History · Knitting · Structures · Terminology

Who said knitting started with twisted stitches and hooked needles?

Several previous posts refer to generally held beliefs about the earliest knitters in Egypt using needles with hooked tips to make twisted-stitch stockinette fabric. More recent scientific examination of archaeologically-recovered knitted fabric has radiocarbon dated the oldest known specimen of true knitting to the interval 425–594 CE. Counter to what the established tenet leads us to expect, this has an open-stitch structure. Additional knitted objects through to the early 2nd millennium CE, found (but not necessarily made) in Egypt, have undergone similar examination and images in the published reports suggest that the open stitch was the predominant form.

The questioned notion about the developmental sequence was fostered by Fritz Iklé in an article titled Über das Stricken (“About Knitting”), published in 1936 in the Schweizerische Arbeitslehrerinnen-Zeitung (“Swiss Trade Teachers Journal,” vol. 19, nr. 8).  He discusses the earlier conflation of cross-knit looping made with a single eyed needle and true knitting, but characterizes the earliest knitted material by a twisted-stitch structure nonetheless. The article includes a section on knitting with hook-tipped needles and he draws the conclusion that the use of such tools to produce twisted-stitch stockinette was “apparently the form of knitting that preceded our customary knitting.”

Iklé then discusses later regional schools of knitting that employ hooked needles, noting that they are also used for open-stitch stockinette. He illustrates this with a photograph of an unfinished sock.

hooked-sock

“The beginning of knitted work from Turkey shows us that hooked needles can also be used to knit open stitches, for which we also have evidence from Arabic graves from the 9th to the 12th centuries…”

Iklé cites the work of Luise Schinnerer during the 1890s (to be discussed in detail in separate posts), who was the immediate source for several of the ideas that he propagated. Their conclusions would less likely have been reflected in the English-language literature if Mary Thomas had not picked up on Iklé’s article in the preparation of Mary Thomas’s Knitting Book from 1938. She explicitly credits him as one her informants and appears to have paraphrased the caption of the preceding photograph, but misread pivotal detail in the original German.

“…a half-finished sock of the 12th century found in a Turkish tomb reveals that the knitter was then working with five hooked needles…”

Either way, Thomas does not identify the Turkish tomb to which she is referring or substantiate her statement in any other way. It should also be noted that if the Turkish sock illustrated by Iklé were indeed from the 12th century, its ribbing would provide incontrovertible evidence of knit and purl stitches side-by-side at a significantly earlier date than can otherwise be attested.

Thomas also bases what is now an entrenched dichotomy between “Eastern” and “Western” knitting on the assumption that fabric produced in the corresponding areas of Europe can be characterized by the preferential use of twisted and open knit stitches, respectively. Although that structural distinction is quite useful when discussing craft practice, the derivation of her nomenclature is immediately gainsaid by the Turkish sock.

Thomas discusses and illustrates another regional form of knitting with hooked needles practiced in Landes, on the Atlantic coast of southern France. This is also mentioned more briefly by Iklé with details that Thomas included in her own description. She says that “the fabric is Crossed Stocking Stitch, knitted in the Eastern way” again contradicting the geographic basis for classifying the stitch structure.

Whatever the extent of Thomas’s reliance on Iklé may have been, he provided her with at least one item that is not described in his own text — a knitted fragment in his collection.

iklé-fragment

Thomas calls it a “magnificent example of Arabian color knitting of the 7th to 9th centuries…found in Fostat…and knitted in Crossed Stocking Stitch (Eastern)….” This dating is consistent with Iklé’s general appraisal of such material. Thomas notes that the decoration was knitted upside-down and that she aligned the photo with the direction of the stitching.

It is inverted here to enable direct comparison of the pattern with the appreciable amount of decorated Islamic knitting from the Fatamid Period (969-1171 CE) for which descriptions have since been published. Several commentators have suggested on this basis that the Iklé fragment is also correctly dated to that period. The fragment no longer exists and its age cannot be determined more precisely. For as long as it was considered illustrative of the earliest form of true knitting, the photograph in Thomas’s book was regarded as particularly valuable documentation.

One of the more rigorous recent discussions of Egyptian textiles is found in a presentation of selected objects from the Katoen Natie collection in Antwerp, written by Antoine De Moor, Chris Verhecken-Lammens, and André Verhecken, titled 3500 Years of Textile Art, and published in 2008. This includes photographs of a knitted stocking and fragments of three others that were all radiocarbon dated to the Fatamid period. The four photos are detailed enough to show open-stitch structures, as can be seen in the full stocking here. The decorative pattern of one of the fragments closely resembles that of the Iklé fragment and a close-up detail shows its stitch structure with particular clarity (here in a detail of the detail).

katoen-650-01

This corroborates Iklé’s report of open stitches being evidenced by material found in Arabic graves from the 9th to the 12th centuries, even if he estimated an earlier date for the fragment from his own collection. It seems likely that he based that assessment on the presumption that twisted-stitch knitting was the older practice. However, the bulk of evidence now available does not support either the chronology or distribution statistics he described and Thomas then incorporated in the mainstream craft literature.

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