The French word crochet (hook) triggers a reasonable expectation of the craft it now names having its origins in France. The core term is attested there in regard to fabric production beginning in the 17th century, as a generic name for a tool employed in a variety of crafts. Its use is commonly indicated by including au crochet or à crochet — on a hook — in the specific designation.
A good example of that not always meaning what might first be expected is seen in French instructions from 1826 for purses — bourses au crochet — which are knitted on a peg loom (discussed with illustrations of different types of hooks here). They were published three years after the first documented use of the term crochet in its current sense as the name of a specific craft.
Again counter to expectation, this is not found in a French publication, but in Dutch instructions from 1823 for a “hooked purse, in plain openwork crochet” (een gehekeld beursje, au crochet simple à jour). The first explicit mention of that craft in British publication is in instructions “for making a purse in double-stitch crochet” (pour faire une bourse à crochet à double maille), included in an anonymous compilation of knitting instructions from 1837. Those for the purse are in French but the book they appear in is otherwise entirely in English. Continue reading “What’s French about crochet and what’s Tunisian about Tunisian crochet?”→
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”→
The preceding essay considered differences between the descriptions of crochet by Elisabeth Bayle-Mouillard (writing as Madame Celnart) and Charlotte Leidenfrost, in their books published respectively in 1826 and 1828. The German text followed the disposition of the earlier French one and used the same illustrations. In her preface, Leidenfrost explained the otherwise extensive substantive differences between them. Going beyond those examined last time, the preface states:
“The French work of Madame Celnart has a few appended patterns for tapestry-stitch embroidery [Tappiseriearbeit] and crochet [Häkeln], which we have omitted here…because the understanding of several descriptions would require other drawings. I also didn’t want this work to be unnecessarily expensive. In any case such patterns, exquisitely executed, are now available to whitework embroiderers in many locations in Germany. It therefore seemed superfluous to increase their number by what might be mediocre ones here.”
Many of the stitches that crocheters regard as fundamental to their craft were described in non-English publications before the Victorian fancywork press had begun to roll. Naming conventions differed both across and within language boundaries, as is still witnessed by the misalignment of the UK and US glossaries. Diffuse nomenclature also attached to Tunisian crochet when it was added to the documented repertoire in the late 1850s. Stitch clusters didn’t even begin to acquire a differentiated set of labels until the end of that century, in surprising contrast to the structural intricacy of the clusters themselves.
Several aspects of this are seen with instructions for a “Crochet Afghan or Carriage Blanket” in an anonymous booklet titled Knitting and Crocheting, published in Boston in 1884 or 1885. (It is undated but includes an advertisement citing a trademark registered 17 June 1884, and the digitized copy shows the Library of Congress accession stamp, 21 Sept. 1885.)
“Head-net…a sort of netted cap with circular ring at the top from around which the body of the net is woven, the pattern of the stitch being shown in the diagram…It is manufactured, by men only…Another form of head-net, an undoubtedly modern innovation, is made by the women, though not necessarily worn by them alone, after the manner and of same mesh as a fishing net…”
Roth describes a further variant with an inlaid thread as typical of dilly bags. In a categorization of looped structures that he would continue to develop, the three forms are juxtaposed in a single labeled illustration.
“There are three kinds of mesh to be found in the weaving of a dilly-bag. The most common, what may be called the ‘type,’ is that marked A in the diagram: rarer forms are the ‘hair-net’ B, and its modification, the ‘twist’ C. The type-pattern may be alone used in the weaving of the bag throughout, and under such circumstances it would be pretty safe to infer that it had been made by women, who do not usually weave the other forms of mesh. The hair-net pattern has been so described because of its identity with what is met with in that particular article [in the preceding illustrations], of which can certainly only be made by males: there are generally two or three rows of this mesh connecting the type with the twist pattern surrounding the mouth of the bag. No dilly-bags made in their entirety with the hair-net or twist pattern are discoverable: these particular meshes would seem to be only subsidiary to the type one.”
Roth’s hairnet form B is now normally treated as the basic variety of looping but it is form A that he regards as the type structure in the formal systematological sense. It never acquired a concise name and is usually referred to as simple looping on an inlay (or foundation) thread. Two significantly different forms are commonly placed under that heading. In one, the inlay thread is a separate element. As long as the starting row remains supported (shown at the top of the following drawings by Raoul d’Harcourt discussed in the preceding post, the inlay can be removed from the fabric without reducing its structural integrity. In the other, the looped component of the fabric and the straight inlay thread are both part of the same continuous element.
