Crochet · History · Shepherd’s knitting · Terminology

Crochet nomenclature and the reliability of memory

The German references to crochet in the early-19th century, discussed in the preceding few posts, clarify a comment about the craft written at the end of the century that I had long been wondering about. The article on crochet in the Encyclopedia of Needlework, by Thérèse de Dillmont from 1886, categorizes its ordinary form as “German crochet” (as do the French and German editions). This contradicts a pivotal detail in an account of the craft’s history written by Frances Lambert in 1844.

“Crochet—a species of knitting originally practised by the peasants in Scotland, with a small hooked needle called a shepherd’s hook—has within the last seven years, aided by taste and fashion, obtained the preference over all other ornamental work of a similar nature. It derives its present name from the French; the instrument with which it is worked, being by them, from its crooked shape, termed ‘crochet’. This art has attained its highest degree of perfection in England, whence it has been transplanted to France and Germany, and both these countries, although unjustifiably, have claimed the invention.”

This statement about its geographic origin is belied, in turn, by illustrated French instructions from 1785 for the use of a shepherd’s hook for the co-named shepherd’s knitting. A German text from 1800 describes the same tool and “hook knitting” in even greater detail and predicts the impending emergence of crochet, as the term is currently understood. A stream of German references to the new craft began in 1809. Continue reading “Crochet nomenclature and the reliability of memory”

Cross-knit looping · History · Knitting · Nalbinding · Shepherd’s knitting

Romano-Coptic nalbinding and Islamic knitting

The preceding several posts examine older documents about the production of looped fabric in Scandinavia. The earliest of them, a Swedish text from 1730, makes a clear distinction between garments that are knitted (stickes) and those that are [needle]bound (bundna). Texts from the following decades use those terms with greater ambiguity. Although the crafts remained separate and distinct, either of the two terms could be used as a generic designation for both. The resulting confusion was offset in later academic contexts by applying the more specific name vantsöm (“mitten stitch”) to what ultimately became nålbindning — less robustly anglicized to nalbinding — a nomenclatural process that has also been discussed here.

The structural identification of looped fabric and its association with contemporaneous terminology is a recurring concern. It was examined in a number of German texts starting in the 1890s, all noting that many objects in museum collections that had been classified as knitted were, in fact, nalbound. I’m going to work through these in more or less reverse order, starting with an article that appeared in ten installments in the German industrial journal Wirkerei- und Strickerei-Technik (“Warp and Weft Knitting Technique”) from 1954 to 1956.

This was written by Regina von Bültzingslöwen and Edgar Lehmann and titled Nichtgewebte Textilien vor 1400 (“Non-Woven Textiles Before 1400”). It was an extension of a chapter Lehmann wrote in a book commemorating the 50th anniversary of the operation of a textile factory, published in 1949 as Geflochten, gestrickt, gewirkt (“Woven, Knitted, Warp Knitted”). The serialization was the upshot of an intervening attempt at the separate publication of Lehmann’s contribution (with an intervening manuscript here) and examines a large number of objects in public and private collections. It continues to promise a book edition that, as far as I can determine, never materialized. The preliminary description of its intended scope is interesting nonetheless.

“The book edition to follow these essays will, as already stated, take the form of a catalog with a structured overview of about 140 textiles from Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The largest part of them appear in the catalogs and inventory lists of private and public collections, incorrectly regarded as knitting. Only about sixteen of them can have been made beyond doubt with a knitting technique.”

Lehmann and Bültzingslöwen go on to describe the distinctive characteristics of what has subsequently been called “true knitting” and the often confusingly similar technique of cross-knit looping (aka encircled looping) produced with a single eyed-needle. They then present two other structures found in the examined material: “språng” and “vantsöm.” (I hadn’t initially intended to discuss the former but have stumbled across what may be the earliest published instructions for its production, which I will provide more detail about in a future post. In contrast, vantsöm has already figured prominently here.)

Thirty-three items are listed as vantsöm and include compound looping as it is otherwise well known in Nordic nalbinding. Since such structures are also found in Romano-Coptic Egypt, care needs to be taken to avoid conflating them with the cross-knit looping that present-day nalbinders often term the “Coptic stitch.” Three of the observed stitch structures differ significantly from all the others and are put in a class of their own pending further investigation. One of them is “shepherd’s knitting” as it appears in extant material and written documents beginning in the latter half of the 18th century, and is now referred to as slip stitch crochet. Bültzingslöwen’s and Lehmann’s failure to recognize it as such, as well as the structure itself, will also be considered in greater detail in separate posts.

One of the more significant observations they make is that three of the objects that are knitted rather than nalbound include calligraphic Arabic script as a repeating decorative element. They pose a question about whether such fabric was made on multiple knitting needles or a pegged knitting loom (on the basis of a non-Egyptian piece they feel likely to have been loom-knitted) and expect that to clarify as additional relevant objects come to light.

Either technique readily supports the stitch-by-stitch change in yarn color required to embed text. This is not seen in any of the Romano-Coptic material, where color changes are made (if at all) in bands that are a number of rows wide. This is consistent with the use of yarn by the needleful that is an intrinsic property of single-needle looping. Both multi-needle knitting and loom knitting can use larger continuous sources of yarn and are more amenable to the alternating use of different colors within a single row.

Quite a bit of additional material has subsequently been added to the list of knitting with Arabic calligraphic decoration, with the name of the deity Allah being a common motif. This would appear to establish an Islamic nexus but subsequent studies note problems with that interpretation. Additional readings were proposed in a report about the radiocarbon dating of a number of other stockings containing that inscription. I’ll provide details in the next post but will note for now that some authors suggest that it may have non-Islamic significance.