Looped Fabric · Musical Instruments

Five and fifty years ago

The inaugural post on this blog appeared five years ago today, and has since been joined by over 130 more. I managed to prepare them with near fortnightly regularity until six months ago, when the preceding post went online. The one initially intended to follow it has yet to be finished and deals with a German gauge system for wire knitting needles.

One of the source documents consulted during its preparation reminded me about the relationship between the drawing of wire for such implements and for musical instruments. Music wire was a central concern in an earlier phase of my museum-based research and the pending post turned my attention back to it. That is also where the blogonym stringbed originated; a term used to designate the planar array of strings on an instrument such as a piano or zither. This all triggered an interest in once again writing about topics more closely related to its literal sense.

As it happens, next year marks a few other personally significant decadic anniversaries. It will be 50 years since the publication of my first article in a peer-reviewed journal, and 70 since I first played a musical instrument — the autoharp — which (soon followed by the clarinet) set me on my career path. The Music Museum in Stockholm (now the Swedish Museum of Performing Arts), where I was curator of the musical instrument collections from 1972 until 1992, holds a number of autoharps made in Sweden with innovative details illustrating the country’s largely unrecognized contribution to the development of that instrument. A homecoming article now in progress presents and discusses them, just as my first article was about the woodwind instruments housed at the same museum.

As with the article on the history of crochet that provided the upbeat to this blog, research for the one in gestation is turning up quite a bit of historically interesting information that will not be included in the formal publication. I haven’t decided whether to put that material forward in blog posts but, if I do, they will likely be sharing the present platform. There are quite a few draft posts about loop-related topics still in the queue but if I start a separate second blog it risks becoming the sole focus of my attention for a while to come. Continue reading “Five and fifty years ago”

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New article on the history of knotting and tatting

I am pleased to announce the publication of my article, “Knotting and Tatting: The Dual Role of the Shuttle as a Fashion Accessory and Instrument of Decoration,” in the Early Summer 2021 issue of The Journal of Dress History.

It is a totally reworked and expanded successor to a preliminary report on Early Tatting Instructions that was previously available via this blog but was taken offline quite a while ago. Here is the abstract of the new article:

The diversionary craft of knotting is known to have been practiced at least from the mid-seventeenth century, employing a handheld shuttle to embellish thread for separate decorative applications. Knotting provided impetus to the development of a form of lacemaking evidenced toward the end of the eighteenth century that was labeled tatting early in the nineteenth century. The continuity between knotting and tatting has been questioned but is supported by the historical sources examined during this study. The accoutrements of knotting appear in portraiture, designed to harmonize with the sitter’s clothing. Prototypal tatting can also be seen in such representations but illustrations of that craft then yielded to the woodcut engravings focused on technical detail that characterize the Victorian fancywork literature. Such texts also prescribed a long crochet hook as an alternative to the tatting shuttle, but the earliest descriptions of knotting indicated that a hook-tipped implement predated its shuttle.

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Pegging the origin of the slipped stitch

One of the nice parts about using a blog to present the results of ongoing historical research, is the ease with which a report of “the earliest evidence [of whatever] that has yet come to light” can be amended when even older evidence is uncovered. Since such work constantly strives to extend the resulting timeline, every new success paradoxically risks invalidating a previous one. The corresponding revision of the broader narrative may entail nothing more than noting that something is a few years older than previously believed. However, things such as the radiocarbon dating of a questioned fragment of fabric can necessitate a fundamental re-contextualization of previous documentation. This in turn can effect a major change in our understanding of, say, the origin of a given mode of looped fabric production.

I tacitly tweak posts on this blog to reflect subsequent insight without calling attention to such revision. However, there have been a few stop-press situations where the retroactive editing has been paired with a new post about the details of the more recently uncovered material. The last such case (reported here) arose from my having overlooked the first attested mention of Tunisian crochet — in a Swedish publication that I had in fact examined. It appeared one year earlier than the German source I had cited.

