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 of plain knitting (stocking stitch) and plain crochet (slip stitch).

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 these distinctions may not be necessary for the categorization of hand-knitted structures, the associated terms label different properties in crochet and are essential to its description.

The ISO vocabulary is based on the following differentiation of a loop, a knitted loop, and a stitch. A “loop of yarn” (a permitted alternative to the preferred term “kink of yarn”) is “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 kink 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 kink 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 a knitted loop changes it from symmetrical to asymmetrical but it retains its basic structural identity. When the knitted loop in the adjoining wale is pulled 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 the definition of the binding-off course implies that it would be called a chain stitch.

The preceding illustration can be seen as a detail from the upper end of a piece of knitted fabric that could include additional 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 seen in this drawing taken from a description of a bootee in the collections of the National Museums of Scotland, by Audrey Henshall (also shown in earlier posts).


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, variously termed plain crochet, 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 a 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, both show the same structural characteristics. The knitted loops all lean to the right, they are all open, and they are all worked into the back side of the preceding stitch (BLO). Their legs 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 side 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 open or closed and that property will be propagated into the stitch, and then retained in the fabric. With the slip stitch, a new loop that is worked into the front side of a stitch in the preceding course (FLO), applies a vertical force to the stitch that can reverse its open or closed characteristics.

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’).

History · Knitting · Musings · Structures

First impressions of knitting

I’ve been diverting a fair amount of time that would otherwise have gone into blogging, to the preparation of a paper for the In the Loop at 10 conference at the University of Southhampton at the end of next week. Its title is Taking a Loupe to the Loop and it reviews some of the topics I’ve covered here, as well as providing fuel for coming posts.

Just as I was beginning to feel that I had the bulk of the work behind me, an article by Claudia Sagona was published on 25 June in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, titled “Two-Needle Knitting and Cross-Knit Looping: Early Bronze Age Pottery Imprints from Anatolia and the Caucasus.” There is nothing unusual about an archaeological study of textile impressions found on ceramics — such things vastly outnumber prehistoric specimens of worked fiber — but this one claims to have found evidence of open-stitch stockinette knitting significantly earlier than had previously been attested.

That made it obligatory reading for me and it had also caught the attention of others. Its discussion was on the program of the Knitting in Early Modern Europe (KEME) seminar in Copenhagen on 7 July. I wasn’t there but understand that the participants were highly critical of the article’s methodology and conclusions.

I’ll be taking two of the drums that I’ve been beating on this blog with me to England. One calls attention to the limitations of our ability to identify the tools and techniques used to produce a piece of looped fabric on the basis of the object itself — a concern that only increases when assessing an impression of its surface detail. The second one signals that the earliest known specimens of knitted (as opposed to cross-knit looped) fabric have an open-loop structure, and not the twisted stitches that are frequently said to be the initial form.

Assuming that Sagona has plausibly identified similarities between the structures imprinted on the pottery fragments and those that could be left by looped textiles, it does not follow that that is how they were made. Her further association of those impressions with specific production techniques is entirely unsupported. She doesn’t explain why the fabric in the open-knit impressions would have been made with two knitting needles. The same structure can be made on a peg loom, which other authors have suggested was the first implement used for that purpose, to say nothing of other methods that may have been known six thousand years ago that we have yet to recognize. Similarly, the basic structure of cross-knit looping is identical to that of twisted-stitch knitting — again makable on both a peg loom or with knitting needles — and the impressions of that structure do not reveal the secondary detail necessary to differentiate between the two production methods.

The characterization of open-stitch stockinette knitting as ‘two-needle knitting’ implies fabric being worked flat with alternating rows of the knit and purl forms of the stitch. This is counter to the evidence of yarn having been knitted exclusively in the round during the first several centuries of the craft’s practice but Sagona explicitly states her belief that the impressions can be of fabric knitted flat.

Notwithstanding, moving the earliest direct evidence of the open-loop structure from the mid-first-millennium CE to possibly as early as the mid-fourth-millenium BCE would be of blockbuster consequence and therefore requires more rigorous substantiation than the article provides. (The earliest known specimen of cross-knit looping is from the mid-sixth-millennium BCE, found at a site near the Dead Sea, so there are no surprises there.) This wouldn’t alter the chronological order in which cross-knit looping and open-stitch knitting appeared. However, since the latter structure is a hallmark of true knitting, pending the unexpected appearance of corroborating evidence during whatever debate Sagona’s article triggers, it may be that the craft can be traced farther back than anyone else has yet suggested.


