History · Illustration · Knitting · Tools

Early knitting tools

The preceding post examined two medieval German portrayals of Mary making a garment for the child Jesus. They are apparently based on the description of the robe he wore on the Crucifix in the Gospel of John, which German exegetic texts contemporaneous with the images state that he had worn all his life. The appearance of the garment is effectively identical in both depictions but they illustrate two significantly different production techniques. One is looped in a manner that would credibly have been familiar to Mary but the other is knitted — a craft of which there is no tangible evidence until a few centuries after her lifetime.

There is nothing surprising about a text written toward the end of the first century CE describing looped fabric in a region where the first evidence of it has been dated to ca. 6500 BCE. An array of such material has also been recovered in Roman Egypt. Nonetheless, the Nile Valley or some nearby area is where the oldest known true knitting emerged and was subsequently conveyed into Europe.

In the spirit of relaxed academic rigor attendant to the date of this post’s release, let us posit that knitting was already under development at the time the gospel verse was penned. This would make an association (suggested in another previous post) between Roman industry and a plausible tool used for the new craft — a flexible circular knitting needle — worth further consideration.

The first written description of such needles that I’ve yet been able to locate appeared in the 1880s but states that they had fallen out of use before instructions for knitting had come into regular publication. The text also says that they were made of whalebone (baleen), a material that the Romans appear to have harvested industrially in the Mediterranean Sea from 400 BCE to around 500 CE. This spans the period during which true knitting developed in the environs of the Nile Valley and whalebone would have been available for making the associated tools.

The earliest manifestations of this yarncraft are long narrow tubes, the oldest of which has been radiocarbon dated to the interval 425–594 CE. One of the unresolved questions about them and the innovative form of looping they represent, is which of the resident cultural communities was running the R&D lab. Another is the implement(s) used in their manufacture. The candidates for the latter role are normally taken to be multiple straight needles with hooked tips, or a knitting loom. My post suggesting the additional alternative of flexible circular needles elicited a comment describing a prior successful experiment with such use.

In that light, it may be worth skipping forward on the timeline and extending the discussion begun in the last post by taking a look at a Knitting Madonna fifty years older than the one on the Buxtehude Altar. It is found in a triptych by Tommaso da Modena, dated to ca. 1350, now in the Pinacoteca Nazionale Bologna. It is a candidate for being the initial painting in the genre, squarely enough on Roman home territory to raise a question about whether the craft arrived there via the same path that brought it to northern Germany.

Knitting Madonna” class=
Tommaso da Modena, ca. 1345
Photo: Sailko, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

If seen in isolation it would not be clear what Mary is doing. However, given the number of similarly formatted portrayals where knitting needles are plainly visible, it seems safe to regard her as knitting in this painting as well. If the v-shaped object draped over her right forearm is taken to be a bag holding the yarn, the round object below her hands would be the nascent garment. The square opening in its middle would be expected for knitting being worked with multiple straight needles. However, although Mary’s hands are plausibly positioned for knitting, they are at the circumference of the end opposite the square.

When seen relative to the work, this hand placement is more consistent with the use of a flexible circular needle, and the fabric would conceal all but its tips. A comment on the preceding post notes a 17th-century source that (among other possibilities) can be read as designating a single double-pointed knitting needle. For comparison, here is the illustration accompanying the description noted above.

circular knitting needle

Getting back to the initial chronological order, there is other alleged evidence of knitting in specifically Roman contexts. An article about textiles recovered in Pompeii, published in 2014, describes what appears to be material evidence of true knitting in first-century CE Rome, as well as being the first use of silk yarn in that part of the empire. Accompanying photographs show what is clearly open-stitch stockinette fabric, albeit in suspiciously good condition considering its presumed provenance. A report on the scientific examination of this material released four years later refers to the “fabric knitted with silk that radiocarbon dating placed between the 15th and 16th centuries.”

Roman familiarity with pegged knitting looms is implied by a conjectural interpretation of what is termed a Roman dodecahedron. Such objects have been recovered in significant numbers from Roman sites across Europe. No archaeologically founded explanation for their purpose has yet been put forward. Among the speculative suggestions is that it was a type of peg loom used for knitting tubes. I personally find this utterly unconvincing for a number of reasons (and hesitated before even mentioning it) but a segment of the craft community feels otherwise. Reproductions of such implements are currently available and there are several tutorial videos for their use in making gloves.

What may conceivably be a set of double-pointed knitting needles was found in the Silkstead Sandpit in Hampshire, and is currently on display at the Winchester City Museum. The site is listed as containing “Roman Remains AD” and the record of objects retrieved from it can be traced back to ca. 1740. The material is of heterogeneous origin and reliable dates have not be determined for the individual objects.

The site description does not estimate the age of the bronze “container” and the (≈10 cm) “rods” found there, shown in this photo (taken by the blogger on a visit to the museum). It does note that “this type of box is not uncommon throughout the Roman Imperial Period in Britain” — which ended in 410 CE — and that such containers were used to hold needles. However, it explicitly discounts the possibility of the rods found in this exemplar being needles or otherwise associated with clothing, because they are eyeless and have blunt tips. The functional purpose ascribed to them is “divining rods” largely on the basis of variation in the ringed grooves behind their tips.

Despite a number of other imaginative suggestions about how the rods might appear to “modern eyes,” the possibility of their being knitting needles is not considered. However, seeing them as such would be no more or less speculative than the other listed alternatives. The annular grooves at the tips might then be explained as an experimental stage in the transition from the hook-tipped knitting needles believed to have been the initial form, to the smooth-tipped ones evidenced in the 14th-century European images.

Knitting needles have, in fact, recently been (re)introduced with a pronounced groove behind the tip, forming what is presented as a hook. The manufacturer highlights their roots in 8th-century knitting technology and echoes other aspects of the craft’s development as sketched above, in a promotional video.


Disclaimer: I have no association whatsoever with Prym other than as an occasional purchaser of their products. As the readers of this blog may have noticed, one of my hobbyhorses is the genesis and use of hook-tipped knitting needles. Their appearance in the illustrated format reflects the Roman design instantiated by the Silkstead find. It may therefore not be entirely coincidental that the new needles have been well received in both present-day Britain and Italy.

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