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”

History · Knitting · Tools

Circular knitting needles

The German publication Der Bazar (The Bazaar) figures prominently in a number of posts on this blog. This is due in no small part to the online availability of an almost unbroken series of issues from the outset of its publication through to the end of the 19th century. The inaugural volume appeared in 1855 and is one of the few not to be found in library catalogs but I’ve managed to acquire a printed copy (said with a fair amount bibliophile pride). One of what was to become dozens of competitors, Die Modenwelt (The Fashion World), commenced publication in 1865. As far as I have yet been able to determine, no library has a complete set and relatively few volumes have been digitized.

The business model of Der Bazar included the syndicated parallel appearance of its descriptions and illustrations of fancywork techniques in collaborating publications in several other countries. The same practice was adopted by Die Modenwelt, which listed the international editions on its masthead.

Die Modenwelt 1868

Continue reading “Circular knitting needles”

Crochet · Cross-knit looping · Knitting · Nalbinding · Systematics

A key to loop leadership

Back in the days when museums stored information about the objects in their collections in accession ledgers and card catalogs, structured vocabularies and classification systems were essential to the location and retrieval of this documentation. When dealing with manufactured objects, the basic nomenclature normally paralleled that used in the respective craft or industry. The higher-level categories the artifacts were sorted into were primarily intended to meet the needs of collections management and other curatorial activity. The underlying conceptual frameworks were therefore less likely to correspond directly to those of the practitioner communities.

One of the seminal texts in the development of such classification systems for textiles is Les Textiles Anciens du Pérou et leurs Techniques (The Ancient Textiles of Peru and their Techniques) by Raoul d’Harcourt, published in 1934. This was immediately used by Fritz Iklé as a basis for the organization of an exhibition of his own collection, displayed at several locations in Switzerland during 1935. It was titled Primäre textile Techniken (Primary Textile Techniques) and the accompanying booklet includes an essay by Iklé on the way he grouped the objects according to the techniques of their manufacture. He notes the extensibility of the system developed by d’Harcourt, whose personal support he also acknowledges.

Kristin Oppenheim published the Systematik der textilen Techniken der Neukaledonier und Loyalty-Insulaner (Systematics of the Textile Techniques of the New Caledonian and Loyalty Islanders) in 1942. She based this on the categories put forward by Iklé but included additional subgroups. One such extension was a categorical distinction between production methods that work finite lengths of thread, yarn, or comparable material into looped fabric, and those that place no intrinsic restrictions on the length of the working element. This was retained as a fundamental criterion in a series of increasingly comprehensive systems (described here) culminating in one of the current standard works, Textiles: a Classification of Techniques, published in 1994 by Annemarie Seiler-Baldinger.

The category that Seiler-Baldinger labels Mesh Formation with a Continuous Element of Limited Length is typified by an eyed needle pulling a manageable length of yarn by its end through each successive loop in a piece of nalbound fabric, thereby reducing the remaining length of that yarn. The category Mesh Formation with a Continuous Element of Unlimited Length includes knitting and crochet. Here the tools are interposed between the source of the yarn and the fabric, moving the yarn into it loop by loop, from what can then be an arbitrarily large supply.

The dichotomy is labeled with reference to the source of the working element. However, at least with the manual production of looped fabric, that supply is finite in both cases. No matter how long the assemblage is before being worked into fabric, at some point the end of a depleted strand will need to be joined to, or abut, the beginning of a new one. The points of transition can be unrecognizable in the finished fabric. If they are, the presence or lack of an intrinsic limitation on the length of an individual segment will not be reflected in the structure of the object and is therefore not useful as a stand-alone criterion for determining the technique by which it was made.

An inverse concern can be illustrated with the classification of flatwork crochet. Through to the end of the 19th century, and in the case of slip stitch crochet to the present day, the yarn was/is commonly cut at the end of each row and all new rows started with a fresh strand from the same edge of the fabric. Anyone examining a specimen of slip stitch crochet worked in this manner without prior experience in its identification, might easily characterize the fabric by regularly limited lengths of working yarn despite that not being a definitive attribute of the craft.

The appearance of loose yarn ends in objects that are unequivocally slip stitch crochet has, in fact, been taken to indicate that they were nalbound. The basic slip stitch structure can be produced with either method. There are even two ways of doing it with an eyed needle, of which one imposes no constraint on the length of the yarn supply (described here). This type of slip stitch fabric can therefore not be categorized as the product either of a technique of limited element length or of unlimited element length.

There are further examples of slip stitch crochet having been described as nalbinding, to the detriment of the historiography of both crafts. I’ve discussed a few of them in previous posts and will be adding others to a more comprehensive listing. The preceding post discusses the outset of a sequence of publications that led to the realization that the earliest material appearing in the corpus of cross-knit fabric is nalbinding rather than knitting.

It is widely accepted that the body of early artifacts catalogued and described as knitting still contains nalbound material that has yet to be recognized as such, and vice versa. There is also little doubt that more slip stitch crochet remains to be uncovered behind misattribution as both nalbinding and knitting.