The present post is about a similar oversight with the first English-language reference to “slipping a stitch” in knitting, both in its ordinary form and in what is now called slip stitch crochet, but was then also regarded as a type of knitting. In this case, the date needs to be pushed back by all of two years and the locus moved across an ocean. However, the newly noted source has significant additional ramifications.

Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880) was a native-born monumental figure in the US American equal rights movements of her day, addressing sensitive core issues in several of her many widely read publications. She also wrote a series on domestic topics, including The Girl’s Own Book, published in New York City in 1833. What is labeled a ninth edition but has the preface of the second edition, was printed in London in 1837, explicitly for simultaneous distribution via all booksellers there and in Glasgow and Dublin. Where the US edition makes reference to “American little girls” the British one does to “all little girls” and it seems clear from the credits on its title page that it was authorized. It is similarly apparent from the US editions of the other works in Child’s domestic series that she paid attention to the British press and credited the references she made to it.

Both editions of The Girl’s Own Book include an identically worded chapter headed “Knitting” that begins by placing it in an unexpectedly marginal context.

Continue reading “Pegging the origin of the slipped stitch”

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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. Continue reading “Early knitting tools”

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Early portrayals of knitting and looping

There are several challenges in assessing iconographic evidence of utilitarian implements and the contexts of their use. One is recognizing the difference between a representation of an object or process that may be stylized but can otherwise be corroborated, and an imagined depiction that coincidentally appears to be plausible. This difficulty is compounded when an image includes details that can be identified with a fair degree of confidence, in proximity to others that are more likely to be misrepresented. There is also a contextual aspect to this. If graphic evidence of a tool used for handicraft appears in seemingly realistic detail at a completely unexpected time or place, particular care is needed before basing revolutionary conclusions on it.

A range of such considerations attaches to early illustrations of the production of looped fabric. Current reviews of the history of knitting are commonly illustrated with portraits of so-called Knitting Madonnas. Perhaps the best known, and certainly the most clearly detailed, is in a scene on the Buxtehude Altar painted by Master Bertram ca. 1400. It unequivocally depicts four double-pointed knitting needles used for working a garment with what is now termed a seamless yoke construction.

Knitting Madonna

This design matches that of the robe worn by Jesus on the cross described in John 19:23: “This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.” The precise wording varies among translations and I have cited the one at the top of the listing here. The accompanying vocabulary provides this definition:

ὑφαντὸς (hyphantos)
Adjective – Nominative Masculine Singular
Strong’s Greek 5307: Woven. From huphaino to weave; woven, i.e. knitted.

The first translation of the New Testament directly from Greek into German was published by Martin Luther in 1522. He translated ὑφαντὸς as gewirkt (the adjectival form of wirken — a cognate of the English “to work”). This word has figured time and again in posts here dealing with German texts where it designates looped fabric in explicit contrast to woven. Luther states equally clearly that Continue reading “Early portrayals of knitting and looping”

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Knitting the slipped crochet stitch

This post is an updated replacement for an earlier one titled Scottish and shepherd’s knitting revisited that I took offline before preparing an article on the underlying topic for publication. New questions about shepherd’s knitting and its relationship to crochet have arisen in the interim and a book that was central to the initial post sheds quite a bit of light on them. It was published in Dublin in 1835, with the title page:

Executed by the Pupils of

The instructions are cross-referenced to a separate section with labeled space for affixing corresponding specimens, the number and design of which varies in surviving copies. The text also describes how to record the names of the students in each annual class and the dates of their participation in the separate facets of tuition. It therefore seems likely that individual copies of the book were seeded with specimens executed by the pupils of the National Model Female School prior to distribution, and additional specimens were then added locally.

I’ve examined the copy held by the Victoria and Albert Museum. It includes two embroidered samplers dated 1847, one also with the names of its maker and the National Model Female School. Regardless of where the other specimens in it were prepared, it can safely be assumed that they were not made prior to that year. The chapter on knitting includes a section on “Scotch knitting.” The corresponding space in the specimen section is headed “Night-Cap” with a well-executed miniature attached.