The inlay as shown in the righthand drawing returns the working thread to the same edge of the fabric for the start of each successive horizontal row. That function is also served by the return chain in the simple Tunisian crochet stitch (without implying a developmental continuity). The chain can be removed from such fabric without damaging it, reducing a Tunisian simple stitch (TSS) structure to a plain knitted (stockinette) one. The three forms might be classified as simple looping with a separate inlay thread, simple looping with an integral inlay, and knitted looping with an inlay chain.
All such inlays are horizontal structures and the loops surrounding them are worked in horizontal rows. When there is no inlay, the horizontal baseline is determined by what Peter Collingwood describes as the “lags and crossings of the previous row” in The Maker’s Hand: a Close Look at Textile Structures, from 1987. The lag is the portion of the working element between adjacent loops, to which the nearest loop in the following row is anchored (as seen in Roth’s forms B and C).
Without changing a simple loop in any other way, the point of its anchorage can be shifted from the lag to the corresponding loop in the preceding row. There are again two variants — pierced and cross-knit (discussed in procedural terms in the preceding post) — with the latter shown here .
In both cases, the loops form continuous vertical columns. With the lag-tethered forms, the loops in one horizontal row are diagonally proximal to the nearest loops in the preceding and following rows. There is no generally accepted designation for this diagonally aligned loop structure. In contrast, the vertical alignment is a definitive characteristic of knitting in the generic sense and plain knitting in the specific one.
The knitting vocabulary maintained by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO 4921:2000 in the current version) terms the vertical structures ‘wales’ and the horizontal rows are ‘courses.’ Richard Rutt explicitly adopted that terminology in A History of Hand Knitting, also published in 1987, and it propagated into subsequent writing on that topic. The remaining discussion here tests its extensibility into the broader systematics of looped fabric.
Dictionary definitions of the terms course and wale include the relevant senses. The OED defines course as “a row of stitches or loops across the width of a knitted fabric.” The Merriam-Webster Unabridged dictionary extends the definition to “a horizontal row of loops or stitches in knitted fabrics formed by one passage of the yarn or thread — compare wale.” However, the definition provided for wale is not similarly specific to looping nor is it necessarily a vertical structure.
“wale. noun, 3a: (1) one of a series of even ribs in the warp or weft of a fabric or sometimes on the diagonal: (2) a lengthwise row of loops in a knitted fabric — compare course.”
The OED does not include that second sense, at all.
“wale. noun, 1.3.a: Textiles. A ridge or raised line (consisting of a thread or threads) in a textile fabric; also collective with epithet, as indicating the texture of a particular fabric. Cf. waled adj. and wale v.
Any criticism that might be directed at lexicographers for failing to understand a specialized term of art is offset here by centuries of documented usage. The OED does not attest the relevant sense of ‘course’ until 1940 (with no date given in M-W) and there is no apparent reason for treating it as anything other than fully synonymous with ‘row’ when describing the horizontal structure of looped fabric. A wale, as a descriptor of surface texture in looped fabric, coincides similarly with a vertical column in the structural sense only with specific regard to the face side of the forms typified by plain knitting, and cross-knit looping as shown in the preceding illustration.
The long-standing precedent for designating any textured attribute of looped fabric with a ridge-like appearance as a wale is without regard to its angular relationship to the horizontal course. Given the entrenched narrow sense of the term in the glossary of knitting, it might be prudent to avoid characterizing, say, garter stitch as horizontally waled. However, as a general systematic principle, the descriptors horizontally, diagonally, or vertically waled can be used where appropriate in the description of the textured aspect of looped fabric. In fact, the M-W Collegiate dictionary includes a sense of wale defined simply as “the texture especially of a fabric.”
The loop-and-twist stitches that are Roth’s form C also commonly appear (with fewer twists) in a semi-closed mesh as seen in a detail from a late-17th-century purse (discussed in detail here). The pairing of the stitches flattens the lags to which they attach. The resulting rectilinear fabric far more closely resembles filet crochet (with which it is chronically confused) than it does the Australian cap.
This highlights a disjunction between the typology of fabric structures and that of their surface appearances. The term wale figures in both contexts but in different senses. It is a matter of individual judgment how, if at all, it might be applied to the purse. Whatever name may ultimately be accepted for a diagonal structural alignment in looped fabric, it would be beneficial if it could reduce this ambiguity.