Dating the advent of true knitting (a term introduced by d’Harcourt) requires a deeper understanding of the structural and procedural details that differentiate what is sometimes referred to as “single-needle knitting,” and multi-needle knitting in the established sense. Since such detail is not invariably present in archeologically recovered fragments, the need for a logically robust and clearly labeled higher level categorization has been apparent throughout.

The limited and unlimited categories initially articulated by Oppenheim are basically applicable in that context but the imprecision noted above still needs to be addressed. One approach would be to reconceptualize and rename the dichotomy in terms of how the yarn is led along its path, rather than by how long that path can be. Seiler-Baldinger’s definitions of the two groups provide an effective basis for doing precisely that.

In the limited case “the meshes are formed by the leading end of the thread…” In the unlimited one “the new mesh is formed by that portion of the thread nearest to the loop last formed.” The former can be given the compact label “end-led” techniques, with “loop-led” techniques as its binary counterpart. The alternative would be to extend Seiler-Baldinger’s category headings to Mesh Formation with a Continuous Element of Intrinsically Limited Length and Mesh Formation with a Continuous Element of Potentially Unlimited Length but that would do nothing either to streamline the nomenclature or highlight the essential concept.

The distinction between the preparation of a continuous working element of unlimited length before the creation of the fabric commences, and the extension of an element of limited length at repeated intervals during the production of the fabric, retains it utility. Regional schools of what is essentially the same end-led craft vary in whether a large continuous aggregate of fibers is first prepared and shorter lengths cut from it, or the raw fibers are added to the working element as an alternating facet of the fabric’s production. The applied procedure can be undetectable in a finished object and, as noted, the difference between a continuous element of potentially unlimited length and joined elements of limited length can also be invisible. The procedural attributes of how the working element is prepared therefore do not provide a generally applicable basis for the classification of fabric.

The same might be said of reference to end-led and loop-led techniques. However, those labels bypass the ambiguity relating to the working element and are thus one step closer to utility in such things as identification keys. For example, a key for the identification of fabric with a looped structure might include the criterion “open knit stitches appear in the fabric.” If they do, it can only have been produced by a loop-led technique. Oppenheim illustrates this as a “Knit stitch: Typical representative of systems with infinite elements.”


If the question is whether pierced loops appear (also as drawn by Oppenheim) and the answer is affirmative, it can only have been made by an end-led technique.

pierced-loopingCross-knit looping can be produced by either technique, shown here as drawn by d’Harcourt.


The additional presence of open, pierced, or simple loops in such fabric can eliminate the ambiguity, as the simple loops along the vertical edges do in this illustration. However, the largest amount of older material to which this concern applies is either fragmentary or worked in the round. The selvedges are therefore rarely accessible for examination, assuming they were a component of the fabric to begin with. Additional characteristics specific to the alternative categories may be revealed by the path of the working element through shaped areas of the fabric.

Such attributes can also be included in a binary identification key, with separate branches in the decision tree for more complex looped structures. Once the fabric structure and mode of its production have been identified, further craft-specific yes/no criteria can be applied to the detailed documentation of individual objects (as illustrated for early modern knitting in several articles in issue no. 60 of the Archaeological Textiles Review).

Zeroing in on a specific mode of production will, however, often require external familiarity not just with the candidate tools and techniques, but also with the historical contexts in which they appear. The latter factor is, in turn, informed by the correct attribution of the provenance and structure of material in museum collections.

History · Knitting · Nalbinding · Terminology

The 3000-year-old stitch eyes of Emilie Bach

Emilie Bach (1840–1890) was a founding director of the Royal School for Artistic Embroidery (k. k. Fachschule für Kunststickerei) in Vienna and a named contributor to several of the publications regularly cited on this blog. She was also one of the initial participants in the discussion of the techniques used for the early production of looped socks in Egypt and the first to identify a cross-knit fabric structure in such objects from the Later Roman Period. However, she took it to be knitted rather than nalbound, and was completely wrong about the age of the exemplars she examined.

Emilie Bach

The next study in the sequence that ultimately sorted out the relationship between the two techniques — a booklet published in 1895 by Bach’s co-worker Luise Schinnerer (1854–after 1915; discussed here) — recognizes compound nalbinding in archeologically recovered Egyptian socks. However, Schinnerer accepts that those with a cross-knit structure were knitted, with reference to a feature piece by Bach in the Viennese daily newspaper Neue Freie Presse (New Free Press) from 22 August 1882, titled Altegyptische Textilkunst  (Ancient Egyptian Textile Art).

This article begins by questioning the applicability of research methodologies developed by male academics to tracing the history and development of crafts practiced by women. Bach exemplifies this with the belief that lace was not developed until the 15th century; a conclusion drawn by earlier researchers on the basis of there being no direct or indirect evidence of it before that date. She does not substantiate her reasons for feeling this to be specious but adds such detail in the discussion of a second case.

