History · Knitting · Musings · Structures

First impressions of knitting

I’ve been diverting a fair amount of time that would otherwise have gone into blogging, to the preparation of a paper for the In the Loop at 10 conference at the University of Southhampton at the end of next week. Its title is Taking a Loupe to the Loop and it reviews some of the topics I’ve covered here, as well as providing fuel for coming posts.

Just as I was beginning to feel that I had the bulk of the work behind me, an article by Claudia Sagona was published on 25 June in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, titled “Two-Needle Knitting and Cross-Knit Looping: Early Bronze Age Pottery Imprints from Anatolia and the Caucasus.” There is nothing unusual about an archaeological study of textile impressions found on ceramics — such things vastly outnumber prehistoric specimens of worked fiber — but this one claims to have found evidence of open-stitch stockinette knitting significantly earlier than had previously been attested.

That made it obligatory reading for me and it had also caught the attention of others. Its discussion was on the program of the Knitting in Early Modern Europe (KEME) seminar in Copenhagen on 7 July. I wasn’t there but understand that the participants were highly critical of the article’s methodology and conclusions.

I’ll be taking two of the drums that I’ve been beating on this blog with me to England. One calls attention to the limitations of our ability to identify the tools and techniques used to produce a piece of looped fabric on the basis of the object itself — a concern that does not diminish when assessing an impression of its surface detail. The second one signals that the earliest known specimens of knitted (as opposed to cross-knit looped) fabric have an open-loop structure, and not the twisted stitches that are frequently said to be the initial form.

Assuming that Sagona has plausibly identified similarities between the structures imprinted on the pottery fragments and those that could be left by looped textiles, it does not follow that that is how they were made. Her further association of those impressions with specific production techniques is entirely unsupported. She doesn’t explain why the fabric in the open-knit impressions would have been made with two knitting needles. The same structure can be made on a peg loom, which other authors have suggested was the first implement used for that purpose, to say nothing of other methods that may have been known six thousand years ago that we have yet to recognize. Similarly, the basic structure of cross-knit looping is identical to that of twisted-stitch knitting — again makable on both a peg loom or with knitting needles — and the impressions of that structure do not reveal the secondary detail necessary to differentiate between the two production methods.

The characterization of open-stitch stockinette knitting as ‘two-needle knitting’ implies fabric being worked flat with alternating rows of the knit and purl forms of the stitch. This is counter to the evidence of yarn having been knitted exclusively in the round during the first several centuries of the craft’s practice but Sagona explicitly states her belief that the impressions can be of fabric knitted flat.

Notwithstanding, moving the earliest direct evidence of the open-loop structure from the mid-first-millennium CE to possibly as early as the mid-fourth-millenium BCE would be of blockbuster consequence and therefore requires more rigorous substantiation than the article itself provides. (The earliest known specimen of cross-knit looping is from the mid-sixth-millennium BCE, found at a site near the Dead Sea, so there are no surprises there.) This wouldn’t alter the chronological order in which cross-knit looping and open-stitch knitting appeared. However, since the latter structure is a hallmark of true knitting, pending the unexpected appearance of corroborating evidence during whatever debate Sagona’s article triggers, it may be that the craft can be traced farther back than anyone else has yet suggested.

 

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