History · Knitting · Techniques · Tools

Knitting sheaths and their handedness

The knitting sheath has a prominent position on the list of tools that were once ubiquitous but have since dwindled into restricted regional use. Although the sheath is only one of a number of devices used to anchor the passive end of a knitting needle, its name is often used as a collective designation for them all. The technique is also termed fixed-needle, anchored-needle, or lever knitting. It includes a variant where the needle is held between the arm and body without the support of a separate mechanical device — (arm)pit  knitting.

The best known present-day form of auxiliary tool is the knitting belt used on the Shetland Islands. Nonetheless, as recently as 1986 in The Handknitter’s Handbook, Montse Stanley described and illustrated fixed-needle knitting as a current technique, with the right-hand needle anchored either directly under the right arm or in a sheath tucked into a belt around the waist, also at the right side of the body.

Stanley discusses this method as practiced both in Catalonia, where it was how she learned to knit (presumably in the late 1940s), and in the northern half of Britain. She suggests that it was historically more likely to be used by knitters with a greater interest in “efficiency” than in “elegance.” Those with the latter concern held the right-hand needle “like a pen” and knitters interested in the support provided by a sheath but not the implement itself, let the needle “rest on the forearm.” She further associates the two basic perspectives with people who “mainly knitted to earn (or scrape) a living” and those who “considered it a drawing-room pastime.”

The 1850 edition of The Ladies’ Work-Table Book (p. 12) lists a knitting sheath as standard equipment for recreational fancywork. It is also included in the US edition from 1845 (p. 25).


Needles of various sizes. The numbers referred to are those of the knitting needle gauge. Needles pointed at either end, for Turkish knitting. Ivory or wooden pins, for knitting a biroche [sic]. A knitting sheath, &c., to be fastened on the waist of the knitter, towards the right hand, for the purpose of keeping the needle in a steady and proper position.

A previous post describes how the Swiss knitter Dubois taught fixed-needle knitting in German urban drawing rooms in the late–18th century. In contrast to the descriptions of that technique seen above, which explicitly state that the anchored needle was held in the right hand, Dubois held it at his left side. This could be taken to indicate that he was left handed but since he was earning his living as a knitting teacher it can safely be assumed that he demonstrated his techniques as appropriate to a predominantly right-handed audience.

The article on knitting in Switzerland from 1936 by Fritz Iklé, presented in another previous post, also discusses the traditional use of the knitting sheath there. It was widely employed through to the end of the 19th century and still known at the time of his writing. He cites an article from 1923 in another Swiss journal (which I haven’t yet tracked down) quoting a number of reports received from various areas of the country describing local practice.

These designate knitting both with the German word stricken and the Alemannic lismen. Although the two are frequently used as synonyms, some of the reports use them to designate separate methods. Here is one that does so with particular clarity.

In the earliest years here the sheath was also fastened in the right side of the apron. The idea later developed that the knitting could be held more firmly by using a special belt board (Gürtelbrittli) by which the sheath could be fastened to the side with a leather strap. With that, lismen truly becomes easier than stricken.

Another report places the sheath on the opposite side.

The knitting sheaths were about 18–20 cm long, nicely turned in boxwood, with the hole for the needle lined with lead. They were placed in working position by wrapping the left apron string two or three times around them.

Here again, the generalized wording of this description suggests that it is not of the practice of an individual left-handed knitter. Although the right-side position is the more frequent in these reports, they still confirm that Netto was not alone among his compatriots in holding the needle at the left side. Presumably it was also adopted by his students in Germany, and was reported in late–19th-century Denmark, as well.

The Swiss applications of fixed-knitting related in 1923 are largely about 19th-century practice. However, that it dated back at least into the 18th century is apparent from Netto’s activity and a description from 1809 of skills taught to girls in Swiss cities including the fiber arts of “…Lismen, Stricken, sewing, spinning…”

This means that the use of a sheath was not seen simply as an adjunct technique to knitting but was a named craft of its own. This may indicate that the social gap between the contexts placing opposite priorities on efficiency and elegance was wide enough to be reflected lexically. Another more conjectural possibility is that the two methods had different points of origin and the circumstances of their merger remain to be identified.

Early instructions · History · Knitting · Terminology

More knitting geography

As discussed in a previous post, there is no demonstrable geographic or historical basis for categorizing the knitting of fabric primarily with twisted stitches as “Eastern,” or knitting with predominantly open stitches as “Western.” Similar conditions apply to the terms “English” and “continental” when used to designate the two most widespread methods for holding yarn.

Most early writing about that aspect of knitting technique treats the predominant local approach as the ordinary one. Where alternative methods are described, it is in procedural terms that may or may not be identified with the name of another region.