Continue reading “The 3000-year-old stitch eyes of Emilie Bach”

History · Knitting · Loop-and-twist · Nalbinding · Structures · Terminology

Knitless knitting

NOTE: This post initially appeared on April 1st and complies with the guidelines for loop-related humor issued by the Coalition for Responsible Loopography.

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The term ‘slip stitch’ has figured prominently in the preceding suite of posts, designating the definitive element of plain crochet. The same label is used for something quite different in knitting, where a slip (or slipped) stitch is a loop that is moved from the holding needle to the working needle without knitting a new loop into it.

I’ve therefore taken care to refer to a ‘crochet-type’ slip stitch whenever the distinction was not clear from context. Thus far, that has only been needed in the discussion of fabric that slip-stitch crocheters would immediately recognize as a product of their craft but which has been described as nalbinding in a few archaeological publications (but noted as highly atypical of that craft by the two authors who have done so, also commenting on its resemblance to crochet).

Another cluster of posts examined the confusion that once attached to the relationship between ‘cross-knit nalbinding’ and ‘closed-loop knitting.’ These are also structurally identical and can only be differentiated if fabric that can have been made by either technique includes further detail specific to only one of them.

Open-loop knitting can also be produced using different tools. Those most widely employed for hand knitting are knitting needles and peg looms, while both home and industrial knitting machines use hooks. The eyed needle of nalbinding is not part of this array since the intermeshing of loops by pulling the free end of the yarn successively through those loops inherently crosses their legs and closes them.

By definition an eyed needle can pull a single strand of yarn along any path it can physically traverse. However, turning a meandering length of yarn into stable fabric requires some form of underpinning where the curve inflects, until the loops are fixed into stitches. Beyond the need for an initial foundation, closed loops can be self supporting but open loops cannot to any practicable degree. Working them requires the additional support of, say, knitting needles.

One might therefore suspect that there is a fundamental flaw is this drawing of what is presented as “needle knitting” in Odhams Encyclopaedia of Knitting from 1957, by James Norbury and Margaret Agutter.


The cited source of that term is an article on “Peruvian ‘Needleknitting’” by Lila M. O’Neale, published in an issue of the American Anthropologist from 1934. Ongoing controversy about the appropriate designation for what at least in craft contexts is now widely called calling nalbinding, was fueled by Daniel S. Davidson in the same journal a few months later with an article titled “Knotless Netting in America and Oceania.”

One of the weaknesses of the term ‘needle knitting’ is that it also designates true knitting done with needles in contrast to work on a peg loom. Another is that true knitting involves the working of one loop into another with the tool(s) positioned between the fabric and the yarn supply. The yarn is worked into the fabric loop by loop in what might be called a ‘loop-led’ technique. In contrast, when using an eyed needle the yarn is interposed between the tool and the fabric and the entire working length of the yarn is pulled through each loop. Techniques doing this can similarly be termed ‘end-led.’

A core problem with ‘knotless netting’ is that leading the end of a piece of yarn through a loop that it has just formed creates a knot by any conventional definition of that term, even if it isn’t pulled tight. There is also a form of netting that is truly knotless and commonly termed knotless netting in industrial contexts. This suggests ‘loose-knot netting’ as a more precise alternative, assuming there is good reason for regarding it as netting to begin with.

It is hardly an appropriate descriptor for the dense fabric that characterizes the Nordic nalbound mittens that provide yet another generic designation for both the technique and the family of stitches produced by it — vantsöm — literally meaning ‘mitten stitch’ in Swedish. That label appears frequently in museum catalog records for socks made in the Nile valley which are commonly, although often questionably, associated with Coptic Egypt.

As a general principle, it is best to avoid categorizing something in terms of what it is not. Unfortunately, labeling end-led looped structures as knotless netting has become too entrenched for it simply to be waved off. However, since all but one of the variant forms sharing that designation can’t be knitted either, the concept of ‘knitless’ would be equally applicable. (The exception is the doubly inappropriately labeled ‘Coptic knitting,’ which procedurally is neither knitting nor historically particularly Coptic.)

This suggests the euphonious albeit ambiguous ‘knitless knitting.’ It might suffice to leave that as a mirthful curiosity. As it happens, however, there is substantive evidence of that very practice in New Kingdom Egypt, three millennia before the first description of what has thus far been assumed to be a purely abstract fabric structure.

It is illustrated with particular clarity by Montse Stanley in The Handknitter’s Handbook, from 1986, as an unknitted precursor to a true knitted structure.


She describes it somewhat circuitously as a “non-interlocked succession of yarn waves,” avoiding the clearer alternative of knitless knitting for unstated reasons that are presumably rooted in an aversion to Davidson’s earlier knotless netting.

Whatever the explanation for her labeling may be, the structure itself also appears in a painting of the goddess Imentet on a mummy case from Luxor, Egypt, dated 1000-970 BCE, on display at the National Museum of Denmark, in Copenhagen.


This detail is from Imentet’s torso and the following one shows her head proximal to archetypal forms of open and closed looping.


