Crochet · Examples · History

Crochet is old hat

I attended the In the Loop at 10 conference at the Winchester School of Art last week and wrapped up my stay in England with a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s textile study facility, The Clothworkers’ Centre. I shifted from event participation to personal exploration mode at the Winchester City Museum where archaeologically-recovered material relevant to the general theme of the excursion was on display.  My friend Dora Ohrenstein was present on all three occasions and discussions with her provided additional useful perspectives on what was seen and heard.

This all left me with a heightened understanding of loopery, to say nothing of fuel for new blog posts. I’m not sure if or how the conference presentations are going to be made publicly available and will wait for clarification before posting anything based on them beyond micro-reviews of the presentations that were most compellingly close to my own interests. These covered things ranging from beknottedness, through cleeking (referenced in passing below), to the perennial favorite — systematological nomenclature.

I’m going to start with an 18th-century English cap that I was kindly permitted to examine at the Clothworkers’ Centre. A photograph with the V&A’s catalog details can be seen here. The September 2016 issue of Slip Knot, the Journal of the Knitting and Crochet Guild, includes a report by Lindy Zubairy of its examination during the KCG’s own visit to the study center earlier the same year.

“…an intriguing little cap, dated somewhere vaguely between 1700 and 1800, yet undoubtedly crochet. There is very little evidence of any crochet being worked before 1800. So is this the earliest known example? Or are the dates wrong? Using a magnifier we were able to make out the back-loop-only treble stitches [UK], a spiralling increase in the round, and evidence of short row shaping.”

As I was expecting, it was immediately apparent that this description is entirely correct. The cap was worked top down in treble crochet (retaining UK terminology throughout this post) with a number of rows worked fully in the round and shaped with increases, followed by several short rows for additional shaping, and continuing to the bottom of the cap with rows successively shortened by cutting the yarn after a decreasing number of stitches.

That technique is not mentioned in the KCG report. The stitches in the cap were worked in the same direction throughout. This means that the yarn was cut at the end of each row that was not crocheted all around. The side selvages were not finished particularly well and numerous yarn ends had loosened, assuming that they were securely fixed to begin with. The lack of proficiency with this detail is in noteworthy contrast to the apparent skill with which the fabric was otherwise worked.

The intended shape of the crown of the cap is similarly unclear. The increases in the spiral rows are too numerous to produce a smooth contour and progressively larger pleats may have been worked deliberately from the sides toward the top of the crown. However, the increases were not distributed with particular symmetrical accuracy, again at variance with the general quality of the crafting. One possible explanation is that the cap was a practice piece for someone skilled in an allied yarn art but less familiar with some of the component techniques of crochet.

The rustic appearance of the hat is consistent with the assessment of its age to sometime in the 1700s. However, the only form of solid-work crochet that is otherwise documented from that date is the slip stitch fabric commonly referred to as “shepherd’s knitting,” described and illustrated in printed sources beginning in the last quarter of the century. On the other hand, treble crochet is not attested until the 1820s. Cutting the yarn at the end of a row rather than turning the fabric, was a recommended practice for double crochet well into the 1840s, and into the 20th century for slip stitch. Working single-loop-only for all stitches remained the standard until at least the middle of the 19th century.

In any case, the stitches in the cap are of too fine a gauge to have been made with the strongly-tapered flat hook that is normally associated with shepherd’s knitting. Nor is such a “shepherd’s hook” well suited for anything other than slip stitch crochet (practiced as cleeking in Scotland at least through the 1950s). So in addition to the KCG’s question about the possibility of this being the oldest known example of crochet (a judgment I suggest deferring until other candidate pieces have been fully evaluated), it can also be wondered if the technical resources of shepherd’s knitting were more nuanced than the slip stitching with which it was equated in the Victorian fancywork literature.

Examples · History · Loop-and-twist · Nalbinding

Looped tubes from Ancient Siberia

Sergei Rudenko published a book in 1953, titled Culture of the Altai People in Scythian Times. It includes photographs of the structural detail of two pieces of “woolen lace fabric.”

scythian-structure

They were taken from two tubular “braid covers” (shown fully below) with the one detailed on the left being an inner lining to the one on the right. The composite object was used as a sheath for the braided hair that had been removed from the skull of a woman in preparation for her interment in the grave where they were found.

scythian-hair

An English translation by Michael W. Thompson, Frozen Tombs of Siberia, was published in 1970. This includes Rudenko’s revisions to the initial text and notes a subsequent radiocarbon dating of the tombs, setting their average age to 430 BCE. Thompson calls the tubular objects the “inner cover of pigtail” and “outer cover of pigtail,” and their structure “lace weave.” It is not clear why he regards this fabric as woven, which it clearly is not.