This can be illustrated starting with The Workwoman’s Guide written anonymously by “A Lady” in 1838. This describes what is now called the English method.

The Common Knitting Stitch

Hold the pin with the stitches on, in the left hand; with the right hand, put the other pin under the first loop, making the pin lie across behind the left-hand pin, while with the first finger, the worsted is drawn in front between the pins. Then with the end of the right pin, press this worsted till it is brought through the stitch in the form of a loop upon the right hand pin.

The author follows this with a description of the continental method.

Dutch Common Knitting

This is another mode of knitting the common stitch, and is more simple, and more quickly done than the usual way. Hold the pin-ful of stitches in the left hand, as also the worsted, which should be wound once or twice around the little finger, to keep it firm, and allowed to pass over the first finger to the pins. The right hand pin is then simply passed through the stitch, and catching the worsted outside, draws it through, and forms the loop on the right pin, an so on.

With the exception of the way the two methods are labeled, the difference between them is presented in essentially the same way it still is. In fact, in British writing the left-hand method was commonly called Dutch or German until World War I, when the latter term was supplanted by a geopolitically neutral alternative.

The effort to promote holding yarn in the left hand continued in the Victorian fancywork literature. This is typified in the 1842 edition of Jane Gaugain’s The Lady’s Assistant in knitting, netting, and crochet work, emphasized there with a pointing finger and italics.

In teaching any person to knit, they should be instructed, as the more elegant mode, to hold the thread over the forefinger of the left hand, and not the right as most people do.

A Dutch text published by Anna Barbara van Meerten in 1823 (discussed in detail in a previous post) describes the way yarn is held for crochet by comparing it to the ordinary method of knitting in Holland at that time.

This is held in the right hand, along with the thread being worked, about as though one were knitting.

In light of the 1838 English description of the Dutch method it might seem that the practice there had changed in the interim. However, van Meerten describes the local technique again in 1835, in a Dutch translation of a German Encyclopedia for Women and Girls.

The thread is placed over the right forefinger and held by the fourth finger and the little finger, while the other fingers hold the needles… Some people wrap the thread around the left index finger, which is the same.

The translator’s preface says that she adapted some of the instructions to local conditions, so it is safe to regard wrapping the yarn around the right index finger as the preferential Dutch practice. I haven’t been able to locate the original German version and don’t know if this is one of the modified passages.

Another German text on knitting from 1826 (echoing yet another from 1801) otherwise leaves the entire matter of how the yarn is held to the reader’s own understanding.

The rules and techniques of ordinary knitting are widely known.

These documents almost certainly do not reflect the full variation of local practice in the countries of their publication and obviously say nothing about subsequent trends. Skipping forward to the 1880s as described by Thérèse de Dillmont in her Encyclopedia of Needlework, the yarn-right method is presented as “the one usually practiced in England and France.”

The Germans on the contrary, lay the thread over the left hand, and can move the hands more quickly, in consequence. There are some ways of casting on, which can only be done in the German fashion.

The French edition of the same text makes no reference to England or France and implicitly describes the yarn-right hand position as the established method for a Francophone reader. It then contrasts it with the German yarn-left as just described.

Recent pedagogical material often recommends avoiding the imprecision inherent in all this by eliminating any reference to geographic location when describing the yarn-held-left and yarn-held-right methods. Doing so also facilitates comparison with the yarn-around-neck method that leads the yarn to the front of the work and differs from the other two in equal measure.

History · Knitting · Techniques · Tools

Hooked knitting needles in the French parlor in 1817

I’ve noted the significance of “The art of knitting in its full extent” (Die Kunst zu stricken in ihrem ganzen Umfange) by Johann Friedrich Netto and Friedrich Leonhard Lehmann in several previous posts (but have yet to find a good way to vary the introductory paragraph). This was published in 1800 and reflected in German texts on knitting by other authors well into the 1820s including mention of the utility of hook-tipped needles. Both here and more generally in the craft press of that time, what we might call plagiarized wording is commonplace (earlier notions about the permissibility of the unattributed reuse of the work of others differed significantly from ours) but original material is often added, making it worthwhile to examine the full detail of what may on first glance appear to be a rehash of someone else’s material.

Netto and Lehmann published a French translation of their book in 1802, which was then co-opted in subsequent French texts. One, in particular, explicitly acknowledges the prior work of the German authors and also names the Swiss knitter, Dubois, who figured prominently in their book. This is the “Treatise on knitting – simple or complex” (Traité du tricot, simple ou compliqué) by Augustin Legrand. It is undated but displays the address where he was located from 1810 and includes an advertisement for material he sold there in 1817.

