Looped Fabric

Scottish crochet in 1567

The word “crochet” designates both a tool with a hooked tip and a family of looped structures made with that tool. It additionally names the craft of producing fabric consisting of those structures, the fabric itself, and the objects into which it is worked. Each sense of the term has its own history and its appearance in an older text does not in itself indicate either a technique or a craft, even if the topic clearly relates to fabric production. Care is therefore needed to avoid conflating usage at one time and place with that of another.

The modern form of the craft can be traced back to the early 1800s and is commonly referred to simply as crochet. It didn’t initially span the full range of structural detail and techniques that were to develop (with a few also dropped along the way) but the aggregate has borne the name in English-language publication since the late 1830s. Nonetheless, its most basic structures — chains and the slip stitch — are verifiably older. Their position on the timeline of hook-based loopcraft has been indicated in various ways.

My personal preference has been to use labels taken either from contemporaneous documents or, if none are to be found, the oldest known corresponding designations. Examples of this are “cheyne lace” (also “chayne” or “chain”) for the openwork crochet mesh first attested in 1580, and “shepherd’s knitting” (aka “Scottish knitting”) for the slip stitch crochet thus named in several sources beginning in 1812 but explicitly designating an older craft.

Some of the candidate vocabulary is used heterogeneously in different languages, adding further complexity to the terminological facet of the history of crochet. The English word was loaned from French, in any case, and the pre-19th-century documents I had examined before noting the one reported in this post use it to designate a tool but not a craft.

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Musical Instruments

The Baltic psaltery and the autoharp

In an earlier post, I announced the impending publication of my article “Northern European Contributions to the Development of the Autoharp” in The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 76 (2023). That issue has now been distributed to the organization’s members and its contents will become available in digital format via JStor at a later date. An abstract of the autoharp article is included with the initial announcement and information about obtaining an offprint has now been added to it here.

In the briefest review for readers of this blog who are familiar with previous accounts of the instrument’s history, it is true that Charles Zimmermann misrepresented the scope of his US patent for a “Harp” with a mechanical damping mechanism when he began producing autoharps in the now familiar wing shape. However, there is no evidence that erodes his claim of having invented chord bars or coining the term “autoharp” as a designation for a zither to which they are applied. He also made and exhibited such instruments in a trapezoidal form before contention about the wing-shaped design arose.

The starting point for the article is the wave of activity that began in German-speaking Europe in the 1870s with the intention of rendering the concert zither more amenable to use by players with little or no musical experience. It does not discuss earlier types of zithers or playing techniques that might have inspired those innovations. However, the principle of producing a chord on a zither by damping strings that do not belong to that chord with the fingers of one hand and strumming the open strings with the other, predates any effort toward mechanization by far.

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Looped Fabric

New article on the history of the slip stitch

I am pleased to announce the publication of the article “Three objects catalogued as vantsöm in the collections of the Museum der Kulturen in Basel, Switzerland,” in the Archaeological Textiles Review No. 64 (2022).

It was coauthored with my friend Anne Marie Decker after a joint visit to the museum to examine the described material. Anne has made a corresponding announcement of the publication on her own blog, Nalbound. The complete ATR volume in which the article appears is freely available for downloading here, and this blog’s document repository includes an offprint. Here is the abstract:

The looped structure termed a slip stitch in the craft glossary of crochet can be produced both with a hook and an eyed needle. These implements are not equally amenable to working that structure into complex constructs such as the toe and heel of a sock. This article describes the examination of three objects that have been misidentified as nalbinding. Two of them are certain to have been crocheted and the third is highly likely also to represent that technique. The provenance of the objects is recorded as “Coptic Egyptian” on anecdotal evidence and without ascription of specific dates. If scientific dating were to establish that any of them approaches even the youngest age this might imply, the accepted date for the advent of crochet would require major revision.

Musical Instruments

Fifes and pastoral pipes in 1862

An earlier post examined evidence of the fife and flageolet interchangeably occupying the same niche in the accompaniment of dance in late-16th-century France. The fife was otherwise more clearly associated with military music, leading to a question about whether it had a more prominent role in civilian contexts than is generally recognized. Evidence of that being the case toward the end of the 18th century is provided by published compilations of Irish and Scottish dance tunes that explicitly list the fife as one of the instruments to which they are suited.

An etching from the mid-19th century presented below illustrates a fife in a manner that bolsters the notion of it having filled the musical role now commonly played by the tin whistle. (The flute is named as a separate instrument in the referenced compilations.) Of perhaps greater interest, it also depicts bagpipes of a type that is widely believed to have fallen out of use before the artist was even born.

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Musical Instruments

The Autoharp in Irish Traditional Music — Part 2

This post continues the discussion of ornamentation in Irish traditional music (ITM) from the preceding one. It begins with an elaborate characteristic device — the “Irish roll” — and instrument-specific variation in its performance. There are differences between, for example, the way a flute player conceptualizes and executes a roll, and a fiddler’s perspective on it. There is also diversity among performers on the same instrument, as with any other aspect of individual style.

