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 · 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”

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”

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”

Crochet · Knitting · Tools

Gauging the needs of knitters and crocheters

The earliest known description of what is now called Tunisian crochet is found in Swedish instructions published on 1 January 1856 (discussed here). They prescribe “a bone crochet needle, 12 millimeters thick.” This is a surprising unit of measurement since the metric system was not adopted in Sweden until the end of 1878, with a ten year transition period before it was expected to come into widespread use.

This raises a question about other evidence of yarncraft being ahead of official metrication. The reference to the 12 mm crochet hook gainsays accepted notions of knitting needles and crochet hooks not being measured in millimeters until well into the 20th century. Other early indications of metric gauging remain to be located in Swedish sources but are found elsewhere.

The metric system originated in France, where it became legally normative in 1785. A “French gauge” for measuring the diameter of medical catheters came into widespread use during the 1830s. The gauge numbers indicate diameter in 1/3 mm increments — “1” = 1/3 mm, “2” = 2/3 mm, … “30” = 10 mm. Both the numbers and the mm sizes are marked on the one seen here, made by its inventor J.F.B. Charrière. Continue reading “Gauging the needs of knitters and crocheters”

Beadwork · Crochet · History · Knitting · Terminology

Drawing a bead on the arrival of crochet in Germany

The preceding essay considered differences between the descriptions of crochet by Elisabeth Bayle-Mouillard (writing as Madame Celnart) and Charlotte Leidenfrost, in their books published respectively in 1826 and 1828. The German text followed the disposition of the earlier French one and used the same illustrations. In her preface, Leidenfrost explained the otherwise extensive substantive differences between them. Going beyond those examined last time, the preface states:

“The French work of Madame Celnart has a few appended patterns for tapestry-stitch embroidery [Tappiseriearbeit]  and crochet [Häkeln], which we have omitted here…because the understanding of several descriptions would require other drawings. I also didn’t want this work to be unnecessarily expensive. In any case such patterns, exquisitely executed, are now available to whitework embroiderers in many locations in Germany. It therefore seemed superfluous to increase their number by what might be mediocre ones here.”

The  comment about the patterns being marketed to embroiderers, as well as the drawings themselves, show that Leidenfrost was referring to charts for Berlin wool work. Here is one of the two Bayle-Mouillard illustrations that she omitted. Continue reading “Drawing a bead on the arrival of crochet in Germany”

History · Knitting · Tools

Alien knitting techniques

The preceding post discussed alternate production methods that can have been used for the compound knitting seen in early Egyptian tubes. The same technical considerations figure prominently in discussions about the large knitted carpets that were made in Germany during the 17th and 18th centuries in partial fulfillment of guild requirements for certification as a master knitter. The collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London include a frequently illustrated exemplar made in 1781 (museum number T.375-1977). The online database indicates its size as 193 cm high and 174.5 cm wide but other of the museum’s publications state it to be 163 cm square.

va-carpet© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

I’ll discuss the discrepancy below but suspect that the rectangular dimensions are of the carpet prior to restoration. Continue reading “Alien knitting techniques”