The one on the left unequivocally represents the basic element of true knitless knitting. Subject to the considerations discussed above, such fabric cannot be produced with an eyed needle or otherwise end-led. The one on the right is a loop-and-twist structure, which unlike simple closed loops, cannot realistically be worked into fabric with knitting needles. It therefore either provides evidence of peg-loom-based knitless knitting, or what in extension of Harley Davidson’s terminology might be called ‘knitless knotless netting.’

In either case this painting provides the earliest illustrations of both unknitted knittable structures and unbound nalbindable structures yet noted. Their juxtaposition in a single image provides concrete evidence of the contemporaneous practice of the two forms of loopcraft at a far earlier date than has yet been recognized.

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The photographs of the mummy case shown above were taken through a glass case in a public exhibition and I wasn’t able to find a camera angle that permitted a view of the entire object without a reflection of the display lighting. The museum doesn’t have a digital image available online and here’s the best I could do on site.


Crochet · Description · Knitting · Terminology

From knitted loop to crocheted stitch

In the past few posts I’ve considered different approaches to the graphic description of looped fabric structures. Although largely in abstract terms thus far, my intention is to apply relevant aspects of them to the analysis of specific objects that have themselves been the focus of other posts or are in the queue for such treatment.

Analytic terminology has been another perennial favorite here. The subject this time around is a formal international standard that both defines and illustrates structural details of knitted fabric in terms that are applicable to other forms of loopcraft, as well. The extent of that applicability will be tested with a comparison between knitted stockinette fabric and slip stitch crochet.

I had previously suggested that crochet could be seen as a handicraft equivalent to warp knitting, using terms taken from the International Standard ISO 4921:2000, Knitting — Basic concepts — Vocabulary. This “defines terms for basic knitting concepts” applicable both to hand and industrial knitting although many of the definitions are only used in the latter context. A related standard ISO 8388:1998Knitted fabrics — Types — Vocabulary, more explicitly defines terms for industrially produced machine knitted fabrics” but is relevant to hand knitted fabric nonetheless.

The vocabularies in both are useful when comparing other aspects of crochet and knitting since they accommodate both symmetrical and asymmetrical loops, and define the terms “loop” and “stitch” separately. Although the symmetrical/asymmetrical distinction is not a factor in the categorization of all hand-knitted structures, it is manifested differently in crochet and is fundamental to all such fabric.

The ISO vocabulary is based on the following differentiation of a loop, a knitted loop, and a stitch. Although the term loop is used in a manner familiar to hand knitters, the combined term “kink of yarn” is preferred to the permissible alternative “loop of yarn.” This is immaterial to the following discussion except for two direct citations from the standard, where kink is replaced with an italicized loop.

A loop of yarn It is defined as  “a length of yarn that has been bent into a shape appropriate for its transformation into a weft-knitted or warp-knitted loop.” Three specimen forms are illustrated.


A “knitted loop” is then defined as “a loop of yarn that is intermeshed at its base.”


The one at the top is an “open loop,” defined as “a knitted loop in which the same thread enters and leaves the loop at opposite sides without crossing over itself” and noting that “the same applies to an open stitch.” The bottom right shows a “closed loop” — “a knitted loop at the base of which the thread crosses over itself” — and again “the same applies to a closed stitch.” The closed loop is also illustrated under its own heading but in neither instance are the two possible directions for the crossover labeled or even noted (“S” as shown here, or “Z” as in a following illustration; both are explained in the preceding post).


Finally, a “stitch” is “a loop of yarn that is intermeshed at its base and at its top.”


This illustration shows a “reverse stitch,” also called a “back stitch” and is explicitly “not the same as a purl stitch” (which means slightly different things in hand and industrial knitting). There is a separate illustration of a “face stitch,” also called a “plain stitch” or a “stocking stitch.” The difference is that the face stitch is “so intermeshed in the fabric that its legs are situated over the top arc of the stitch formed in the same wale in the previous course.”


The terms wale and course correspond to the more familiar column and row but explicitly refer to sequences of stitches and not loops. It is also significant that the term “stitch” is not further specified as a knitted stitch and its definition includes a broad scope note.

“A stitch may be combined with a float, and different types of knitted loops and stitches may be combined in a unit of stitches or an arrangement of stitches.
≠ a knitted loop”

The named arrangements of stitches include a “binding-off course” defined as, “a new row of loops, each one transferred to the adjoining wale and forming a ladderproof chain of loops at the top end of a knitted article.”


The lateral repositioning of the knitted loop changes the fabric structure from symmetrical to asymmetrical but the the loop retains its basic identity. When the loop in the adjoining wale is knitted through it, the initial loop is intermeshed at its base and top, thereby becoming a stitch. The ISO vocabulary doesn’t have a name for it, but it follows from the definition of the binding-off course that it would be called a chain stitch.

