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. Continue reading “Early knitting tools”

Illustration · Knitting · Looping · Tools

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”

Crochet · Early instructions · Knitting · Structures

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”

Crochet · Instructions · Knitting · Structures · Tunisian crochet

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”

Crochet · Early instructions · Terminology

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”

Methodology · Publication · Research

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”

Crochet · Early instructions · Terminology

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”

History · Instructions · Structures · Tunisian crochet

The chain at the top of the long stitch

This post continues the series describing Tunisian crochet stitches found in the series of five booklets dedicated to that craft published by Cornelia Mee and Mary Austin beginning in 1858. The one presented here is in the second booklet, which appeared in November 1859 and is the first description of Tunisian filet mesh that has yet come to light.

In the previous posts, the stitches are designating by a shorthand based on the order of their introduction in the booklets. A generalized drawing of an unspecified TC stitch appears without instructions in several of them and is MA0. The first stitch with illustrated instructions is MA1. I’m preparing similar presentations of all of their stitches that are cited in my recent article on the history of the craft, and selected others beyond that.

However, it became clear with the present post that this scheme won’t scale well across the entire series of booklets. From here on, the booklet number will be included in the abbreviation and the stitch numbering started afresh for each. This makes the one described below MA2:6 (and the remaining ones from the first booklet, MA1:2, etc.).

The illustration of MA2:6 is the one of all those provided by Mee and Austin that comes closest to matching the prefatory drawing of MA0, although they still differ significantly. As with it, a new forward-pass loop is drawn through the preceding return chain, but the hook is inserted into the back loop (aka back bump) rather than the chain loop of the anchor stitch. Another obvious difference between the two illustrations is the greater vertical distance between the return chains in MA2:6, effected with treble crochet stitches (US, as in all following references).

Such stitches were well established in the crochet repertoire by the mid-19th century. Detailed instructions from 1848 are discussed in a previous post, repeating an illustration in it here for comparison with the one of MA2:6. As was customary in ordinary crochet flatwork at the time, the fabric was not turned at the end of a row unless explicitly called for in instructions. The illustrated structure is therefore equivalent to the Tunisian variant except for the horizontal spacing between the stitches.

Mee and Austin don’t illustrate their Tunisian treble crochet with the clarity of the preceding drawing. Nonetheless, the engravings in their second booklet are significantly more detailed than those in the first. The written instructions for MA2:6 lead directly to the swatch shown in the accompanying illustration. Continue reading “The chain at the top of the long stitch”

Gauge systems · Tools

Calibrating tool gauges

Knitting needles and crochet hooks made according to the same gauging system and marked with the same gauge number — directly or on the packaging — can nonetheless differ to a perceptible degree in their actual diameters. This variation may be a simple result of careless sorting or otherwise insufficient quality control. However, it also has two significant nonrandom causes. One is that tools made in one country in compliance with its predominant standard, when intended for export, are marked with what is judged to be the nearest equivalent size in the standard of the destination country. Tools are also often labeled with the gauge designations of both countries.

The millimeter frequently appears either as the primary or alternate unit, rounded off to the nearest whole, half, or quarter. These increments are commonly used in countries where manufacturers work directly to a metric gauge (except for the finest-sized steel crochet hooks where the gradation is in tenths or five-hundredths of a millimeter). However, the sizes of hooks and needles produced elsewhere will not necessarily align with a scale divided exactly into quarter millimeters.

For example, I have two crochet hooks of the same highly regarded Japanese brand that are identical except for the size indications on their labels. When measured directly with slide calipers (explained below), the diameter of both hooks is 2.5 mm. One is intended for the domestic and European markets and labeled “4/0 — 2.50 mm.” The other is for export to the US, labeled “C-2 — 2.75 mm.”

Since these markings are on ergonomic handles I sacrificed the one on the latter hook, revealing the metal tool to be embossed “4/0 — 2.5.” The details of the Japanese gauge system are described in a post on the Japanese Knit and Crochet Pattern Help blog which says that a 4/0 hook can also be labeled as 2.25 mm. This means there is a ±10% tolerance in the indication of the actual size, gainsaying the widespread belief that millimeter markings are inherently more accurate than gauge numbers.