The musicologist in me has been trying to find a unified descriptive model that accommodates the full range of approaches to the ornament’s execution. This is not simply an intellectual exercise but is intended to assist the autoharper in me, who in parallel has been looking for ways to play idiomatic rolls on that instrument. Since it is nowhere near the ITM mainstream in its home country, the endeavor can only reflect an extrapolation from the practice on other instruments.

The following text is illustrated both with links to recorded performances and staff notation. The reel The Raveled Hank of Yarn is used throughout for the latter exemplification. Jimmy O’Brien Moran plays it on the uilleann pipes here. This is how it would typically be notated in a compilation of Irish tunes intended for general use.

Significant musical detail is left to be added by the performer, including the rhythmic swing of the eighth notes and appropriate ornamentation. This is instantiated in the video and its fuller nuance is revealed by slowing the playback speed. Each group of three repeated same-pitch eighth notes in that performance is articulated with a roll.

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Musical Instruments

The Autoharp in Irish Traditional Music — Part 1

My interests in the autoharp and Irish traditional music (ITM) should be apparent from the topics of the most recent dozen or so posts on this blog. I’ve approached them separately as a musicologist specializing in the history of musical instruments. This post marks a shift toward their intersection in performance from the perspective of a musician whose journey started on the autoharp seventy years ago and found his way more deeply into Celtic music a decade later via the Great Highland bagpipes. I’ve since become comfortably conversant with the Irish idiom on the tin whistle and would like to be able to say the same about melodic performance on the autoharp.

Irish dance tunes and airs figure prominently in its repertoire, not least in the US (where some of those tunes also have their roots), but the autoharp does not have an established position among the instruments normally associated with ITM in its home country. The list of those that are has, however, been less static than might be imagined. Some that are now fixtures on it became so relatively recently and others have relinquished their positions.

One particularly relevant example of the latter is the autoharp’s cousin, the hammered dulcimer. Its heyday extended through the 1960s and its most prominent exponent at that time, John Rea, was still recording in the late seventies. He appears in an interview from an unknown date and plays O’Dwyer’s Hornpipe here.

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Musical Instruments

De Good Autoharp

I’ve taken the summer off from blogging, tending instead to academic commitments and catching up on overdue reading and research. One of the areas I’ve been drawn into is the use of numeric, mnemonic, and letter-based alternatives to staff notation in the teaching of music. This has been a contentious topic in writing on the theory of Western music ever since the emergence of staff notation many centuries ago. The initial primary concern was how best to help unskilled singers gauge the size of intervals in vocal performance. In the late-18th century interest was additionally turned toward the desirability of music being printable using systems that “bring all its characters within the compass of a common fount of printing-types.”

The design of musical instruments expressly intended to bolster the pedagogical process became a focus of innovative activity that can be traced back at least to 1830. This was targeted both to use in schools and supporting members of church congregations in psalmody. Charles Zimmermann developed his autoharp with tutorial intent, incorporating a system for numbering the strings and the corresponding steps of a scale that could be indicated in simplified printed music. He also devised lesser known schemes for the similar notation of music for the button accordion and labeling the piano keyboard.

Zimmermann presented his contributions to the long-standing broader process as singularly inspired and profoundly significant, leaving obviously coopted prior art without mention. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that the variant autoharps that began to appear in the US subsequent to the release of his, were directly inspired by it. One such patent makes direct reference to the established pedagogical aim, noting that “this instrument is designed more particularly for use in church or Sabbath-school music.”

On 10 February 1891, US Patent No. 445978 was issued to Joseph L. De Good, a music teacher residing in Detroit, Michigan who assigned half of it to Lucius A. Randall, a travel agent in the same city who presumably funded the project. The application  was filed on 20 September 1890, for a “Musical Instrument” and specified a device that could be affixed to “a stringed instrument — such as a harp, zither, dulcimer, or the like.”

It claimed two primary inventions. One was an arrangement of twenty-one damper bars in three-bar groups of major, relative minor, and dominant seventh chords rooted in each of the seven steps of a diatonic scale, with the buttons for each chord type placed in the same one of three rows. Continue reading “De Good Autoharp”

Musical Instruments

New article on the history of the autoharp

NOTE: The initial version of this post appeared before a publication date had been set. It has now been revised to reflect the actual release.

I am pleased to announce that my article “Northern European Contributions to the Development of the Autoharp” has been published in the The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 76 (2023). As noted in an earlier post, that is where my first research article appeared fully fifty years ago and I contributed to the journal regularly for a long while thereafter. Readers of this blog who are interested in the history of musical instruments but are unfamiliar with that publication will find it worthwhile to visit the website of The Galpin Society.