The preceding illustration is a detail from the upper end of a piece of knitted fabric that can be extended with an arbitrary number of lower courses of knitted stitches. There is also a type of crocheted fabric that consists of multiple courses of chain stitches identical to those in the binding-off course. This has the slip stitch structure illustrated in numerous previous posts and is seen in this drawing taken from a description of a bootee in the collections of the National Museums of Scotland, by Audrey Henshall. (It is also shown in earlier posts, erroneously drawn with the yarn fed from the front in what crocheter’s call the “inverse” form of a slip stitch, discussed further below.)


All documentation of this fabric prior to the 1820s describes it as “a species of knitting,” with the word “crochet” only used to designate the hook. It can also be seen as a form of knitted fabric according to the ISO definition. Nonetheless, it is now primarily associated with crochet. The vertical intermeshing of one course of chain stitches with another is the definitive attribute of its simplest form, alternately termed slip stitch crochet or single crochet (UK).

A bind-off course fashioned with knitting needles requires all of the knitted loops to be held on the needle until they are worked successively into chain stitches on the next pass. With a crochet hook, the knitted loops are taken onto the tool individually and immediately intermeshed into chain stitches. This is also the more practicable technique for working courses of chain stitches into crocheted fabric.

Regardless of how the fabric illustrated in the two preceding drawings can be produced, the chains in both have the same structural characteristics. The loops all lean to the right, they are all open, and the tool is inserted into the front leg of the preceding stitch. The legs of the new loop pass behind it, forming reverse stitches.

Another of the drawings of slip stitch crochet that’s already been used several times on this blog, by Annemarie Seiler-Baldinger, shows a different configuration. The knitted loops lean to the right here as well but they are closed (with a Z crossing). They are also worked into the back edge of the preceding stitch but their legs pass in front of it, forming face stitches.


The correlation between the variant forms of this structure and the procedural aspects of their production as slip stitch crochet were discussed in depth in the preceding post, deferring a few relevant details for later consideration. One of them is the difference between face and reverse stitches. This correlates basically to whether the yarn is held in back or in front of the fabric, with the hook inserted into it from the front or back, while the loops and stitches are formed.

This maps directly into the colloquial knit and purl of hand knitting. However, the latter term is not widely recognized in crochet and the labeling of reverse stitches is a matter of recurring debate. Slip stitch crocheters commonly refer to them as “inverse slip stitches,” which needn’t be taken any further for now. However, the concept of inverse does not scale as clearly into more complex crochet stitches.

One further property of a slip stitch can make the analysis of fabric produced with it more difficult than that of fabric made with the stocking stitch. In the latter, the initial loop will be propagated into the stitch either open or closed and retained that way in the fabric. With the slip stitch, a new loop that is worked into the front edge of a stitch in the preceding course, applies a vertical force to that stitch which can reverse its open or closed characteristic.

The two-loops-in-one attribute of crochet makes it a compound structure and therefore nominally comparable to the one-loop-over-two compound knitting discussed here, and illustrated with this schematic drawing by Marianne Eriksson.


However, the mechanical dynamics of the intrinsically compound slip stitch and those of the stocking stitch whether compound or not, are fundamentally different. This is one of the limitations on the describability of crochet and knitting using the same terms — but also provides fuel for additional posts.

Crochet · Knitting · Systematics · Terminology

Crochet as warp knitting

I ended the preceding post with what I thought was a radical suggestion about simple crochet being a handicraft equivalent to industrial warp knitting. It was intended as an upbeat to a more detailed consideration of the use of hook-tipped needles in all forms of mechanized knitting, beginning with the stocking frame invented by William Lee in 1589.

While attempting to date the advent of warp knitting machines, I found an article by R. Wheatley titled “The Warp Knitting Story” in a publication from 1989 commemorating Lee’s invention, Four Centuries of Machine Knitting. The article begins:

“Warp knitting is the mechanical equivalent of hand crochet knitting and remained as a hand operation until almost 200 years after the invention of the weft knitting machine in 1589.

The invention of the warp knitting machine in 1775 is attributed to Crane of Ilkeston in Derbyshire who applied warp guides to the hand frame and so modified the original invention by William Lee…”

Although this can’t be taken as evidence of crochet being practiced in 1589, it does indicate that from the industrial perspective, the notion of crochet as warp knitting is quite acceptable. The hook-tipped needle is a fundamental element of both warp and weft knitting machines. Here is an engraving of the central component of the latter, taken from an array of illustrations of its other details in a treatise on industrial knitting from 1785,platiere-hooks

with the process shown in a recent image (from Wikimedia Commons).


The text from 1785 includes no illustrations of warp knitting machines despite their having been invented ten years earlier, nor any images related to hand knitting with the exception of the plain crochet discussed in an earlier post.


The similarity between the manual technique shown here and the core element of present-day mechanized warp knitting is apparent.


This adds at least one “warp guide” to each needle, used to wrap the yarn around it in a manner that corresponds directly to the same operation in hand crochet. The warp guide is also used to shift the yarn to an adjacent needle enabling one wale (column) in the fabric to be worked laterally into another. This means that weft knitting differs from warp knitting in the same categorical manner that distinguishes knitting from crochet. The simplest variant of the former is only worked vertically into the corresponding loop in the preceding course (row), and plain crochet is additionally worked laterally into the adjacent loop in the same  row.