In her review of the history of nålbinding from 2012, Nalbinden – Was ist denn das?, Ulrike Claßen-Büttner notes that Thompson’s ascription was incorrect and says that the structure of the fabric “was presumably [vermutlich] twisted looping.” The English translation published three years later strengthens this to “obviously made by twisted looping.” The reasons for the increased surety aren’t explained but the photographs certainly do appear to be of loop-and-twist fabric, which is among the earliest archaeologically recovered forms of looping and has been found at a Neolithic site in Denmark.

This appraisal was not shared by Lyudmila L. Barkova in her article titled A technological characterization of woolen textiles from the Great Altai kurgans, in the 2013 volume (nr. 39) of the Archaeological Digest published by the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. (There is an English summary at the end of the article and a clickable list of its references here.) It includes full photographs of both objects.

scythian-tubes

The text describes the structure and method of its production as crochet in the modern sense, but if for no reason other than a single structural detail visible in both her and Rudenko’s photographs, this is not possible. The joins at the corners of several squares in the openwork portion of the fabric are strained, revealing a single strand of two-ply wool (the material noted in the description) stretched across the gap. In crochet, the basic element of such work is a row of chains into which the vertical stitches are worked. It is not possible to pull this in any manner that would expose a single stand of yarn bridging adjacent squares.

The openwork outer sheath is currently on display at the British Museum in the exhibition Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia, produced together with the State Hermitage Museum. The accompanying text says it was made at some time during late-4th and early-3rd centuries BCE and calls it a “crocheted wool hair-case,” further explaining that “…other finds suggest that crocheted hair-cases were common among Scythian women in this region.”

The exhibition catalog describes the object in greater detail, but calls it a “woman’s knitted hair-case” and additionally refers to “crocheted netting” in one of the comparable other finds. The Russian word vyazaniye (вязание) designates all three crafts, with an additional qualifier used to distinguish among them. Barkova’s text, which is cited in the catalog, unequivocally describes the use of a crochet hook to make crochet stitches.

The structure of the object on display also resembles crochet closely enough for it to be seen as such under the viewing conditions in the exhibition. While in front of the display case, I overheard other visitors comment with surprise about crochet having been practiced so long ago. This is unfortunate, given the opportunity to offset — rather than propagate — a misconception that has been sustained by many other examples of loop-and-twist (as well as simple looped) fabric in museum collections being misidentified as crochet. (This piece shares the additional distinction of having been identified elsewhere as sprang, a plaiting technique often enough applied to hairnets — but not to this one, as seen in the same structural details that preclude its having been crocheted.)

The decisive attribute noted above is readily apparent in the catalog photograph.

scythian-hair-tube

The details of close-worked loop-and-twist are seen here:

close-spanish-stitch

and square mesh here:

triple-spanish-stitch

The individual stitches in the Scythian piece appear to have one or two fewer twists but the basic structure is identical. The tool used for its production would almost certainly have been an eyed needle, and such work remains a basic element of needlecraft (with the illustrations here taken from a text on needle lace from 1870). Considering both their structural detail and current trends in the ascription of historical craft identity, the braid sheaths would reasonably be categorized as nalbinding. In the doing, however, a spotlight is cast on the need for a nuanced terminology that distinguishes clearly between the various simple and compound looped structures that nalbinding subsumes.

Buttonhole looping · Examples

Dilly bags

Carrying bags were made by simple looping for a very long time before the advent of the European bourse en feston. Descriptions of widespread local traditions began to appear in the ethnographic literature toward the end of the 19th century, with authors coining their own designations for the newly recognized looped structure. A description from 1908 of small simple looped bags made by the Nguni people in South Africa details their production and says that it is “best regarded as netting without a knot.”

That term matured into its presently recognized (and frequently criticized) form in an article by Daniel S. Davidson in the 1933 volume of The Journal of the Polynesian Society, titled Australian Netting and Basketry Techniques. This classifies simple looping and loop-and-twist as subcategories of “knotless netting” and maps all of its forms into the areas of Australia where they are found, alongside a similar range of “knotted netting” techniques (placing them all under the top-level heading of “netting”).

