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-loop 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-knit form was by far the predominant one.

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 looped fabric with a cross-knit structure made with a single eyed needle, now generally regarded as a form of nalbinding, and true knitting. However, he characterizes the earliest knitted material as having a twisted-loop structure. 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-knit 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-knit 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 (discussed in detail in the following post), 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 a 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 manner. It should also be noted that if the Turkish sock illustrated by Iklé were indeed from the 12th century, despite his saying nothing about its age, its ribbing would provide incontrovertible evidence of knitting and purling side-by-side at a significantly earlier date than can otherwise be attested. Finding needles in place in work of that age would also be quite sensational.

Thomas 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 preferential knitting with twisted or open loops. Although the geographic labels are of mnemonic utility when discussing craft practice (for a right-handed knitter, loops with an Eastern mount face to the east and those with a Western mount to the west) the derivation of her nomenclature is gainsaid by the open-knit 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 briefly by Iklé with details that Thomas includes in her own description. She says that “the fabric is Crossed Stocking Stitch, knitted in the Eastern way” again contradicting the geographic basis for her classification of stitch structures. She resolves this to by permitting both the Eastern and Western forms to be “crossed” or “uncrossed,” further treating knitted and purled stitches as separate constructs. Although useful in knitting pedagogy, that model occludes rather than clarifies historical and structural relationships between the various forms, as well as the differentiation of the techniques used for their production.

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. This apparently assumes that the cuff-down working of the Turkish sock was normative for early knitting, rather than taking the orientation of the pattern to indicate what, in reference to socks, would be toe up.

When inverted, the pattern can be compared directly 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 current location of the fragment is unknown (if it still 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-knit 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 an excerpted detail of the detail).

katoen-650-01

This corroborates Iklé’s report of open-loop knitting 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-loop 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 injected into the mainstream craft literature.

3 thoughts on “Who said knitting started with twisted stitches and hooked needles?

  1. This post makes me want to try knitting in the round with several modern double sided crochet hooks and see how it compares to double pointed knitting needles!

    1. Knitting with hook-tipped needles is certainly worth a try. It’ll be fun no matter what your opinion of its utility ends up being. The hook on a knitting needle is normally worked into what would otherwise be seen as an ordinary smooth-tipped needle, whereas crochet hooks often have heavier and less efficient “business ends.” Bamboo Tunisian crochet hooks are often a safe bet, especially with short interchangeable cables that permit a hook on the one side and a smooth-tipped needle on the other when working in the round.

      1. I’m curious to see how the stitches work up, and how they stay in place compared to dpns. And, yes I do like trying new things. Thanks for the advice on the needles!

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