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”

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”

Crochet · History · Illustration · Terminology

Mlle. Riego’s crochet stitch atlas

In 1847, Eleanore Riego de la Branchardière published the first series of instructions for crochet lace in a planned multipart production titled The Crochet Book. The preface to the second series is dated 1 January 1848 and its preparation was likely coordinated with that of the first. The two series define basic concepts and techniques of the craft separately from the instructions to which they are applied and illustrate a number of crochet stitches with unprecedented clarity. Written stitch descriptions appear in a few of the subsequent series but only the first two include tutorial drawings.

Those in the first volume begin with how “To Make a Chain,” calling each element of the aggregate structure a “chain stitch.” They continue with the “Plain Stitch called French or Double Crochet” (US single) and then a “Treble Stitch” (US double). The intermediate “Single Crochet, or Shepherd’s Knitting” (slip stitch) is deferred until the second series. In that one, Riego drops the alternative designations for the plain stitch and redefines “Double Crochet” as discussed below.

The third series also appeared in 1848, referring the reader to the first two for basic definitions with one exception — “For Long stitch, see ‘Winter Book,’ page 18, in Mary Stuart Hood.” That was yet another of Riego’s publications from 1848. It only provides a written description of the long stitch but this unambiguously details what she might have called a quadruple stitch (US treble) if she had left double crochet with its initial meaning.

Riego uses a more rigorous terminology in The Crochet Book than she does in her earlier writing, where the word crochet is a generic synonym for stitch made with a hook. Here a “stitch” is an attribute of the fabric. A “loop” is something initially found on the tool and then worked into other loops to produce a stitch, which is further specified by parts of the component loops. The illustration of single crochet provides a useful introduction to her descriptive methodology (and commercial prowess; the Taylor named on the spool was one of her sponsors).

single crochet

“After making a chain, the loop E being on the needle, put the needle in a stitch as F, draw the thread through, forming a loop, and also through the loop on the needle E.” Continue reading “Mlle. Riego’s crochet stitch atlas”

Crochet · History · Knitting · Tools

Gauging wooden crochet hooks and knitting needles

The first measuring tools and gauge systems documented for indicating the sizes of knitting needles and crochet hooks were developed by the wire drawing industry. This was an obvious means for labeling craft implements made from wire, but separate numbering schemes also began to appear for hooks and needles made from other materials. Larger diameters were also indicated by direct reference to ordinary measuring scales.

In a presentation of a gauge of her own devising, in 1843, Frances Lambert says:

“Knitting needles, which exceed the size of No. 1 [8 mm], can readily be measured by an inch rule.”

Swedish instructions for Tunisian crochet from 1856 state that:

“This work requires a bone crochet needle, 12 millimeters thick.”

Instructions for a foot warmer in the 23 February 1861 issue of Der Bazar, prescribe it to be:

“…knitted with two long wooden needles the size of 2 centimeters in circumference [⌀ 6.4 mm]…”

The explicit mention of circumference makes it unclear if the 1843 and 1856 texts also refer to that dimension, or if they mean diameter. Another interesting question is how precise this general form of measurement can be. Holding a needle against a ruler is a straightforward way to measure its diameter but results can easily vary from person to person. The same applies to measuring its circumference, say, by wrapping a length of thread around the needle and then measuring the length of that thread.

The optical comparison of a needle to a ruler has the advantages of simplicity and directly measuring diameter, rather than requiring its calculation (if needed) from circumference. The typical workbasket contains both a tape measure and thread, supporting either measuring technique without additional need for a gauging tool. And then there is the converse of the previous question — how accurate do such measurements need to be? Continue reading “Gauging wooden crochet hooks and knitting needles”

Announcements · Crochet · History

New article on flat-hook crochet

I am pleased to announce the publication of my article, “Evolution in Early Crochet: From Flat-Hook Knitting to Slip-Stitch Crochet,” in the Winter 2020 issue of PieceWork. The downloadable electronic edition is now available via that link and a printed copy can be ordered there, as well. The newsstand date is 27 October.

PieceWork 2020 cover

Readers of this blog may have noticed that a number of posts with headings related to the title of article were replaced some time ago with the message:

This post is temporarily offline

I’m currently preparing an article for publication about the broader topic covered by this post. When the article has appeared, I’ll place a link to it here, with the initial text of the post edited to provide supplementary information.

It will take a while to follow through on that promise but the link is the one indicated above. I’ll be starting by adding the new article to the list of publications that have been spawned by preliminary essays initially appearing as blog posts here.

The one I had been planning to release today was preempted by the publication of the latest issue of PieceWork and this announcement of it. The next few days will be spent with some of the housekeeping noted above but the displaced post will be back on track a week from now at the latest, and the blog’s fortnightly rhythm will then resume.

History · Instructions · Structures · Tunisian crochet

Mrs. Mee’s model method

Mid-19th-century instruction books for diversionary fancywork often provide general tutorial material under introductory headings. Cornelia Mee and Mary Austin follow this practice in a series of five booklets about Crochet à la Tricoter — now known as Tunisian crochet — that they published between November 1858 and October 1861. The first two are the oldest known such publications devoted to that craft. The initial booklet is prefaced with an “advertisement” signed by Mee alone that states:

“The great advantage of Crochet à la Tricoter is that it combines the firmness of crochet with the lightness of knitting, and can be done in almost any variety of shape, from the ease and neatness with which it is increased and decreased. The edges can always be taken up, so that, if done in small pieces, the work has the appearance of being all worked in one. It is never turned; and every alternate row the stitches are taken up on the needle, and remain on it for the whole row, as in knitting. The variety of useful and ornamental purposes to which it can be applied is almost endless; and in presenting these entirely new and pretty Patterns in Crochet à la Tricoter to my numerous patronesses, I feel it will meet with their entire approval. Those who work for amusement will have the pleasure of numbers of new stitches, and those who make it a source of livelihood will find many things that will meet with quick and ready sale.”