The second source of discrepancy between the nominal and actual diameters of hooks and needles is the precision with which the gauges used in their manufacture are calibrated against the underlying standard. (The term “gauge” designates both the measuring tool and the ordered system of numbers and dimensions that it incorporates.) This extends to the gauges commonly marketed to knitters and crocheters, which are typically accurate to about the same ±10% — even when marked in millimeters. (Anyone curious about slide calipers as an alternative, but less interested in background information about them, can skip directly to a how-to discussion below.)

This was a major industrial concern in mid-19th century England, when Imperial units of measurement were still in widespread international use but the push toward global metrication was gaining momentum. A leading participant in the debate, Joseph Whitworth, was among those who convincingly argued that the pivotal issue was the decimal representation of small linear measurements. In 1857, he proposed a standard wire gauge ranging from 0.001 to 0.500 inches, in increments gradually expanding from 0.001″ to 0.025″, with each represented size also serving as its gauge number. Continue reading “Calibrating tool gauges”

Crochet · Description · Knitting · Structures · Terminology

From lag to loop

Hand knitters employ several techniques for increasing the number of stitches in a row or round of fabric. Instructions for The order how to knit a Hose, published in 1655, make several references to widening a row. Procedural instructions appear regularly in Victorian publications beginning with The Ladies’ Knitting and Netting Book, from 1837. This describes two methods that remain in practice, both working the added stitch into a loop in the preceding row.

The Workwoman’s Guide, from 1840, notes that “increasing the number of loops is generally done in the middle of a pinful of stitches.” It adds to the “various modes of widening” with one “effected by taking up the cross loop, below the next stitch, belonging to the row before, and afterwards continuing the plain knitting.” That cross loop is a central theme of this post and is examined in detail below.

The process of casting on a row of loops at the outset of a piece of knitted fabric is also relevant to this discussion. The first published instructions for it appear in The Knitting Teacher’s Assistant, from 1817. This is framed as a Q&A dialog between a teacher and student. It was retained verbatim in subsequent editions and can be seen in this one from 1881. The book makes no mention of increasing the stitch count in subsequent rows. However, the described cast-on technique simply places a closed loop on the needle and can be applied at any point in the fabric. It is now often termed a “backward loop” or “e-wrap.”

The first illustrated instructions for an increase appear in the The Knitting Book, published in 1847 by Eleanore Riego de la Branchardière. She describes an increase worked into the segment of the yarn or thread between the loop just knitted and the one that is about to be. When lifted up from the preceding row, that segment is the “cross loop” noted above.

It is termed a “sinker loop” in the formally standardized vocabulary of mechanized industrial knitting, in contrast to the “needle loop” (both named for parts of the machine). There has never been any generally accepted term for the former in the glossary of hand knitting, and it is referred to variously as the strand, yarn, or bar between the loops.

When describing other types of looped fabric, the transition from the leading leg of one loop to the trailing leg of the next is termed a “lag.” It is shown here in the context of knitting, highlighted in black.

loops and lag

The same knitted structure is formed by the forward pass in many Tunisian crochet stitches but has no direct correlate in ordinary crochet. In that craft, as well, a stitch is begun by pulling a vertical loop through the one below it. However, it is then joined to the adjacent loop in the preceding row to complete the stitch. Nonetheless, reference to the dichotomy between loop and lag can ease the comparison of looped structures that are typically associated with one craft but on closer examination are seen to be shared with others.

Riego terms the process of converting a lag into a knittable loop “to make a stitch.” There are two methods for doing this. In the one rather cryptically described in 1840, the lag in the preceding row is twisted into a closed loop and a new loop is knitted through it.

The other, as described by Riego, extends this over two rows. It is seeded with a “yarn over” in the first and completed in the second. This approach permits a number of stitches to be made consecutively. The remark that “it will form an open stitch” also implies that Riego recognized twisted stitches as an element of knitting. Continue reading “From lag to loop”