The preceding illustration shows a latch hook, explaining the protuberance on its left side. The earlier illustrations show “bearded” hooks, and machines employing them require an additional mechanism to hold them closed when pulled backward through the loops. This is called a “sinker bar” and it also holds the yarn against the needles while the stitches are being worked.

This explains a term that appears in the glossary of machine knitting but not that of hand knitting. What is normally regarded as the loop in a knit stitch is further qualified as a “needle loop,”

and the connection between two adjacent loops in the same course is called a “sinker loop.”

loops and lag

Both illustrations are taken from a formal international standard (ISO 4921:2000) detailing “Knitting — Basic concepts — Vocabulary.” It fully defines a needle loop as “the unit formed by the top arc and the two sides of the weft-knitted loop,” and a sinker loop as “the yarn portion that connects two adjacent needle loops belonging to the same knitted course.”

There is nothing apparent to be gained by introducing the term “sinker loop” into the vocabulary of hand knitting. However, its ISO definition is of more than passing interest from the systematological perspective. It describes a looped connection between the stitches in adjacent wales, in addition to the vertical looped structures that form the individual wales. As noted above, that lateral connection is otherwise the structural attribute that differentiates crochet and knitting.

The pivotal difference is that both sides of a needle loop are in physical contact with the needle loop below it in the same wale. In contrast, only one side of a sinker loop engages with the preceding needle loop in the same wale. If seen as a terminological issue, describing the difference between the number of points of contact would require its adjectival indication. Although of less immediate utility in a craftsperson’s glossary, that number can also be indicated directly.

In fact, the number of points at which a knot crosses over itself is an important factor in the mathematical theory of knots. Papers on that topic are sometimes illustrated with the familiar looped structures of yarncraft, and an early (if not the earliest) such presentation is explicitly intended to be of use in describing and categorizing them. I’ll provide at least introductory detail about it in the following post.

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  • Further details about the 1785 text can be found here.
  • The use of a crochet hook for plain knitting in wire is discussed here.
  • The differences between warp and weft knitting are explained in detail here.
  • The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) knitting vocabulary is presented in full here.
Crochet · Knitting · Systematics · Terminology

The True Stitch

My recent visit to the Museum der Kulturen in Basel included a stop at their library to fetch a copy of a visitor’s guide to an exhibition of the Fritz Iklé collection of textiles, displayed at several locations in Switzerland during 1935. It was titled Primäre textile Techniken (Primary Textile Techniques) and the accompanying booklet includes an essay by Iklé on the way he grouped the objects according to the techniques of their manufacture. He labeled one of the groups “Looping a single working thread” (Verschlingung eines Arbeitsfadens) and another “Working multiple threads” (Verarbeitung vieler Fäden).

Kristin Oppenheim placed Iklé’s categories and terminology in a more rigorous framework in her Systematik der textilen Techniken (Systematics of Textile Techniques), published in 1942 (discussed in detail in a previous post noted below and reviewed briefly here). She expanded this text in 1948 in collaboration with her husband Alfred Bühler, who was the director of what was then the Museum of Ethnography in Basel. Their joint work on systematics was part of a catalog of the Iklé collection, which he bequeathed to the museum.

The Bühler-Oppenheim classification system was applied to an extensive study of Maschenstoffe in Süd- und Mittelamerika (Mesh Fabric in South and Central America), presented as a doctoral dissertation at the University of Basel in 1969 and as a book in 1971. Its author, Annemarie Seiler-Baldinger was on the academic staff of the Museum of Ethnography at the time and Bühler was her PhD advisor.

Seiler-Baldinger published a revised edition of the classification system in 1973, separated from the listing of objects in the Iklé collection that was fundamental to the 1948 edition. This retained the title Systematik der textilen Techniken, with a preface by Bühler, and she expanded it again in 1991. An often-cited English translation of that edition appeared in 1994 as Textiles: a Classification of Techniques.

During the interval between the initial Bühler-Oppenheim edition and the Seiler-Baldinger revision, in 1966, Irene Emery published her equally well-known The Primary Structures of Fabric: an Illustrated Classification. This presented a comparable classification system but was ordered on the basis of the structural detail of fabric, rather than by the techniques used for producing those structures. Emery acknowledged the works of Bühler, Iklé, and Oppenheim cited above, but as they all rely on the same basic elements, it is not clear how far Emery was influenced by her predecessors.

Seiler-Baldinger included Emery’s terminology in her own books, in lists of foreign language equivalents appended to the definitions of individual German terms. However, the English and German vocabularies are not fully concordant and Seiler-Baldinger didn’t always have semantically equivalent terms to choose from. The resulting imprecision was not resolved as carefully as it might have been when her German text was subsequently translated into English.

The conceptual framework underlying the entire sequence of German publications makes a categorical distinction between Kettenstoffe and Maschenstoffe, literally meaning “warp fabrics” and “stitch fabrics.” The latter comfortably embraces the loop-based structures produced by crochet, knitting, nalbinding, and other techniques, without using the name of any specific one of them to label the category itself.