Legrand’s book also illustrates a burgeoning divergence between texts focused on domestic enterprise and those treating fancywork as a leisure activity. Whereas the German derivates of Netto and Lehmann are directed toward the former audience, the two gentlemen themselves together with Legrand more clearly target the latter. Legrand’s chapter “On needles with hooks” (Des Aiguilles à crochet) places such implements on the French recreational knitter’s workbench and adds yet another method for holding yarn to those considered in previous posts.

“These needles are of ordinary length and have a small hook at the one end similar to that of tambour needles. To knit with these needles, the thread is first wrapped around the left wrist to place it under slight tension. It is then held on the index finger of the same hand so that it is ready to be grasped by the hook that pulls it back through the stitch into which it was inserted. This forms a new stitch that remains on this needle.

It is easy to imagine that this work cannot fail to produce a great economy of time, and a greater regularity in the work. It is even claimed that by means of this process it is possible to make a sock in an hour.

All kinds of knitting can be performed with these kinds of needles; but they are especially recommended for gold and silver wire. This is because they reduce jarring and friction, causing less wear on the metal, leaving the work more lustrous.”

The reference to the production of a sock in one hour is all but certain to derive from a section in Netto & Lehmann that describes Dubois’s work (here). However, one of the salient details of Dubois’s method for flat knitting was his use of long needles, supporting one of them under his arm. Legrand specifically prescribes needles of ordinary length, precluding a fixed-needle technique.

Similarly, Dubois’s method for working in the round (described here) uses a shoulder pin to feed the yarn to the front of the work. To the extent that Legrand is referring to this as well, the yarn-around-neck technique is replaced by what might be called yarn-around-wrist, feeding the yarn to the rear of the work.

Early instructions · History · Knitting · Techniques

Double knitting in 1800

A while ago I posted the first of what was intended to be a series of descriptions of various aspects of knitting, translated from the first textbook dedicated to the topic yet noted. This is “The art of knitting in its full extent” —  Die Kunst zu stricken in ihrem ganzen Umfange — published in 1800 by Johann Friedrich Netto and Friedrich Leonhard Lehmann. (More details are given in the earlier post.)

This blog then moved into a range of topics, including early Arabic tubular knitting, with another earlier post suggesting that double knitting could be placed on the list of plausible techniques for its production. I had already tacitly noted that the Netto-Lehmann book includes a chapter on double knitting, albeit of an entirely different variety, and therefore left their description of it for use when focusing more broadly on early presentations of double knitting.

The first mention of that technique in English was published in 1838. This includes instructions for the tubular variety, which regularly appears in subsequent texts (to be detailed in separate posts). Netto’s and Lehmann’s description of the double knitting of two socks on the same needles indicates that the underlying technique was commonplace by their day. Here is my translation of that text.

Seventh Chapter

Two socks knitted at the same time, one inside the other, on five knitting needles.


The invention of knitting two socks at the same time, one inside the other, is a nice demonstration of human ingenuity. However, it is more an indication of artfulness than of utility, since two socks can be finished just as quickly when knitted individually as they can inside each other. Nonetheless, both as a curiosity and for the sake of completeness, we found it necessary to dedicate a chapter to this method of knitting. It requires a lot of attention but no particular skill. One takes two balls of yarn — at the outset before one has become proficient, one white and one gray — and casts them alternately on the needle as usual, first taking a white thread and then a gray one until one has as many stitches as are needed for two socks. The first stitch now belongs to the first sock, the second stitch to the second sock, the third again to the first, the fourth to the second, and so forth. Each stitch needs to be made carefully using the proper thread, that is, the white stitches are knitted with the white thread and the gray stitches with the gray thread. If the thread is switched even once, the two socks will be joined, need to be cut apart, and left with holes. Two seams are purled on the back, one white and one gray, and all decreasing is also done at the same time.

This knitting first requires very long thin needles and then a knitter who pulls tightly and knits densely. This is because the stitches in the one sock are stretched over those in the other, and otherwise produce a loose and flimsy knitted fabric. One must practice this double knitting using two differently colored threads for as long as it takes to acquire sufficient skill to work with two entirely white, or other uniformly colored threads without confusing them. Since all increasing and decreasing is done at the same time, two socks knitted in this manner will be exactly the same, which is not always the case when they are knitted individually. However, there are knitters who can knit two socks separately with equal accuracy and beauty, and again others who can knit two socks together with such skill and rapidity that both are completed sooner than if knitted one at a time.

Gloves can also be knitted in this manner, in fact even more easily, since one is not slowed or impeded by clocking and similar details.