Musical Instruments

Eva Hammarlund’s Christmas Present 1893

The German musical instrument manufacturer, Theodor Meinhold (1846–1913), played a significant role in the popularization of the autoharp in Europe. One of his contributions was a form of sheet music that is positioned underneath the strings (adapting a scheme presented in an a US patent issued shortly before his own German patent). It graphically maps the movement of the right hand from string to string when playing a melody and numerically indicates the chord bars to be held down by the left hand for accompaniment.

Meinhold obtained German Imperial Patent No. 63702 for it in October 1891, illustrating the device schematically to permit its use with “zithers of the most differing constructions.” It includes a mechanism “for sounding accompaniment chords [through which] the playing of certain melodies is extraordinarily eased.” This accompaniment device is seen under the word “Bass” in the following illustration and was co-opted from another US patent that presented a simplified alternative to the chord bars on an autoharp. (I’ll discuss the two earlier documents in a separate post.)

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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.

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Looped Fabric

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:

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Looped Fabric

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.

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Looped Fabric

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.

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Looped Fabric

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.

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Looped Fabric

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:

SIMPLE DIRECTIONS
IN
NEEDLE-WORK AND CUTTING OUT
INTENDED FOR THE USE OF THE
NATIONAL FEMALE SCHOOLS OF IRELAND.
TO WHICH ARE ADDED,
SPECIMENS OF WORK
Executed by the Pupils of
THE NATIONAL MODEL FEMALE SCHOOL

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Looped Fabric

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.

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Looped Fabric

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.

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Looped Fabric

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.

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