There is no directly equivalent English term for Maschenstoffe. Seiler-Baldinger uses “mesh fabrics,” which otherwise designates an attribute shared by both knit and woven fabric. The more widely used “non-woven fabric” also includes structures that are not loop based, and is beset by the systematological weakness of categorizing something by what it is not.

In his seminal text, Iklé discussed distinctions between various forms of looping, braiding, and weaving. He organized his exhibition accordingly but expressed no particular concern with a systematic classification of the represented techniques. However, he ascribed an interesting property to Maschenstoffe that might be worth consideration in the growing discussion of how the terms ‘stitch’ and ‘knitting’ should and should not be used.

Iklé recognized an array of loop-based techniques but separated knitting from the others.

“Knitting (the true stitch) [die echte Masche] is treated as something entirely different from the preceding ones, even if its results can bear a superficial resemblance to a braided stitch [Flechtstich].”

He was describing the basis for the arrangement of the material on display, placing knitting in a historical rather than structural niche of its own. Nonetheless, calling it “the true stitch” suggests that he saw some additional hierarchical distinction. Whatever that might have been, it reasonably equates Maschenstoffe and Kettenstoffe to ‘knits’ and ‘wovens’ in the familiar fabric-store sense.

Folding that back into a formal classification scheme, plain knitting and plain weaving (as defined by Emery) can serve as structural archetypes based on the comparability of their respective simplest forms. The warp and weft of plain weaving correlate to the wales (columns) and courses (rows) of plain knitting, each forming a right-angled grid.

When seen in this light, the consistent early characterization of slip stitch crochet as “a species of knitting” makes a good deal of sense, as does its subsequent Victorian renaming to “plain crochet.” I’ll illustrate the relationship between the structure of plain crochet and that of plain knitting in a separate post. It’s doubtful that new descriptive terms are necessary but slip stitching could also be described as asymmetrical compound knitting, if not as a handicraft correlate to the warp knitting that is otherwise regarded exclusively as a facet of industrial knitting.

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  • Other texts by Fritz Iklé appear in a number of previous posts.
  • More information about the classification systems that follow the groupings in his exhibition guide follow a detailed discussion of slip stitch crochet here.
  • Terminological aspects of the description of knit fabric are considered at length in several articles in the current issue of the Archaeological Textiles Review.
Crochet · Knitting · Structures · Tricot · Tunisian crochet

The chain gang

The preceding two posts discussed inconsistencies in some of Irene Emery’s remarks about the fabric structures she calls plain knitting (here) and plain crochet (here). Her narrative continues with the observations:

In plain knitting all the loops in one row are on the same face of the fabric… One face has a smooth surface with an appearance of vertical chaining which emphasizes the vertical alignment of the interlooping


Crochet is really a doubly interlooped structure (made with a hooked implement)… It is basically a kind of chaining… In the simplest stitch — plain crochet — each loop is drawn through two previous loops, the corresponding one in the previous row and the previous one in the same row.

The first statement says the vertical chaining on one face of plain knitted fabric is not a structural attribute but only has the appearance of one. Nonetheless, the chains that create that appearance have a demonstrable structural coherence. This is seen when the loop at the top of a chain is dropped from its support and then runs through the stitches below it, forming a “ladder” of horizontal bars between the corresponding stitches in the adjacent intact chains. The vertical structure is commonly restored by using a crochet hook to loop each bar in the ladder around the bar above it in a process that can as reasonably be termed chaining as can the mechanical action fundamental to crochet.

The second statement presents two requirements for fabric to qualify as crochet. An individual crochet-type chain intrinsically fulfills one of them; each loop is drawn through the previous loop in the same row. However, a chain does not meet the additional condition of also being drawn through the corresponding loop in the preceding row. A row of chains is therefore not crochet in itself and only becomes so when it is worked into an adjacent row of chains.

The challenge addressed by the present series of posts is devising a descriptive framework that includes not only plain crochet and plain knitting, but also plain tricot (Tunisian simple stitch). This is procedurally more closely affiliated with ordinary crochet than it is with knitting but the same cannot be said about the fabric’s structure.

One of the definitive attributes of tricot is that a complete row of stitches requires two passes across the fabric. The forward pass resembles knitting in both procedural and structural regards. The return pass is similarly akin to crocheted chaining. However, its purpose is to return the tip of the hook to the starting edge of the fabric and does not necessarily add a crocheted structure to it.

This is clearly illustrated with plain tricot. The return chains can be removed from such fabric entirely, transforming it into plain knitting. If the vertical knitted structure is removed from plain tricot, the fabric simply disintegrates. However, there are tricot stitches where the forward row is worked directly into the preceding return chain. This interlooping qualifies them as crochet (again, by Emery’s definition) and there is an array of intermediate states.