The first specific item Davidson mentions is the simple looped “dilly bag,” which also appears as an archetype in earlier texts. The following photograph is taken from a post on the CIM:Resource blog:

cim-pic18

Regina Wilson describes the production of the dilly bag in a video that was publicly accessible when this post first appeared but has since been restricted. (It was initially at https://www.facebook.com/129175417153247/videos/855499541187494/ .) She credibly presents it as a millennia-old tradition, forming loops without a needle or other tool, and gauging them on the index finger. Of particular interest is the simultaneous twisting and plying of the palm fibers on the thigh, and the use of the same technique to extend the length of the string while the loopwork is in progress.

Wilson summarizes that tradition and discusses a bridge between it and the modern gallery context in a second video, which contains snippets from the earlier one.

Buttonhole looping · Examples

A Swedish looped purse

I’m going to take a break from written sources about purses made with simple looping to present an astonishingly well-preserved object. The published instructions discussed so far are all from the early–19th century but some extant purses of the type described in them are a fair bit older. They are consistent with the written documents throughout, and the bourse en feston from that time have the same general appearance and structure.

With thanks to the Royal Coin Cabinet in Stockholm, Sweden, and their photographer Ola Myrin for providing the following photographs of a purse in their collections (KMK 102 714:2), here is a good example of the genre.

102714-2_a-small

Its characteristic details are the tassels, the braided strap, and the stitch structure. That detail of this purse is similarly representative.

102714-2_upright

Here, each vertical element consists of two adjacent loop-and-twist stitches. The structure is worked with two needles, the one with a single strand of two-ply silk (in four different colors), and the other matching its diameter with a double strand of silver thread.

Other purses vary in the number of loop-and-twist stitches forming a vertical element and the number of twists in an individual stitch but share the same basic structure. The use of two needles is predominant, most often with silk on the one, and gold or silver on the other, but silk on both needles is also seen. Several colors of the silk are often used to form decorative patterns. Although the Stockholm purse was made starting at the bottom (the photo of the stitch structure is oriented to match the illustrations of stitches in previous posts), other purses were made top down as is common to all the written instructions.

Beyond being a pristine example, this purse is unusual (perhaps unique) in the precision with which it can be localized and dated. A slip of paper was found inside it with the following text.

Elisabet Paulson gift med Derecteur Wolf wirkat detta 1693 tilika med det öfriga wirkade i skåpet.

Translating all but the pivotal verb:

Elisabet Paulson married to Director Wolf virkat this in 1693 together with the other virkade in the chest.

In present-day usage — which is not attested until the 1840s — the Swedish word virka (cognate with the English ‘work’) designates several facets of the process of crocheting; virkat is its past tense, virkade refers to the product, and virkning is a general designation both for the craft and objects made by it. Varying with time and place, the same term has named a number of other thread and yarn crafts. It is found in a dialect dictionary compiled during the late 1790s, in the definition of sömma (literally ‘stitch’ or ‘seam’), a common Swedish designation for what is now more widely known as nålbindning (lit. ‘needlebinding,’ often anglicized as nalbinding).

sömma — v. söm (from sömm)  1. sew [sy], sew clothes. 2. to loop [virka] in its own way with a large bone needle. In this way, wool yarn is looped or stitched into mittens, caps, stockings, and socks.

It appears again in the first of the Swedish fancywork journals in 1818 as a designation for counted stitch embroidery. (I’ll provide details in a future post.) The intended technique was likely to have been cross- or half-cross-, rather than chain-stitch embroidery, but the latter form of stitching is still termed virkning when done with a tambour needle.

Notwithstanding Elisabet Paulson clearly having designated what is equally clearly a looped purse as virkad, the text found inside it is commonly read as:

Elisabet Paulson married to Director Wolf crocheted this in 1693 together with the other crochet in the chest.

Some commentators, whether or not they note the difference between its stitch structure and ordinary crochet, take the purse both as evidence of crochet being found unexpectedly early in Sweden, and of it emerging there with an unanticipated degree of sophistication.

There are other instances of crafts designated as virkning being mistaken for crochet solely on the basis of the shared label. These will be considered in detail in separate posts. It will also be seen that the French term crochet has named other crafts than the one currently known by it.