Here is the abstract of the article:

Several means for simplifying the playing technique of the concert zither were devised during the latter decades of the nineteenth century, some significantly changing its physical design. The autoharp has its roots in that process and was greeted by the zither establishment with particular scepticism. It was a popular success notwithstanding and numerous patented variations on its definitive system of damping bars appeared in rapid succession. There are blurred lines between original invention and plagiarism, and assigning priority for the seminal innovation is itself problematic. The contending instrument makers were Charles Friedrich Zimmermann and Karl August Gütter. Both were born and trained in Germany, but Zimmermann subsequently relocated to the US and became a naturalized citizen. They appear to have tracked each other’s work closely. This article reviews the basis for the uncertainty and attempts to clarify it. The persisting popularity of the autoharp in the US has diverted attention from European involvement in its development. Although Gütter’s initial role has been recognized, his engagement in the instrument’s subsequent development is less well known, as is that of other autoharp makers known only for their production. Swedish contributions are discussed as a case study in the broader northern European participation.

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Musical Instruments

Penny whistle, tin whistle

The earliest use of the term “penny whistle” attested in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1730, in the play Bays’s Opera by Gabriel Odingsells.

Musicians with Halters about their Necks — Their Instruments strung behind, penny Whistles, Trumpets, and so forth, in their Hands.

This doesn’t tell us what a penny whistle was but clearly refers to a musical instrument of that name. What was presumably the same instrument is mentioned in a German legal text from 1680. It is written in primarily in Latin but shifts to the vernacular in the relevant passage.

I do not want to exclude the sometimes ridiculous but not untrained songs that are usually performed in the streets at night with odious music commonly called a serenade with penny whistles and jew’s harps [ein Ständtgen mit Pfennigpfeifen und Brumeisen]. Even the more skilled jesters always strike a single chord and the great dissonance of all the instruments creates various troubles for those who hear it.

The term also appears in less certain contexts and a question about what it designated applies to the review of a performance at the Covent Garden Theatre, in the 22 September 1809 issue of the London newspaper The Morning Chronicle. An announced increase in ticket prices triggered an organized wave of disruption throughout the event.

A pause of some minutes ensued, and then the cat calls, bugle horns, and posthorns began discord afresh. … This was succeeded by the usual concord of sweet sounds proceeding from penny whistles, squeaking trumpets, watchmen’s rattles, horns, catcalls, &c. &c.

A letter to the editor in the 9 September 1810 issue of The Examiner complains about the noise caused by street criers.

… persuade them, if instrument they must have, to change the hoarse window-shaking and nerve worrying mail-horn, for the light and softer cadence of a penny whistle.

The 15 June 1818 issue of The Huntingdon, Bedford, Cambridge and Peterborough Gazette and Midland County General Advertiser, notes the following about the visit of a contentious politician.

… he entered the town amid the braying of trumpets, the beating of drums, and the shrill piping of fifes and penny whistles …

Compilations of Irish and Scottish traditional music began to name the flageolet shortly after the initial printed evidence of its English form (discussed in the preceding post). The first such collection I know of was published ca. 1804.

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Musical Instruments

Fifes and flageolets

The preceding post discusses a tune found in the third volume of “Aird’s Selection of Scotch, English, Irish, and foreign airs; Adapted for the Fife, Violin, or German Flute.” This is a six-volume series produced during the final two decades of the 18th century. The title page of the first volume illustrates a fife in a military context and the following volumes are dedicated to the British and Irish armed forces.

The collection does not include a noteworthy amount of military music and there is no obvious musical intention behind the dedication. This raises a question about whether the fife was highlighted at the start of the list of instruments simply as part of the homage, or if it had a more prominent role in civilian contexts than is generally recognized. A hand drawing on the back of the illustrated page sheds light on this and will be examined more closely below.

A fife is seen in a similar setting in this post’s banner image, taken from a French textbook on dance by Thoinot Arbeau, Orchesographie, published in 1596. His list of instruments used for military march and dance includes a “fifre” and an “arigot,” seen at the right and left sides of the illustration, respectively. In a subsequent discussion of recreational dance, he defines the fifre — fife — as “a small transverse flute with six holes, which the Germans and Swiss use, and since it has a very narrow bore the size of a pistol ball, it produces a sharp sound.”

Arbeau’s arigot is an end-blown duct flute — flageolet (“flajol”) — that “due to its small size has more or fewer holes; the best made have four holes in front and two behind.” This arrangement permits a closer placement of the fingers than does the one with all six holes on the same side. Arbeau otherwise regards the fife and flageolet as equivalent and notes that musicians accompanying recreational dance who find the sound of the fife too strident use the flageolet instead. (It may be more than a passing coincidence that the terms arigot and flageolet are echoed by the designations for the similarly diminutive haricot and flageolet beans.)

Marin Mersenne describes both the fifre and the flajolet in his monumental Harmonie Universelle, from 1636. He also clarifies the association of cylindrical transverse flutes with Germany. His discussion of the Fleute d’Allemande explicitly states that it had a cylindrical bore. The segment pierced by the toneholes was redesigned with a conical bore by French makers between 1660 and 1680, without giving the instrument a new name. The latter design is the one labeled a German Flute in Aird’s collection and numerous others like it.

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