It is not clear if “presenting these entirely new and pretty Patterns in Crochet à la Tricoter” to both professional and recreational practitioners implies an established body of Tunisian stitches with which Mee expected her readers to be familiar. The name used for the craft (shortened to “tricoter” elsewhere in the text and commonly reduced further to “tricot”), with the wording of its summary description, suggest that the instructions were intended for both knitters and crocheters.

The booklet ends with an “Explanation of Terms” with procedural information not provided in the intervening instructions but applicable to them all. Continue reading “Mrs. Mee’s model method”

History · Instructions · Structures · Tunisian crochet

Cornelia Mee’s simpler Tunisian stitch

The first native English instructions for what is now called Tunisian crochet appear in a booklet by Cornelia Mee and Mary Austin, titled Crochet à la Tricoter (“Crochet in the Style of Knitting” or “Crochet on a Knitting Needle”). The publication date is not indicated but an advertisement in the 25 November 1858 issue of a weekly newspaper states that it had just appeared. It would therefore have gone into circulation at about the same time as the instructions by Matilda Pullan discussed in the post before last. However, those were taken directly from German instructions published in January of that year and, beyond calling attention to the craft, are not an original contribution to its development.

The relationship between the German instructions and the English clone is discussed in my article on the history of Tunisian crochet in the Summer 2020 issue of the The Journal of Dress History, The Princess Frederick William Stitch. This also includes illustrations of the first four stitches that accompany the Mee and Austin instructions and, as with the previous post about Pullan’s derivative work, I will be providing further details about each of them in separate posts on this blog.

The present one deals with the first of the Mee and Austin instructions. Perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, they are not for what has since been termed the Tunisian Simple Stitch (TSS). The described structure is often treated as a variant of it but has never acquired a generally recognized name. It is the first of many structurally distinct but unnamed stitches that Mee and Austin present. Continue reading “Cornelia Mee’s simpler Tunisian stitch”

Crochet · History · Knitting · Tools

Frances Lambert’s knitting needle gauge

This post continues the examination of Victorian efforts at converging on a single standard for designating the sizes of knitting needles and crochet hooks, begun in the post before last. In 1842, one of the initial participants in the discussion of that topic, Frances Lambert, illustrated a gauging tool made according to a French standard based on the millimeter. In contrast, beginning in the same year, her colleagues repeatedly stated that the inch-based Standard Wire Gauge (SWG) — the source of the current UK knitting needle numbers — had been widely adopted in their field.

Lambert persisted in claiming that the SWG was only one of many systems in use and that a “Standard Filière” (wire gauge) of her own invention, tabulated below, was the way to resolve the alleged confusion. This led to a series of contentious exchanges on the subject of gauges — a term used to designate both a measuring tool and the ordered system of numbers and measurements that it incorporates. The debate is reviewed in detail in the earlier post, to which I’ve since added more information about the French system that weighed into Lambert’s work (also correcting an error in the initial version).

The evidence shows that Lambert’s alleged multiplicity of systems was not generally seen as the problem she repeatedly stated it to be. Her colleagues were comfortable indicating the sizes of knitting needles, crochet hooks, and netting meshes with the SWG, which was also employed by the manufacturers of such implements. As noted in 1848 by George Hope, the designer of one of the many alternate formats in which the SWG was produced, it “is a correct measure for the numbers used in every publication, except those of Miss Lambert.” Continue reading “Frances Lambert’s knitting needle gauge”

Early instructions · History · Publication · Tunisian crochet

From grey shawl to pink mantle in 10 months and 14 rows

The first known German instructions for Tunisian crochet are for an ornate shawl, published in the 9 January 1858 issue of the German publication Der Bazar. They are accompanied by four illustrations, of which the third shows the front of the garment and the fourth is a thumbnail representation of its back.

German 1858 cape
Figs. 3 & 4.

The first and second illustrations are ostensibly drawn at full scale to indicate the gauges of the stitching and hook. However, the rows are not the same height in both. They appear together on the same page and the difference is not an artifact of the printing. The original objects from which the two drawings were prepared also appear to have been made by different people, one left-handed and the other right-handed, as indicated by the opposite slant of the vertical loops. Continue reading “From grey shawl to pink mantle in 10 months and 14 rows”

Crochet · History · Terminology · Tunisian crochet

What’s French about crochet and what’s Tunisian about Tunisian crochet?

The French word crochet (hook) triggers a reasonable expectation of the craft it now names having its origins in France. The core term is attested there in regard to fabric production beginning in the 17th century, as a generic name for a tool employed in a variety of crafts. Its use is commonly indicated by including au crochet or à crochet — on a hook — in the specific designation.

A good example of that not always meaning what might first be expected is seen in French instructions from 1826 for purses — bourses au crochet — which are knitted on a peg loom (discussed with illustrations of different types of hooks here). They were published three years after the first documented use of the term crochet in its current sense as the name of a specific craft.

Again counter to expectation, this is not found in a French publication, but in Dutch instructions from 1823 for a “hooked purse, in plain openwork crochet” (een gehekeld beursje, au crochet simple à jour). The first explicit mention of that craft in British publication is in instructions “for making a purse in double-stitch crochet” (pour faire une bourse à crochet à double maille), included in an anonymous compilation of knitting instructions from 1837. Those for the purse are in French but the book they appear in is otherwise entirely in English. Continue reading “What’s French about crochet and what’s Tunisian about Tunisian crochet?”