The preceding post discussed hook-tipped knitting needles and the reasons why they are thought to be older than smooth-tipped ones. The schools of knitting in which they are used are further characterized by a method of holding the yarn that is generically termed “yarn around neck.” This is believed to resemble the form of knitting initially transmitted from Islamic Egypt more closely than any other. An early description of it appears below and its most extensively documented form is now widely known as Portuguese knitting.
The only structural detail that might differentiate fabric knitted around the neck from that produced by other methods is too subtle to be measured, much less recognized in older material. The physical evidence that specifically indicates the method is an ancillary mechanical device used in a limited number of schools and unlikely to be recognized as such in an inventory of archaeologically recovered artifacts. (This is the chest ring in the description below and seen in the media linked to above)
Nonetheless, the geographic distribution of yarn-around-neck knitting coincides well enough with that of hooked needles for it to be likely that the tool and method accompanied each other along whatever transmission paths they may have traversed. (Twisted stitches are often regarded as an additional fellow traveler but they are readily made by other methods of knitting and are specific to none. Their occurrence is not geographically bounded, notwithstanding the popular designation “Eastern knitting” which I’ll discuss in a separate post.)
I examined early texts about hooked knitting needles in two previous posts regarding the precursors of Tunisian crochet and am now going to revisit the source documents with specific focus on knitting.
In brief review, the first written description of hooked needles in hand knitting that I’ve so far managed to locate is of their introduction in Hannover, Germany, in 1787 (source reference and translation here). This is corroborated in a more detailed text from 1800 by J. F. Netto and F. L. Lehmann (whose book on knitting is detailed here). This associates it specifically with knitting in the round using five needles, with a separate section describing how a named Swiss knitter worked flat with two needles using a fixed-needle technique (translated and explained via the preceding link). This description overlaps almost entirely with the variety of yarn-around-neck knitting now most widely referred to as Portuguese knitting. This traditionally uses a shoulder ring and hook-tipped needles, although smooth-tipped needles are also commonly employed.
Knitting purses … with needles and hooks
Dübois knit the purse with heavy knitting needles into the one end of which a space had been filed forming a small hook like a tambour needle. He had a ball of silk thread in his vest pocket. On the left side of his chest there was a horn ring with a hook attached, through which the working thread passed. The hooked needle was thus used to pull a new loop through the previous one more quickly than usual. He kept the thread under light pressure with his left arm. The thread passing through the ring was therefore under slight tension, largely accounting for, first, the rapidity of his knitting, and second the beauty and evenness of his stitches.
Recent texts that discuss differences in the working properties of knitting needles with smooth and hooked tips generally conclude that nothing can be done with the one that cannot be done with the other, but that hooked tips can do certain things more efficiently. One example of this is the economy of motion and material resulting from the ability of a hook to pull a new loop through a preexisting stitch without first wrapping the yarn around the needle.
A further difference is not immediately apparent when the comparison is made from the perspective of mainstream contemporary knitting. An unworked stitch can be slipped from one hooked needle to the other and knitted with the receiving needle alone by pulling a loop through it crochet style. In any case, it has the advantage Netto lists in the section on flat knitting that “stitches will not as easily be dropped or slip off in the process.”
Yarn-around-neck knitting also has an important property that lacks counterpart in any other method. It leads the yarn to the front of the work, making the purl stitch simpler to form than the knit one. Fabric now produced in this manner is ordinarily held with the purl side facing the knitter. Tubular knitting intended to show ordinary stocking stitch on the public side is worked inside out and the finished item then re-inverted.
There is no way to trace that practice back to its origin. Nonetheless, if yarn-around-neck knitting is accepted as an attribute of Coptic tubular knitting, or even if the trail begins with knitting in the form initially carried into Islamic Europe, the purl stitch would be far older than is currently believed.