Scotch Knitting.
[See Specimen, No. 29.]

“1. Take one end of the thread in the left hand, and with the right place another part of the thread over it in the form of a loop.
2. Draw the thread through this loop, and make as many of them as you require stitches; they should be drawn pretty closely, and appear like chain-stitch; knit the first and last loops together to join them.
3. This sort of knitting is done with one needle only, which has a hook on the end, and there never should be more than one stitch on the needle at a time. Continue reading “Knitting the slipped crochet stitch”

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Revisiting crochet as warp knitting

The terms warp and weft are primarily associated with weaving but are also used when describing looped fabric, for example, as designations for the two basic forms of industrial machine knitting. A “weft knitting machine” drapes a continuous “weft thread” across a battery of parallel hooks that work it into a “course” (row) of loops from the one side of the fabric to the other. A second course is then knitted into it, releasing completed stitches into the fabric, and the process is repeated until the desired length of fabric is attained.

The action of a weft knitting machine is seen in a snippet from a tutorial video (from a suite provided by the equipment manufacturer Groz-Beckert). The fabric being produced is termed Jersey in the industrial glossary, and plain knitting, stocking stitch, or stockinette in that of hand knitting.

One of the characteristics of this structure is the alignment of the stitches into “wales” (columns) parallel to the sides of the fabric. A “warp knitting machine” feeds one or more separate “warp threads” to each hook. There are several types of such machines. The basic action of the one called a “crochet machine” is demonstrated in another video from the same suite, forming a chain that is sometimes termed a “pillar stitch.”

The “warp guide” that wraps the thread around the hook when making this chain also transfers it to an adjacent wale, working the warp threads into a vertically aligned correlate to a weft-knitted structure. There is an obvious functional equivalence between the movement of the warp guide and needle in the machine, and the tandem action of the hook and fingers in hand crochet. Although less apparent, the chain along the warp is directly analogous to the vertical chain that is a fundamental component of the “post” in a tall crochet stitch. Continue reading “Revisiting crochet as warp knitting”

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Mrs. Gaugain’s combined crochet

The first tutorial text about crochet written entirely in English was published in 1840 by Jane Gaugain, in The Lady’s Assistant for Executing Useful and Fancy Designs in Knitting, Netting and Crotchet Work. She uses the French loanword (alternating between the spelling in the title and the native one) to designate the craft but not the individual stitches that it comprises. Each is labeled a “tambour” and the action of their production is “tambouring,” without any reference to crochet in the instructions. She settled on the now standard spelling in subsequent texts but left the substantive presentation of the craft unchanged in the enlarged 1847 edition of The Lady’s Assistant, despite the different nomenclature her colleagues had begun to apply in similar presentations starting in 1842.

This strongly suggests that Gaugain took tambour embroidery to be the sole point of departure for the new craft. Other authors saw tambour embroidery as having contributed elements that were merged with the older Scottish shepherd’s knitting, which they incorporated into the new stitch repertoire as single crochet (later aka slip stitch crochet). Gaugain was also the only one who placed the elemental chain stitch in the ordered sequence that extended to double and treble crochet.


This is worked by drawing one loop through the other; it is seldom used save for open purses, and sometime for muffattees, shoes, &c. &c.

The etceteras make this somewhat self-contradictory. The narrow focus of the stitch’s application is gainsaid further by its appearance in every subsequent instruction, beginning with a “Long Purse of Open Stitch of Single Tambour” — a classic diamond mesh consisting of nothing other than chains. The next stitch Gaugain describes is what her peers also label plain or double crochet.

(sometimes called Double Tambour)

Cast on 100 loops in single chain stitch, having the last of the cast-on loops on the needle. 2d row, insert the needle in the first loop, and catch the silk from behind; pull it through the loop. You now have 2 loops on the needle, then catch the thread, and pull it through the two loops; this forms one stitch.

