The tools and techniques described in detail in the initial wave of 19th-century publications about diversionary fancywork reflect crafts in practice at that time. Although some clues are provided about their histories, little can be deduced about their actual ages and origins. The drawing of purse molds from 1842 that provides this blog’s logo is a good case in point.
The pegged form is a support for knitting, called a moule Turc (Turkish mold) in the British publication it is taken from and in French instructions from 1826, with little likelihood of the later text having been derived from the earlier one. The name suggests an eastern origin although it may simply be a fanciful coinage. However, the same label appears in unrelated printed sources beyond the two just cited, plus contextual remarks about the application of the implement to knitting, clearly indicating that peg looms were in established use for some time before being written about.
The decision of a court in Strasbourg in May 1535 regarding the proper guild for sock knitters (Hosenstricker) considers the frames they used for making gloves and socks. The original German — ramen und gestellen [sic] — can be read in different ways. The two terms may be alternate names for the same frame, refer to two different types of frames, or designate a frame affixed to a stand. However, the legal text makes a comparison with other types of fabric worked on frames that strongly suggests the ones used for knitting to have been stationary. This was just over fifty years before the invention of the mechanized stocking frame and it is safe to regard its unarticulated predecessor as a straight peg loom.
The stocking makers would have been employing them prior to the lawsuit and it can be assumed that they were in use near the outset of the 16th century. The court decision also discusses contemporaneous hand knitting and explicitly notes that it is done without frames. Given that the scope of guild protection was being defined, if knitting was done on smaller handheld looms at that time, we might expect this to have been mentioned. Whatever the intervening developments, such looms are not directly attested until the 19th-century documentation. Notwithstanding, a circumstantial case has been made for their use a thousand years prior to the appearance of the knitting frame in Europe.
The 1842 text follows its description of a round loom with one of a cylindrical knitting spool with a smaller number of pins called a, “chain mold…for making neck chains…with middle-sized netting silk, exactly in the manner as that described for a purse on the moule Turc.” Such implements appear elsewhere in the early-19th-century press earmarked for metal chains. They currently straddle the boundary between craft tool and child’s toy, marketed under several designations including “knitting spool” and “knitting Nancy.”
A larger multi-pronged spool is described and illustrated in a Dutch publication from 1822 that also illustrates a six-pin chain spool, with a peg loom included in the 1823 volume. This is the earliest source yet noted where these handheld tools appear, although it is again clear that they would have been in use for some time prior to this documentation. The 1822 text says that the form shown below can have as many as twenty prongs, effectively mooting any distinction between it and a peg loom with regard to knitting simple tubes.
Richard Rutt commented on such devices in connection with the analysis of tubes made from thin metal wire found in Viking hoards dating from the 9th and 10th centuries, and similar material in 8th-century Celtic finds. These are of particular interest because their structure was initially described as open-loop stockinette but subsequently determined to be a compound variant, where each stitch is drawn through the corresponding stitches in the preceding two (sometimes three) rows. Fuller details of both the objects and the ensuing analytical discussion are provided in a previous post.
Rutt’s summary of the matter appeared in a letter to the editor of Piecework Magazine in 1990 (published in its Jan.-Feb. 2017 issue) where he says:
“I went on from that to have another look at the Celtic pieces which have knitted silver in them and discovered that the Celtic work was done with a knitting nancy. Complex knitting is much easier on a knitting nancy than it is on knitting needles.”
Subsequent work has demonstrated both methods to be comparably handy for compound knitting with yarn, and no auxiliary support is required for knitting thin wire (which is held in position by its own rigidity as discussed and illustrated here). Several authors have suggested that knitting spools were used for the production of the narrow tubes knitted in yarn found at archaeological sites in the Nile Valley. One object of that type has been radiocarbon dated to the interval 425–594 CE (and illustrated in this test report) — the oldest verified date thus far associated with true knitting there.
These tubes display no shaping or construction details beyond some of them being closed at one end. It is therefore difficult to refute the proposal that they represent Egyptian knitting at an early stage of its development. Tubes with the same form of compound knitting survive from as late as the 12th century. Some display motivic colorwork that has been used to date them but it is uncertain if the varying ways the ends are closed will prove to be of further chronological utility.
By the outset of the 11th century, plain stockinette socks made in Egypt were being shaped in ways that might not otherwise be seen as loom knitted. Present-day loom knitters readily manage such details but needle knitting is generally regarded as the technique applied to these socks. This gives yet another reason to identity and catalog construction details, secondary structural attributes, and production mistakes that are specific to the respective methods.
Here is a photo of an Egyptian sock from the 12th or 13th century in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (accession number 27.170.95).
The centuries intervening between the first appearances of the tubes and the socks would have provided ample opportunity for loopcrafters to develop their tools and shaping techniques. This leads to a further pivotal question about whether knitting looms and knitting needles were both among the technologies exchanged in Islamic and European cultural interaction.
The first illustrations of knitting in progress are European, showing it done with needles in several so-called Knitting Madonnas beginning ca. 1345. The technique is seen with particular clarity on the Buxtehude Altar from the end of that century. The illustrated garment also instantiates tubular knitting. However, even with due allowance for the artistic misrepresentation of some construction details, its size, shaping, and fineness are hard to envision being produced on a round peg loom. There is otherwise no contemporaneous evidence of a pegged knitting support in Europe prior to the knitting frame that would have developed no later than toward the end of the 15th century.
A catalog of Textiles in Egypt 200–1500 A. D., prepared by Marianne Erikson and published in 1997, discusses a knitted fragment that may have been made as early the mid-11th century. It has the same compound stockinette structure discussed above but it is unclear how large a segment of the full object the fragment represents or if it is part of a tube. The number of wales in it would require a loom with an extremely close pitch and high peg count. The catalog analysis assumes it was knitted flat and illustrates a method for doing so on needles. Additional such methods applicable both to working flat and in the round are described and illustrated in a book by Assia Brill published in 2019, titled Distitch.
Rutt shows a number of Egyptian fragments of plain stockinette from 1000–1500 CE in his A History of Hand Knitting, concluding that they were “hand knitted, almost certainly with rods.” The earliest generally recognized European hand knitting that he presents, also Islamic, appeared during that interval. He describes two stockinette cushions found in a late-13th century tomb in Spain.
“They must have been made on steel pins, which were probably hooked. The photographs suggest they were knitted in the round.”
The belief that hooked-tipped knitting needles were used for this work is based on their current or recent traditional use in Eastern Europe, Portugal, and Southern France. These all lie along the forked path the craft would have taken on its putative migration out of the Nile Valley into Europe, and needles with hooked tips are presumed to be the initial form. If that is correct, the interval between the manufacture of the cushions and the appearance of smooth-tipped knitting needles in the hands of the Madonnas would be when the streamlining took place.
This would also make these needles a specifically European contribution to the development of the craft. If the straight knitting frame was another such contribution, since it provides the first direct evidence of knitted fabric being worked flat, that method would likely have been a further European enhancement.