The tools and techniques described in detail in the initial wave of 19th-century publications about diversionary fancywork reflect crafts in practice at that time. Although some clues are provided about their histories, little can be deduced about their actual ages and origins. The drawing of purse molds from 1842 that provides this blog’s logo is a good case in point.
The pegged form is a support for knitting, called a moule Turc (Turkish mold) in the British publication it is taken from and in French instructions from 1826, with little likelihood of the later text having been derived from the earlier one. The name suggests an eastern origin although it may simply be a fanciful coinage. However, the same label appears in unrelated printed sources beyond the two just cited, plus contextual remarks about the application of the implement to knitting, clearly indicating that peg looms were in established use for some time before being written about.
Instructions for knitting tubes of thin metal wire on a small peg loom were published in 1822 in the Dutch periodical Penélopé. They describe a technique that is referred to in instructions for a loom-knitted purse that appeared in an 1823 issue of the same publication.
I’ll translate the wirework instructions extensively in a separate post but will note for now that they are for twisted-stitch knitting. There is no reference to the open-stitch alternative that appears in the later purse instructions, but those do say that the technique (currently termed flat stitching) works best with “gold or silver thread.” Such metallic thread was made by wrapping a thin ribbon of metal spirally around a core of silk thread. This had the appearance of metal but with the tensile properties of silk thread, and flexibility largely determined by the core.
The earlier wirework instructions also illustrate the pegged end of what appears to be a narrow cylindrical loom, specifically for making chains in fine gold wire. The technique described in 1822 remains in common practice and an array of tutorial videos can be found by searching on “spool knitting with wire” (using a common designation for a small peg loom). These show some variation in spool shapes and the way stitches are formed on them.
Having just conducted that exercise to make sure that it gives the intended result, I did find flat-stitching among the illustrated techniques, but also noted that it was knitted far more loosely than any of the Viking work discussed thus far. This doesn’t quite eliminate my concern about the potential risk of silver wire being damaged by the high intrinsic strain of open-stitch knitting on a peg loom, but it clearly does demonstrate the viability of at least looser forms of such work. The safest way to deal with this is by stipulating that a skilled loom worker can also knit wire into tighter open-stitch structures (but still reserving judgment about whether that extends to compound knitting).
The videos illustrate two ways of using a spool. In addition to lifting the stitches off the pegs into the hollow inside of the spool, it is also possible to form a wire tube along the outside of a cylindrical spool. The pegs then only serve as an initial anchor for the work, which is subsequently detached from them. The spool is repositioned along the tube as its length increases, to ensure that it maintains a consistent diameter.
The fundamental difference between the conventional use of a peg loom and that of an enclosed spool is that a fixed length of wire is worked around the latter by inserting its leading end into every successive stitch, and pulling the entire length of the working wire through it. This results in a twisted-stitch structure that is properly classified as looping, not knitting. Nonetheless, one name commonly given to such work is “Viking knitting.” Whatever significance the distinction between looping and knitting may have to the practitioners of these crafts, if any, it is fundamental to dating the advent of the latter technology.
An earlier set of instructions for looping wire without a supporting device appears in an issue of Penélopé from 1821. As with the invisible spool knitting seen in the preceding post, wire can be cross-knit looped into carefully controlled shapes without need for a support. Dramatic illustrations of this are seen in the work of Ruth Asawa, as here, here, and here.
Objects made with the same basic technique, albeit on a far smaller scale, were found in graves at the Viking settlement at Birka, active from the 8th through the 10th centuries CE near present-day Stockholm. This photo shows a fragment of one such piece.
Another illustrates the compound structure that appears in many of the objects previously discussed here.
They are described by Agnes Geijer in a chapter on embroidery in the site documentation from 1938. This identifies six variants of cross-knit looping, four of which are illustrated with a needle pulling metal thread through an implied cloth support. Each of the other two variants is described as a length of wire worked into a simple or compound cross-knit structure by pulling its free end through each loop.
One of the important points Geijer makes is that archaeologically recovered wirework which appears to have been made to stand alone can initially have been worked into a textile support that has subsequently decayed. She does not discuss the possibility of objects with a cross-knit structure made free from a substrate being fashioned in any manner other than by looping. Nonetheless, it is clear from the open-stitch stockinette chains seen in previous posts — a structure that cannot be made by looping — that both knitting and looping were practiced by Viking wire workers.