Emilie Bach (b. 1840), a founding director of the Royal School for Artistic Embroidery (k. k. Fachschule für Kunststickerei) in Vienna, was one of the initial participants in the discussion of the techniques used for the early production of non-woven socks in Egypt.
She was the first to identify a cross-knit fabric structure in such garments from the Later Roman Period but took it to be knitted rather than nalbound, and was completely wrong about the age of the exemplars she examined. 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 (discussed here) — recognizes compound nalbinding in archeologically recovered Egyptian socks. However, she 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).
Bach begins it by questioning the applicability of research methodologies developed by male academics to tracing the history and development of crafts practiced by women. She 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.
“The situation is similar with knitting. Recent academic publications present the art of knitting as an invention of the 16th century, naming the Spanish as the inventors. In his comprehensive Geschichte der liturgischen Gewänder [History of Liturgical Garments], the learned canon Dr. Bock states that the art of knitting was devised in the 17th century.
While this type of research was going astray by following misleading clues, millennia-old Pharaonic graves were being opened in the land of the pyramids. In addition to artfully embalmed mummies, well-preserved vestments were found there that had been given reverentially to the dead. Some are now housed in the Louvre in Paris and provide research with invaluable and irrefutable evidence of so many types of needlework in such ancient times.
The study of this significant collection of ancient Egyptian garments led to a rich yield of positive knowledge. It is otherwise kept in tightly sealed display cases labeled Etoffes trouvées dans les tombeaux [Fabric found in the tombs], but was made available to me for close examination thanks to the extraordinarily helpful accommodation of the Directorate of the Louvre and the curator Mr. Revillon.
I have already spoken elsewhere about a pair of knitted stockings found in the grave of a mummy. These provide surprising proof, first, of sock-like short stockings about which nothing is said in costume history, being worn by the ancient Egyptians. Second, of their having brought the art of knitting to high perfection — based on the estimated respectable age of the grave finds — three thousand years ago.
These peculiar stockings are knitted in a manner that is absolutely equivalent to one of our own techniques. The material is thin sheep’s wool yarn that would once have been white but is now brown and pale with age. The needles on which they were worked must have been somewhat thicker than those we would select for the same purpose, thereby giving the knitted fabric a very elastic, loose, and open appearance.
The stocking starts at the upper edge with a single thread, just as we to this day use the simplest of the many common methods for ‘casting on.’ However, the rest of the work is not simply ‘flat,’ but knitted more intricately, as we now call ‘English.‘ The usual cuff that keeps the knitted work from curling is narrow, consisting of a single row of ‘turned’ stitches. With the nice gusset and cleverly constructed heel, which differs somewhat from our method of knitting, a highly practiced hand is indicated. However, the toe of the stocking shows a characteristic difference when the Egyptian socks are compared with our modern ones.While ours end in a flattened tip, the old Egyptian stockings are worked into two equally long and wide tubes, resembling the fingers of gloves. This alien form corresponds fully to the design of the sandals of which the same collections include several finely trimmed examples. Each is equipped with a strap fixed rather deeply toward the middle of the sandal. Since the strap has to fit over the stocking, a distinctive division of the toe into two parts is required. The heels and soles of this remarkable pair of socks were worn flat, proving that they once had been in use.
When the curator handed them to me for further examination, one of them disintegrated with frightening rapidity into dust and decay. The other remained fully intact and is kept safely at the Louvre to this day. I asked for a small piece of the spoiled remnants of the first one, from which three stitches still held tolerably together. As I am writing this, these relics are in a glass-covered frame. They are looking sternly and provocatively out at me with their thousands-of-years-old stitch eyes [Maschenaugen], as if they wanted to ask how much of the culture and art that we are so proud of today, is in fact the accomplishment of bygone populations.
Much of what appears to us today as new had, as these collections in the Louvre clearly demonstrate, actually long been known to the ancient Egyptians.”
Bach never states how the socks came to be associated with an Ancient Egyptian tomb but that belief was presumably shared by the Louvre. It is not certain that the cross-knit sock currently in their collections with the catalog number E 32318 is the one that survived the examination nor how long before the publication date she made the chronicled visit (which may be the first published account of interaction between a guest craft specialist and the curatorial staff of a museum). Certain details in her description match E 32318 better than others, but weighed with the circumstantial evidence, it is reasonable to accept that it indeed was the one described in 1882.
