Crochet · Knitting · Systematics · Terminology

The True Stitch

My recent visit to the Museum der Kulturen in Basel included a stop at their library to fetch a copy of a visitor’s guide to an exhibition of the Fritz Iklé collection of textiles, displayed at several locations in Switzerland during 1935. It was titled Primäre textile Techniken (Primary Textile Techniques) and the accompanying booklet includes an essay by Iklé on the way he grouped the objects according to the techniques of their manufacture. He labeled one of the groups “Looping a single working thread” (Verschlingung eines Arbeitsfadens) and another “Working multiple threads” (Verarbeitung vieler Fäden).

Kristin Oppenheim placed Iklé’s categories and terminology in a more rigorous framework in the Systematik der textilen Techniken (Systematics of Textile Techniques), published in 1942 (discussed in detail in a previous post noted below and reviewed briefly here). She expanded this text in 1948 in collaboration with her husband Alfred Bühler, who was the director of what was then the Museum of Ethnography in Basel. Their joint work on systematics was part of a catalog of the Iklé collection, which he bequeathed to the museum.

The Bühler-Oppenheim classification system was applied to an extensive study of Maschenstoffe in Süd- und Mittelamerika (Mesh Fabric in South and Central America), presented as a doctoral dissertation at the University of Basel in 1969 and as a book in 1971. Its author, Annemarie Seiler-Baldinger was on the academic staff of the Museum of Ethnography at the time and Bühler was her PhD advisor.

Seiler-Baldinger published a revised edition of the classification system in 1973, separated from the listing of objects in the Iklé collection that was fundamental to the 1948 edition. This retained the title Systematik der textilen Techniken, with a preface by Bühler, and she expanded it again in 1991. An often-cited English translation of that edition appeared in 1994 as Textiles: a Classification of Techniques.

During the interval between the initial Bühler-Oppenheim edition and the Seiler-Baldinger revision, in 1966, Irene Emery published her equally well-known The Primary Structures of Fabric: an Illustrated Classification. This presented a comparable classification system but was ordered on the basis of the structural detail of fabric, rather than by the techniques used for producing those structures. Emery acknowledged the works of Bühler, Iklé, and Oppenheim cited above, but as they all rely on the same basic elements, it is not clear how far Emery was influenced by her predecessors.

Seiler-Baldinger included Emery’s terminology in her own books, in lists of foreign language equivalents appended to the definitions of individual German terms. However, the English and German vocabularies are not fully concordant and Seiler-Baldinger didn’t always have semantically equivalent terms to choose from. The resulting imprecision was not resolved as carefully as it might have been when her German text was subsequently translated into English.

The conceptual framework underlying the entire sequence of German publications makes a categorical distinction between Kettenstoffe and Maschenstoffe, literally meaning “warp fabrics” and “stitch fabrics.” The latter comfortably embraces the loop-based structures produced by crochet, knitting, nalbinding, and other techniques, without using the name of any specific one of them to label the category itself.

There is no directly equivalent English term for Maschenstoffe. Seiler-Baldinger uses “mesh fabrics,” which otherwise designates an attribute shared by both knit and woven fabric. The more widely used “non-woven fabric” also includes structures that are not loop based, and is beset by the systematological weakness of categorizing something by what it is not.

In his seminal text, Iklé discussed distinctions between various forms of looping, braiding, and weaving. He organized his exhibition accordingly but expressed no particular concern with a systematic classification of the represented techniques. However, he ascribed an interesting property to Maschenstoffe that might be worth consideration in the growing discussion of how the terms ‘stitch’ and ‘knitting’ should and should not be used.

Iklé recognized an array of loop-based techniques but separated knitting from the others.

“Knitting (the true stitch) [die echte Masche] is treated as something entirely different from the others, even when its results can bear a superficial resemblance to a braided stitch [Flechtstich].”

He was describing the basis for the arrangement of the material on display, placing knitting in a historical rather than structural niche of its own. Nonetheless, calling it “the true stitch” suggests that he saw some additional hierarchical distinction. Whatever that might have been, it reasonably equates Maschenstoffe and Kettenstoffe to ‘knits’ and ‘wovens’ in the familiar fabric-store sense.

Folding that back into a formal classification scheme, plain knitting and plain weaving (as defined by Emery) can serve as structural archetypes based on the comparability of their respective simplest forms. The warp and weft of plain weaving correlate to the wales (columns) and courses (rows) of plain knitting, each forming a right-angled grid. Although compound nalbinding does not easily fit into that model, slip stitch crochet can readily be described in such terms.

When seen in this light, its consistent early characterization as “a species of knitting” makes a good deal of sense, as does the subsequent Victorian renaming to “plain crochet.” I’ll illustrate the relationship between the structure of plain crochet and that of plain knitting in a separate post. It’s doubtful that new descriptive terms are necessary but slip stitching could also be described as asymmetrical compound knitting, if not as a handcraft correlate to the warp knitting that is otherwise regarded exclusively as a facet of industrial knitting.

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  • Other texts by Fritz Iklé appear in a number of previous posts.
  • More information about the classification systems that follow the groupings in his exhibition guide follow a detailed discussion of slip stitch crochet here.
  • Terminological aspects of the description of knit fabric are considered at length in several articles in the current issue of the Archaeological Textiles Review.

5 thoughts on “The True Stitch

  1. Bravo! What a joy to read this historical overview and clear explanation of the evolution of our troubled terminology. Your work in this blog is so valuable. And thanks very much for the mention of ATR60. When will all your excellent research be organised into a bestselling book?!

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    1. Thank you! Comments like these make the effort feel truly worthwhile. Although it is unlikely ever to be written, much less published, the book has long had a working title: A Cultural History of the Chain Stitch. If targeted to a bestseller audience, the catchier Loops, Bound and Chained might be better.

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      1. I think the proposed bestseller title is excellent. I also think there are many out there who would support this publication. PS I didn’t mean to be mysteriously anonymous in the last comment!

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  2. I’m looking forward to this!: “I’ll illustrate the relationship between the structure of plain crochet and that of plain knitting in a separate post.” Your post brought to mind the “simple stitch” of Tunisian crochet too.

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    1. The Victorian term simple tricot would add further balance to the comparison. One of Ické’s pet topics was the use of hook-tipped knitting needles and he takes the term Tunisian crochet to indicate that “the Arabs can provisionally be seen as responsible for crochet [alongside knitting].” I would never have expected to see hard evidence to support that but the slip-stitched objects at the Museum der Kulturen in Basel have me reconsidering the significance of traditional Northwest African slip stitch crochet.

      I’ve also put my efforts at classifying the hybrid crochet/knit structure of tricot on hold until after clarifying my understanding of the structural link between simple crochet and simple knitting. The Tunisian simple stitch is generally recognized as a 50/50 mix of the two. I believe it can be more elucidating to treat ordinary and Tunisian crochet as parallel mechanical transforms of Iklé’s platonic true stitch.

      Liked by 1 person

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