Tubular open-stitch knitting of the previously described type is a common find at Viking sites. This discussion began with it because there is little question about it being stocking stitch in the present-day Western sense, albeit with a compound structure. Comparable specimens with twisted stitches have also been found, as has the cross-knit looping that can often be difficult to distinguish from it.
Correctly differentiating the knitted and looped forms is not eased by their often being conflated in the literature of the modern craft known as “Viking knitting.” Despite calling this technique knitting, it is straightforward cross-knit looping. The underlying issue is that twisted-stitch knitting and cross-knit looping share the same basic structure. An archaeologically-recovered metal tube made in either manner may not reveal the secondary structural detail needed to tell them apart, especially if only a fragment remains. Other indications of the production method might also help but we lack specific knowledge of the techniques used by the Vikings to make any such wirework. It is possible nonetheless, to test the suitability of more recent methods and list conceivable options.
The post linked to above cites a remark by Richard Rutt about the equivalent Irish tubular knitting: “…the Celtic work was done with a knitting nancy. Complex knitting is much easier on a knitting nancy than it is on knitting needles.” (A knitting nancy is a small peg loom, also called a knitting spool.) This judgment would be entirely correct for work with yarn and is consistent with what other authors have suggested about the use of a peg loom for the Egyptian knitted tubes. However, metal has a number of mechanical properties that yarn does not. It is vulnerable to kinks and dents, breaking easily at either, and hardens when worked. All of the methods for open-loop knitting on a peg loom put the stitches under significant tension, as does compound knitting. This can become critical with wire, particularly at small diameters. The method that strains it the least, minimizes the risk of damage.
The stitches on a peg loom are commonly worked with a hook. Although a peg loom can be used for knitting both yarn and wire, a hook alone is adequate for the latter. Wire is rigid enough for a loop formed of it not to require mechanical support pending its being secured to another loop. The process is illustrated in this video where it is named for the tool, but the parent website also uses the more analytical designation “Invisible Spool Knitting” — ISK.
This basic technique will be familiar to any knitter who has repaired dropped stitches by re-knitting them vertically with a crochet hook. It is easy enough to see how it can also produce a twisted-stitch structure simply by rotating each loop 180° after it is pulled through the corresponding loop in the previous row. If one similarly envisions a loop of the one color wire being drawn over the loop of the other color in the next row, and then secured to the loop of its own color in the row after that, the result is compound knitting. (The strip of 8th-century Irish flat knitting shown in the preceding post displays precisely such a two-colored compound structure.)
The drawplate is another important implement specific to wirework. It allows a tube to be knitted at a comfortably large diameter which is then reduced to whatever is desired for the finished tube. This means, at least in principle, that knitting needles can be used to form a looser version of the same structure, which is then drawn down to size — but also elongated in the doing. Ensuring adequately dense stitching in the final tube is one of the effects of compound knitting. It also appears for that purpose in the tutorial literature of modern Viking knitting as double knitting, with triple knitting also described.
Again, though, none of this establishes how the Viking and Irish tubes were actually knitted. Nonetheless, of all the plausible alternatives, using a hook in the manner shown in the video affords the greatest economy of motion and subjects the wire to the least stress. Minimizing the number of contact points that can potentially injure the surface of the wire might similarly explain a preference for an open-loop structure.
Several of the instructions discussed in earlier posts explicitly state that round purse molds were made of boxwood. This was widely preferred by the European woodturners of the day and therefore an obvious choice.
The 1823 instructions for the Louisiana purse provide detailed dimensions for a cup mold. They specify that this “turned boxwood mold … should be 7 centimeters in diameter ,” which was about the largest diameter boxwood that was then normally available to woodturners. It was obviously acceptable to the purse makers, as there were less restrictive alternatives. (The dwindling availability of larger diameter boxwood can be traced over the preceding centuries in categories of turned objects that are heavily represented in museum collections, such as woodwind musical instruments.)
The knitting loom used for the Queen Elisabeth purse in the same 1823 series was also described in detail, and subject to the constraint on the maximum diameter of turned boxwood. (It is worth noting that the two molds illustrated in this blog’s logo are also similarly sized.) In consequence, the specified 1 cm interval between the 22 holes around the second row of the cup mold (7 cm diameter = 22 cm circumference) permits the determination of the spacing between the 44 pegs on the knitting loom. The simple looping associated with the former counts both the stitches anchored to the holes and those fixed to the lags between them, while the stitches on a knitting loom are counted on the pegs only.