Although Bach failed to recognize the difference between cross-knit looping and twisted-stitch knitting, there is a noteworthy detail in the way she describes the latter technique. There is no question about “the manner that is absolutely equivalent to one of our own techniques” being twisted-stitch knitting. She regards the twisted stitch as a variant of the plain (aka open) knitted stitch, just as it is commonly presented in recent craft literature. Referring to it as what the Austrian knitters of her day “now call English” contraindicates the preferential association of twisted stitches with Eastern European knitting later postulated by Mary Thomas (discussed here).
The work of Franz Bock that Bach cites, Geschichte der liturgischen Gewänder des Mittelalters (History of Liturgical Garments in the Middle Ages, three vols. 1859–71), is also worth a digression. He makes no claim of knitting having been invented in the 17th century and only mentions that technique in a discussion of the significance of the advent of the stocking frame in the 16th century.
“As previously noted, throughout the entire Middle Ages, gloves for bishops and retired abbots were mostly cut from heavy silk fabric and sewn together. Through the invention in the 16th century of the art of knitting stockings with a simple device, the situation soon arose where gloves for both secular and ecclesiastical use could be knitted mechanically in a single piece [künstlich zu wirken]… It was customary in the 16th and 17th centuries for knitted [gestrickten] ecclesiastical gloves or those worked [gewirkten] on a small frame [Handstuhl] to be…”
Bock uses the verb ‘wirken’ most often in the cognatic English sense of ‘to work’ but it also designates warp-based modes of non-woven textile production (such as warp knitting and tapestry). It is not clear if he noted a structural difference between ‘knitted’ and ‘worked’ gloves or used the labels synonymously. What have since been determined to be both knitted and nalbound gloves appear on two of his plates, here and here.
Emilie Bach was also a bylined contributor to the German publication Der Bazar (an uncommon distinction) that has figured prominently in several recent posts. Her contributions begin with a piece titled Vom Handwerk zur Kunst (From Handicraft to Art) in the issue dated 22 November 1875. Had she drawn her conclusion about the origins of knitting before writing that article, it is likely that she would have mentioned it there. The wording of the 1882 article similarly indicates that her visit to the Louvre was not recent. It therefore appears safe to conclude that it took place in the latter half of the 1870s.
The post before last discusses the appearance, in ordinary crochet, of structural elements taken from the long-hook crafts of Tunisian crochet and crochet tatting. It focuses on Swedish practice in the second half of the 19th century and one of the source documents is the Handbook of Women’s Handicraft (Handbok i fruntimmers-handarbeten) by Hedvig Berg, published in 1873-74.
Berg is atypically rigorous when categorizing fabric, tools, and techniques. In a discussion of the use of a crochet hook for making types of lace that are normally produced with other tools, and where the difference between crochet and the namesake form is clearly visible, she includes the label “imitation” in the name of the crochet stitch. For example, she calls the first presented type of crochet lace “Guipure crochet” but the one following it is an “Imitation of Valenciennes lace.”
The 1873 publication is also where the Swedish term krokning (hooking) is first attested as a designation for the family of stitches now normally termed Tunisian crochet. It is introduced in a chapter on “Crochet with wool yarn.” The section on krokning includes one stitch labeled as ordinary crochet but commences by placing a number of loops on the hook in the manner that typifies Tunisian crochet. (The current repertoire includes stitches made with this technique but a number of structurally interesting older ones have fallen out of use.)
A related stitch is described in a Swedish publication from 1864, appearing side-by-side with ordinary Tunisian crochet in a child’s shoe. This is also discussed in the post before last, showing the illustration again here.
The hybrid technique is used for the cuff and the same method recently reemerged in what was presented as a nearly forgotten variety of Swedish crochet. An article titled “Crochet Historic Mitten” (Virka historiska vante) appeared in the 21 October 2011 issue of the Swedish weekly magazine Land. The banner photograph is captioned:
Proud Crochet Pros. Ulrika Andersson and Elsie-Britt Sondell-Wärnersson show mittens crocheted in a technique they saved from being forgotten — crocheted nalbinding.
