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 only increases 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 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.


7 thoughts on “First impressions of knitting

  1. Thank you! I haven’t been able to access the article, and your comments, like all your posts, are very helpful and interesting. Have you come across any other research (or even finds) concerning any looped textiles in Georgia or elsewhere in the Caucasus (besides contemporary knitting and crochet)? As odd as it may sound, I’m doing postdoc werk, in part on vocal polyphony and knotted and looped structures. I’ve found hardly anything on Georgian non-woven textiles (even in Georgian).

    Thanks for your work. Your explanations are clear (I’m totally blind, and even tactile schematic drawings are awkward). It also seems that historical and geographical matters in looped structures are almost parallel in the field of polyphonic singing styles in a global perspective.

    1. Georgia and the Caucasus are adjacent to the path traversed by knitting as it made its way from a presumed point of origin in or near the Nile Valley to eastern Europe. Crochet is also found along that path, as well as one leading toward the Silk Road. The routes are normally seen as passing to the south of the Black and Caspian Seas. I don’t know of any specific evidence of a northward branch between them but early looped fabric has been found as far north as Siberia. (There’s one example here: https://loopholes.blog/2017/10/16/looped-tubes-in-ancient-siberia/ )

      My academic roots are in musicology so I’m fascinated by your remarks on the collocation of looped structures and polyphony. If you’ve published anything about it I’d really appreciate your sending the details to me directly.

      1. In the midst of things, I’ve started at least by categorizing types of looping in terms of geographically and chronologically widespread types (e.g. cross-knit looping); compound disperate occurrences (e.g. slip-stitch crochet; Romano-Coptic/Byzantine, Scandinavian, and medieval continental needlebinding stitches); and as it seems, later developments in knitting and crochet. It seems to reflect trends in types of polyphony, which have been analysed in a similar way by the Georgian ethnomusicologist Joseph Jordania. I am starting to map musical structures as I explore the textile structures and techniques. None of this work would be possible without the Information on your blog, and I am writing to thank you. I also happened to find a recent article about a fragment found in the Urals, Origin of Knitting in Eastern Europe, by N. Krylasova, but it seems that it repeats the confusion of true knitting, needlebinding, and cross-knit looping. The figures in the article may help, and I wonder what you think of the find in question and the author’s argument and references.

      2. Thank you very much for your kind words about this blog. I’ll post my comments on the Krylasova article after I’ve read it.

      3. Thank you very much for the words of appreciation. I agree with your assessment of the Krylasova article and see nothing in it that supports the conclusion that the objects in its Fig. 4 are knitting needles. I’m not sure if the black dots indicate holes, but if they do, they would constitute a structural weakness. The asymmetry of the ends of the sticks would be similarly unamenable to knitting. The date is plausible for the technique in that region, even if on the unexpectedly early side. However, in the absence of proximal evidence of actual knitted fabric, I would be reluctant to accept the identification of the illustrated implements as knitting needles.

  2. Thank you. Was there any illustration of a textile fragment at all? The article seemed to be about the finding of such but then discussed the supposed needles more than the characteristics of any fabrics, beyond asserting the finding of various fragments.

    1. None of the textile fragments mentioned in the text are illustrated. If I can manage to locate the cited sources, perhaps they will reveal something more specific.

Please leave a comment. You don’t need to identify yourself or log in but your first comment will be held for approval before appearing.