Both tools therefore provide a 5 mm spacing between the attachment points. The alternating alignment of the simple loops with the guide holes and the lags intrinsically produces openwork. Conversely, the continuous vertical rows of cross-knit looping are directly amenable to closed work. The knitting loom cannot be used for simple looping but the cup mold can be used for both closed and openwork with equal ease. Nonetheless, the instructions for purses considered here use the cup mold exclusively for simple looping and don’t mention any other use. The peg loom is used in the same basic manner as it is in present-day loom knitting and the stitches described in the 1820s instructions remain in the loom knitter’s repertoire.
The source documents include interesting remarks about the growing obsolescence of purse-making using molds. The 1826 presentation of bourse au crochet made on “a circular boxwood mold fitted with closely set pegs” states:
“Knitting on a crochet is not only for purses but serves for all other objects, as with ordinary knitting … It is now rarely used for purses.”
The same volume includes a description of the cup mold that was extended in the 1830 edition to note that making purses on it was outmoded. The 1842 text accompanying the logo illustration applies this to both implements (presumably with specific reference to purse making):
“Since the introduction of crochet, however, these moulds have not been much used.”
“Purse Moulds: There are two kinds of these moulds, which are made of ivory and wood; one is called a “Moule Turc,” and has small brass pins fixed round the edges of the largest circumference; the other is shaped like a thimble perforated with a double row of holes, like a band, round the open end, a little removed from the rim. Through these perforations the needle is passed, to secure the Purse to the Mould where the work is commenced.”
This is well past the date when 7 cm diameter boxwood had fallen out of commerce, to say nothing of similarly sized turnable ivory. Photos of 18th-century knitting looms made of both materials are reproduced in Mary Thomas’s Knitting Book from 1938; the ivory one mounted on horn, and the wooden one of an unspecified variety (although it is safe to assume that it is boxwood).
The summary indication of their dimensions (“the larger … being 3″ in height”) places the diameter of the latter at about 7 cm. It also has 44 pegs and thus instantiates the pegged purse mold described in 1823.
The 1890 dictionary entry may primarily have been retrospective, but if it did describe contemporary practice, the forced limit on the maximum size of purses made on such molds would no longer have been applicable. Knitting looms are currently available with the 5 mm pitch that appears to have been something of a standard. They are marketed as “extra fine gauge” with varying peg counts, and adjustable ones permit experimentation exactly at the 44 peg ‘boxwood limit.’
I’m eager to spend some time away from 19th-century fancywork and am going to wrap up its discussion for now with a French description of purse making on a round knitting loom. It appears in Élisabeth Bayle-Mouillard’s Manuel des Demoiselles ou Arts et Métiers (Young Ladies’ Handbook or Arts and Crafts) from 1826, where the instructions for the French simple looped purse are also given. This leaves a number of European purses in the queue and I’ll get back to them after expanding the geographical and chronological scope of this blog.
There is no significant difference between these instructions and those for the Queen Elisabeth purse from 1823 with regard to the loom itself. However, the French description of how stitches are formed on that device differs in a potentially significant regard. Instead of being worked on the peg, the stitches are worked on the hook. The distinction does not appear to be purely semantic, but as the French instructions are not as detailed, there is latitude for interpretation.
The remark about loom-knit fabric being “ordinarily very loose” suggests what loom knitters now term e-wrap (i. e. twisted-loop) stitching. This is the loosest of the knit stitches produced on a loom and doubtless how the initial row of Bayle-Mouillard’s purse is formed. However, her instructions then prescribe: “For the second row, take a hooked needle…insert it into the first loop. Then turn the silk on this hook to form a new loop…” This can be read as a description of the “true knit stitch,” which is the full loom-knitted equivalent to open stitch knitting on needles. It is the sole means for using a peg loom to produce what can be characterized as loose open stitch fabric.
The instructions for the decorative eyelets (les trous dits à crochets) are similarly insufficient for determining their structure, although they are explicitly worked on the hook and not the peg. Other references to them in the Manuel add a bit more information. Piecing it all together suggests that they may be the picot in the current loom knitting repertoire. The 1826 instructions are nonetheless too terse to enable the eyelets to be made on their basis and it is also possible that they resemble what is now called the “drop stitch.”
If Bayle-Mouillard’s hooked needle was a true hook rather than a needle bent at an obtuse angle (as described in the 1823 instructions), it could presumably have been used to form the eyelets in a more crochet-like manner. It is not clear if she intended it for use in that regard, but a hook illustrated (free from its “wooden handle”) in a chapter on passementerie is well-suited to the all the details of loom knitting she describes.
