Looping · Systematics · Terminology

Thinking outside the loop

In his book titled Ethnological Studies among the North-West-Central Queensland Aborigines, published in 1897, Walter E. Roth describes a man’s cap that includes both linked and looped structures.


“Head-net…a sort of netted cap with a circular ring at the top from around which the body of the net is woven, the pattern of the stitch being shown in the diagram… It is manufactured, by men only… Another form of head-net, an undoubtedly modern innovation, is made by the women, though not necessarily worn by them alone, after the manner and of same mesh as a fishing net…”

Roth describes a further variant of looping with an inlaid thread as being typical of dilly bags. In a categorization of fabric structures that he would continue to develop, the three forms are juxtaposed in a single labeled illustration.


“There are three kinds of mesh to be found in the weaving of a dilly-bag. The most common, what may be called the ‘type,’ is that marked A in the diagram: rarer forms are the ‘hair-net’ B, and its modification, the ‘twist’ C. The type-pattern may be alone used in the weaving of the bag throughout, and under such circumstances it would be pretty safe to infer that it had been made by women, who do not usually weave the other forms of mesh. The hair-net pattern has been so described because of its identity with what is met with in that particular article [in the preceding illustrations], of which can certainly only be made by males: there are generally two or three rows of this mesh connecting the type with the twist pattern surrounding the mouth of the bag. No dilly-bags made in their entirety with the hair-net or twist pattern are discoverable: these particular meshes would seem to be only subsidiary to the type one.”

Roth’s hairnet Form B is drawn somewhat ambiguously. The legs of the vertical component of the structure appear to cross but if the fabric is stretched laterally it will assume the following shape.

simple linking

This structure is commonly termed “simple linking” and treated as fundamentally distinct from looping. Form A is the one Roth regards as the type structure in the formal systematological sense. It never acquired a concise name and is usually referred to as simple looping with an inlay (or foundation) thread. If the inlay is removed, the Form A structure becomes prototypal simple looping.

There are two forms of inlaying. In one, the inlay thread is a separate element. As long as the starting row remains supported (shown at the top of the following drawings by Raoul d’Harcourt discussed in the preceding post), the inlay can be removed from the fabric without reducing its structural integrity. In the other, the looped component of the fabric and the straight inlay thread are both part of the same continuous element.


The inlay shown in the righthand drawing returns the working thread to the same edge of the fabric for the start of each successive horizontal row. That function is also served by the return chain in the simple Tunisian crochet stitch (without implying a developmental continuity). The chain can be removed from such fabric without damaging it, reducing a Tunisian simple stitch (TSS) structure to a plain knitted (stockinette) one. The three forms might be classified as simple looping with a separate inlay thread, simple looping with an integral inlay, and knitted looping with an inlay chain.

All such inlays are horizontal structures and the loops surrounding them are worked in horizontal rows. When there is no inlay, the horizontal baseline is determined by what Peter Collingwood describes as the “lags and crossings of the previous row” in The Maker’s Hand: a Close Look at Textile Structures, from 1987. The lag is the portion of the working element between adjacent loops, to which the nearest loop in the following row is anchored (as seen in Roth’s forms B and C).

Without changing a simple loop in any other way, the point of its anchorage can be shifted from the lag to the corresponding loop in the preceding row. There are again two variants — pierced and cross-knit (discussed in procedural terms in the preceding post) — with the latter shown here.

cross knit looping with inlay” class=

In both cases, the loops form continuous vertical columns. With the lag-tethered forms, the loops in one horizontal row are diagonally proximal to the nearest loops in the preceding and following rows. There is no generally accepted designation for this diagonally aligned loop structure. In contrast, the vertical alignment is a definitive characteristic of knitting in the generic sense and plain knitting in the specific one.

The knitting vocabulary maintained by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO 4921:2000 in the current version) terms the vertical structures ‘wales’ and the horizontal rows are ‘courses.’ Richard Rutt adopted this terminology in A History of Hand Knitting, also published in 1987, and it propagated into subsequent writing on that topic. The remaining discussion here tests its extensibility into the broader systematics of looped fabric.