Since both the horizontal and vertical structures in plain tricot can be described as chains, as can plain crochet and plain knitting, an obvious next step is to consider whether the chain can serve as the modulating factor in an overarching categorization scheme. The difference between its two forms is that a crochet-type chain is made by placing a single loop on a support and working a new loop through it in immediate succession. Although such a chain has no inherent directionality, when interlooped into fabric it is positioned horizontally. Knit-type chains are made by first placing a row of loops on a support and then successively working a new loop into each of the preceding ones. This forms a vertical structure with as many parallel chains as there are loops on the support.

The loops in the two types of chains can themselves be differentiated in terms native to industrial knitting. A distinction is made there between symmetrical and asymmetrical loops.


It can readily be seen how the symmetrical form relates to plain knitting.


The asymmetrical form (fundamental to warp knitting) only needs to be envisioned horizontally for its relationship to plain crochet to be similarly apparent.


The height of both knitted and crocheted fabric grows as new chains are added to it. However, since chains of asymmetrical loops lie flat across the working edge of the fabric, the vertical increments are smaller than those of chains made from symmetrical loops of the same diameter. That difference is recovered and can be dramatically exceeded by a structural device specific to crochet. This adds height to a row of what would otherwise be plain crochet by interposing a “post” between each new chain and the chain capping the corresponding stitch in the preceding row.

The length of a post is determined by the number of times the yarn is wrapped around the hook during its production, and the position of each “yarnover” relative to the loop(s) in the preexisting fabric into which the hook is inserted. This variation is labeled with the familiar (albeit ambiguous) sequence double crochet, triple crochet, etc., each with an extended form that adds a vertically oriented chain to the post. It is also possible to insert the hook into the post in a preceding stitch, or through a combination of loops and posts, adding further variation to the repertoire.

Crocheted posts are structural elements of tricot, together with crochet-type and knit-type chains. As noted, many tricot stitches combine them in manners that permit the resulting fabric to be characterized as a structural hybrid of knitting and crochet. However, other tricot stitches cannot be described adequately in terms of either. The remaining tricot-specific structural attribute(s) will be considered in the next installment in this series (after revisiting a few other topics).

Crochet · Knitting · Systematics · Tricot · Tunisian crochet

The systematics of crochet, knitting, and tricot

I’ve been introducing fabric structures in previous posts with reference to what Irene Emery says about them in her book The Primary Structures of Fabric; an Illustrated Classification, originally published in 1966. This is not because I think her categorizations and descriptions are optimal, but they are widely recognized and a generally useful point of departure.

It is frequently complemented by a second reference text, Textiles: a Classification of Techniques, by Annemarie Seiler-Baldinger, from 1994. As the title indicates, it is directed toward the classification of techniques rather than structures but strives to be concordant with Emery’s terminology. Unfortunately Seiler-Baldinger’s book suffered in translation, first by mismatches between some of Emery’s terms and the German category headings for which they were listed as alternate designations in the original German editions (1973 and significantly revised in 1991). This misalignment was then carried back into the English edition, where Emery’s terms were used as translations for the German category headings apparently without technical review.

Neither of the books adheres rigorously to its nominal point of view, nor could it, and both are essential reference works on a desktop such as the one where this blog is kept. That’s also the place where I prepared my presentation for the recent In the Loop at 10 conference, questioning the applicability of Emery’s basic definition of a loop to open-stitch knitting.

A complete loop is formed (and will be retained in the fabric) if the element crosses over itself as it moves on to form the next loop.

Loop: a doubling of a cord or thread back on itself so as to leave an opening between the parts through which another cord or thread may pass.

This satisfactorily covers twisted-stitch knitting.


However, the path taken by the horizontal elements in open-stitch knitting doesn’t double back on itself as is fundamental to the definition.


To rectify this, Emery introduces a seemingly self-contradictory “open loop,” meeting her requirement for the yarn crossing over itself on a row-by-row rather than loop-by-loop basis.

Knitting in its simplest form consists of successive rows of ‘running’ open loops, each loop engaging the corresponding one in the previous row and being in turn engaged by the corresponding one in the following row.

The twisted-stitch and open-stitch variants of knitting ought reasonably to be treated as having the closest possible structural relationship. This raises a question about the adequacy of Emery’s way of associating them. Seiler-Baldinger skirts the issue by defining loop in more senses than Emery does, before defining knitting.

I intend to delve further into this in future posts but am also trying to puzzle out how Tunisian crochet might have been described in either of the two reference works had the authors chosen to cover it. Since it contains elements of both knitting and crochet, not including it in a text on primary fabric structures is understandable. There is no similarly obvious reason for its absence from a book on textile techniques.

I don’t know how much effort this undertaking will require and am going to gear up for it with a review of what Emery says about the relationship between tools with hooked tips and the structural attributes of the looped fabrics they produce. She counts both crochet and knitting among them. However, as with her description of the relationship between twisted-stitch and open-stitch knitting, her characterization of crochet mesh is not as focused as it needs to be for analyzing the hybrid structure of Tunisian crochet (using the predominant Victorian designation for it here — ‘tricot’).