I’ve translated the French term nœud-coulant as ‘loop’ although it is more literally a slip knot. It can be read as such at some points in the original text but at others it can only mean a loop. Since the latter reading is otherwise appropriate throughout, I’ve used it consistently. Here are the full instructions.
Bourses au crochet
Knitting on a crochet is not only for purses but serves for all other objects, as with ordinary knitting. It is restricted to closed-work stitches that are lifted from the top of a round mold made for the purpose (which some people call a moule turc). It is fitted with pegs that hold the stitches while they are worked with a hook that resembles a tambour needle. You can start a length of knitting by fastening it to one of the points on this round mold. This sort of knitting is ordinarily very loose. It is now rarely used for purses but we will still discuss it in regard to them.
Take a circular boxwood mold fitted with closely set pegs. It does not shape the purse as do the cup molds used for simple looped purses. It therefore begins to taper a fraction of an inch from the top and its tail end is half as wide as the upper opening. The number of stitches is initially determined by the pegs but will be fewer at the end as a result of decreases in the stitching.
The stitches are mounted on the pegs by placing one loop around each. For the second row, take a hooked needle mounted in a small handle of boxwood or ivory for convenience, and insert it into the first loop. Then turn the silk on this hook to form a new loop, much as a single needle is used for stitching a heel. Continue this looping until you reach the point where you want your purse to narrow. You will see that the number of decreases needed depends on the pattern. A decrease is made by working two stitches into one with the hook.
You can vary the color from round to round in your purse as discussed for netting. You can also make so-called à crochet eyelets by wrapping the silk around the hook twice before inserting it into the previous loop, which produces a solid stitch. However, when working the needle through these longer or heavier stitches it is necessary to use a mesh gauge as is done when making a row of ordinary netting. Before or after each such round, insert the hook into the long stitches produced by the double wrap or on a mesh gauge and resume the knitting. This is all the variety these purses are likely to need. It is also possible to use silk as it is prepared for net purses.
The second of the named purses in the 1823 volume of Penélope is made on a circular peg loom. The instructions for it refer to techniques that are described in the preceding volume, which in turn refer to other instructions there. Merging these cascading fragments into a single text (as in the following translation) gives directions for producing fabric with an open-loop knitted structure. The described technique remains fundamental to loom knitting and is currently termed the flat stitch, here with an e-wrap cast-on. When worked with inelastic thread, the fabric displays prominent laddering.
A purse in the style of the Queen Elisabeth
This requires a second mold as shown in fig. b, made of boxwood and fitted along the top with 44 small pegs that point slightly outwards. Since these break easily, it is better to replace them with copper or steel.
Fasten the thread to a peg and then lead it behind the next peg in counter-clockwise order. Wrap it loosely around the front of that peg and then behind the following peg, and so forth until a loop has been wrapped around each peg. Bring the thread through the space between the first and last pegs and place it on top of the loop on the first peg. Now take a bone or steel pin that is somewhat bent at its tip and lift the loop over that thread and drop it behind the peg. Continuing in this manner, the fabric will fall automatically through the opening in the mold and need only a gentle stretch to assume the desired form.
The pegs should be very closely spaced. This works best with gold or silver [wrapped] thread, or for variety, gold thread and green silk, silver thread and blue silk, etc.
It may take a while for me to figure out how to get the blog logo to display where and how I want. Since this post explains its substantive relevance, for safety’s sake, here’s what we’re talking about:
It’s an illustration of two “purse moulds” taken from Frances Lambert’s, The Hand-Book of Needlework, published in 1842. The one on the left is for a bourse en feston — a purse made by simple (or buttonhole) looping — one of many names for a fabric structure that is found in numerous other contexts, starting with the earliest archeologically recovered textile fragment and into the present day. The other is a knitting loom, functionally equivalent to the ones that are still widely marketed. The basic form of looping produced on it (“e-wrap stitching” in the current jargon) can also be made on a cup mold (where it is “cross-knit looping”), and with knitting needles (as “twisted-stitch knitting”). It has additional names in these and other crafts in which it appears. Other forms of looping also have multiple names and this terminology will be a regular theme in coming posts.
The two molds appear side by side in other sources (also to be detailed in subsequent posts), in close proximity to descriptions of knitting and crochet. They are therefore being taken as iconic of the procedural and structural parallels — whether coincidental or genetic — among the various forms of looping that this blog will be considering.