“Catching the silk from behind” means that the thread is placed under the hook Continue reading “Mrs. Gaugain’s combined crochet”

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Getting the New Year started

This year marks the 50th anniversary of my first submission of an article for publication in an academic journal, prepared shortly after I started working at the first of the two museums in Stockholm where I was to spend the rest of my career. Although I hadn’t anticipated carrying museum-based research into my retirement, with the exception of shifting its focus to the history and technology of looped fabric production, that’s exactly what this blog represents. Without calling particular attention to it, almost every post has been framed as an essay that might serve as a preliminary study for a future journal article.

My good friend Dora Ohrenstein, who has been following this undertaking since the earliest “maybe a blog would be a good idea” phase, recently suggested that describing the research process itself, and not simply reporting its outcome, would be of interest to many readers. I’ll be taking that advice but am uncertain about how best to integrate commentary about the added form of geekery into the one I’ve been plying here all along. For openers, here is a retrospective introduction to it from the perspective of a researcher who in real time tracked the effects of the introduction of digital technologies on both the research and publication processes.

A central aspect of historically oriented research prior to the availability of extensive online repositories of scanned facsimiles of older documents — together with digitized catalogs of museum, library, and archive holdings — was the effort that went into discovering, locating, and accessing source material. This could also entail significant expense, which even if underwritten institutionally, required honing a reliable sense of impending relevance before setting the wheels in motion. Skill in the critical evaluation and contextualization of available sources remains fundamental to research and is applied to the examination of those sources however easy their virtual acquisition may since have become. Sifting through material that is only available physically also remains as arduous as ever. Continue reading “Getting the New Year started”

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The slanted senses of double crochet and other naming slips

There are two well-established glossaries used to describe crochet in the English language. They are referred to as “US” and “UK,” with other anglophone countries using the one or the other. Both include the same terms and present the same stitches, but associate the labels with the structures differently. A “single crochet (US)” is a “double crochet (UK)” and a “double crochet (US)” is a “treble crochet (UK).” A “slip stitch” is now the same in both but was a “single crochet” on, and for a long time after its first appearance in the UK terminology. This was the earlier of the two to develop and is used in the following discussion unless otherwise noted.

Frances Lambert published an ordered set of definitions for crochet stitches in 1844, in My Crochet Sampler. A “plain single crochet” starts a counting sequence that continues with a “plain double crochet.” However, there is a confusingly similar “double stitch crochet” that designates a stitch made by pulling its initial loop under both legs of the loop to which it is anchored.

Plain double crochet — where two loops are kept on the needle, and the wool drawn through both before the stitch is finished. This is the crochet stitch generally practised, and that used for working tablecovers, etc.

Double stitch crochet — in this, both meshes of the chain are taken. It is principally employed for the soles of shoes, and where extra thickness is required, but is not suitable for working patterns.

The latter is now the standard procedure (without a separate name) but did not become so until the 20th century. Authors throughout the 19th century repeat the caveat about its limited utility. The earlier default practice was to insert the hook into the loop through which the new one would be pulled, as what is now termed “back loop only” (BLO). The potential for confusion was compounded further with “double open crochet,” used at the outset to designate a square or rectangular mesh made by alternating two adjacent stitches (of any height) with an open space of the same width. “Treble open crochet” similarly indicated three adjacent stitches.

The first structured glossary to include illustrations appeared in the 1847 and 1848 issues of Eleanore Riego de la Branchardière’s serialized The Crochet Book, discussed in detail in a previous post. In brief review, the sequence of stitches in it is “Single Crochet, or Shepherd’s Knitting,” the “Plain Stitch called French or Double Crochet,” and the “Treble Stitch.” She subsequently dropped the alternative names for the plain stitch and restricted “double crochet” to designating the point of insertion for the hook. Continue reading “The slanted senses of double crochet and other naming slips”