Dictionary definitions of the terms course and wale include the relevant senses. The OED defines course as “a row of stitches or loops across the width of a knitted fabric.” The Merriam-Webster Unabridged dictionary extends the definition to “a horizontal row of loops or stitches in knitted fabrics formed by one passage of the yarn or thread — compare wale.” However, the definition provided for wale is not similarly specific to looping nor is it necessarily a vertical structure.

“wale. noun, 3a: (1) one of a series of even ribs in the warp or weft of a fabric or sometimes on the diagonal: (2) a lengthwise row of loops in a knitted fabric — compare course.”

The OED does not include that second sense, at all.

“wale. noun, 1.3.a: Textiles. A ridge or raised line (consisting of a thread or threads) in a textile fabric; also collective with epithet, as indicating the texture of a particular fabric. Cf. waled adj. and wale v.

1583   P. Stubbes Second Pt. Anat. Abuses sig. D7v   To lay downe the wooll so close, as you can hardly see any wale.
1604   ‘W. Terilo’ Piece of Friar Bacons Prophesie xxxiv. C 2 b   A Hose with a good waile.
1607   T. Middleton Michaelmas Terme ii. sig. D2v   By my troth exceeding good cloath, a good wale t’as.
1662   J. Evelyn Sculptura v. 120   It does not at all concern the tissue, Tenor or range of the Threads and Wales (as they call them) which is easily imitated.
1668   T. Rokeby Let. 28 Sept. in Brief Mem. (1861) 16   My wife desires to fix you either to a farandine or a mohaire with a small weale [for a gown].
1675   Let. fr. E.I. Co. to Factors Fort St. George Dec. (MS.)    Theis Musters You now Sent Us appeare to be all Taffety Wale.
1684   J. Haskins Brit. Patent 241 (1857) 1   Lines or creases resembling the Wale of Tabby or Mohaire.
1696   J. F. Merchant’s Ware-house 13   A sort of Callico-Dimetty..Wove with a Wale like a plain Dimetty.
1755   S. Johnson Dict. Eng. Lang.   Wale, a rising part in the surface of cloth.
1828   N. Webster Amer. Dict. Eng. Lang.   Wale, in cloth, a ridge or streak rising above the rest. We say, cloth is wove with a wale.
1886   S. W. Beck Draper’s Dict.   Wale, a ridge on the surface of cloth.”

Any criticism that might be directed at lexicographers for failing to understand a specialized term of art is offset here by centuries of documented usage. The OED does not attest the relevant sense of ‘course’ until 1940 (with no date given in M-W) and there is no apparent reason for treating it as anything other than fully synonymous with ‘row’ when describing the horizontal structure of looped fabric. A wale, as a descriptor of surface texture in looped fabric, coincides similarly with a vertical column in the structural sense only with specific regard to the face side of the forms typified by plain knitting, and cross-knit looping as shown in the preceding illustration.

The long-standing precedent for designating any textured attribute of looped fabric with a ridge-like appearance as a wale is without regard to its angular relationship to the horizontal course. Given the entrenched narrow sense of the term in the glossary of knitting, it might be prudent to avoid characterizing, say, garter stitch as horizontally waled. However, as a general systematic principle, the descriptors horizontally, diagonally, or vertically waled can be used where appropriate in the description of the textured aspect of looped fabric. In fact, the M-W Collegiate dictionary includes a sense of wale defined simply as “the texture especially of a fabric.”

The loop-and-twist stitches that are Roth’s form C also commonly appear (with fewer twists) in a semi-closed mesh as seen in a detail from a late-17th-century purse (discussed in detail here). The pairing of the stitches flattens the lags to which they attach. The resulting rectilinear fabric far more closely resembles filet crochet (with which it is chronically confused) than it does the Australian cap.

mesh looped purse

This highlights a disjunction between the typology of fabric structures and that of their surface appearances. The term wale figures in both contexts but in different senses. It is a matter of individual judgment how, if at all, it might be applied to the purse. Whatever name may ultimately be accepted for a diagonal structural alignment in looped fabric, it would be beneficial if it could reduce this ambiguity.

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