced into Coptic Egypt. Nor is there any reason to assume that both methods were practiced there. Turning the perspective instead to structural detail, the simple and compound open stocking stitch observed in early tubular knitting can be characterized by the parallel chains that are formed at right angles to the path of the yarn as each row is worked into the preceding one.

open-stitch-meander

compound-knitting-structure

Such chains also appear in the significantly older plaited fabric widely termed sprang, which is worked in two symmetrical halves toward a central “meeting line.” If this is retained in the final object (which is otherwise split into separate halves), it is secured by one of several methods that include looping a row of chains across the fabric. The plaiting is normally done with bare hands but the room for maneuvering decreases as the two halves approach each other, and the chained form of the meeting line is therefore made with  a hook. (I’ll revisit this all in greater historical and technical detail in separate posts and, as sprang is a Swedish word, will also examine relevant documents in which it appears.)

Here is a detail of the simple chain meeting line in the oldest known exemplar of sprang — a cap found in a Danish grave from ca. 1300 BCE,

borum-eshøj-cap

and another of a compound chain meeting line in a hairnet found at a Danish site from ca. 490 BCE.

haraldskær-hairnet

Chains also appear in multiple adjacent rows at meeting lines and as decorative ridges in other positions. This structure is properly classified as knitting-type interlooping and is an element of sprang even if not primarily identified with it. As with the early contemporaneous manifestations of remarkably similar forms of needle binding and tubular knitting in Northern Europe and Egypt, sprang also appears in both regions. (Extensive additional material about Nordic and Coptic sprang are found in the monumental Ancient Danish Textiles from Bogs and Burials by Margrethe Hald, who we met in an earlier post about needle binding and whose illustrations of meeting lines appear above.)

Coptic sprang survives from the 4th century CE and the craft was practiced in Egypt through and beyond the entire period during which needle knitting developed there. It thus seems reasonable at least to wonder if the simple and compound knitted structures found in sprang, and their production with a hooked needle, provided impetus to the development of true knitting as initially seen in the tubular pieces that began to appear during the 5th century CE.

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