Excerpting pivotal snippets from the article:
The adventure with crocheted nalbinding began in the 1970s when staff at the county museum in Jämtland came across a mitten they didn’t understand. It looked as though it were nalbound but in a different way, and if Elsie-Britt hadn’t seen it, it would likely have been discarded… Elsie-Britt says, ‘I immediately saw that it was crocheted but didn’t know how, so I asked if I could borrow it to examine more closely at home.’
She was permitted to borrow it until the following morning only if she promised not to damage the object. After a wakeful night she had solved the mystery. Elsie-Britt is somewhat reticent about how she managed to decode the stitches but it apparently involved some creative ‘poking’ among them. The mitten was then returned to the museum fully intact. After the discovery Elsie-Britt brought her friend Ulrika in on the secret… Ulrika says, ‘It’s like nalbinding, a bit limited, but a lot of fun and much easier to learn. It’s also an advantage not to need to splice the yarn as is necessary with nalbinding.’
The article then presents Ulrika’s instructions for a pair of mittens crocheted with the stitch pattern Elsie-Britt extrapolated from the original mitten. In the interim, Ulrika had contacted Ullcentrum (Wool Center), a regional yarn producer with special interest in traditional Swedish yarncraft. They, in turn, consulted with the National Association of Swedish Handicraft Societies about an appropriate designation for was subsequently called virkad nålbindning (crocheted nalbinding).
Ullcentrum included it among the crafts they display at public events, such as the Sewing & Crafts Festival in Stockholm, where it is also taught. They first showed the crocheted mittens there in February 2012, where a visitor to their stand, Elsa Hällberg from Arbrå (in the province of Hälsingland, directly southeast of Jämtland), recognized the stitch. On seeing them she said, “…but I crochet mittens like that…my mother and grandmother taught me how to do it…”
The stitch Elsa reported is less complex than the one described in the initial magazine article but they are unquestionably related. Ulrika added it to her documentation with the name “Arbrå pattern” (Arbrå-mönstret), and labeled that of the Jämtland mitten as the “Original pattern” (Originalmönstret). At the same time, she presented an intermediate pattern of her own devising called “Crochet simple nalbinding” (Virkad enkel nålbindning). Her instructions for mittens using each of the forms are available on Ravelry: the attested one from Arbrå, the deduced Original, and the hybrid Simple.
This video shows how the Original pattern is worked, with the first stitch in a start-up form, and the following ones all fully in pattern.
Four loops are first placed on the hook in a manner that provides the vertical bars used as subsequent points of insertion. The Swedish narration emphasizes that the two loops closest to the tip of the hook need to be elongated, as do Ulrika’s instructions. The need for loops not pulled closely around the hook is shared by slip stitch crochet, where it is met by using a flat tapered hook. In fact, explicit instructions for the use of that tool for making the four-bars-on-hook pattern in the cuff of the slipper shown above appear in an earlier German publication, to be discussed in detail in a separate post.
Returning to the Swedish mittens, the wording of what started out unambiguously as a crochet stitch pattern is less precise in the compiled description of the variants. That text can be read to suggest that, despite fundamental procedural and structural differences, crochet nalbinding and ordinary nalbinding are forms of the same craft.
This triggered a reaction in the Swedish blogosphere noting that a crucial distinction was being blurred, regardless of how interesting the crocheted emulation of nalbound fabric might be. This confusion extended into anglophone dialog by the Simple pattern being labeled “Simple nålbinding” on the Ravelry page. Comments in the accompanying discussion clearly indicate that it was taken as nalbinding without regard to the somewhat clearer parallel Swedish label “Virkad enkel nålbindning.”
One consequence of the ensuing controversy was to damp further interest in the origin of the technique and its potential historical interest, despite the kerfuffle over its name. As far as the Jämtland pattern goes, if a night of loop-tugging on a single mitten is all there was to it, there would be little more to say. Despite the avowed return of the mitten to the museum intact, it is no longer there, and Elsie-Britt’s results cannot be corroborated.
It is not clear if the mitten actually belonged to the museum’s collections. The consultation may have been part of a discussion about whether to accession it formally or discard it. However, if it was “likely from the 17th century” as Ullcentrum suggests in a discussion of one of their blog posts, it is exceedingly improbable that the museum was contemplating the latter option.
It is similarly unclear when during the interval between the 1970s and the 2010s the examination took place. Swedish museum policies about permitting objects to be taken off-site became continuously more restrictive in that period, with an earlier date being conceivable and a later one far less likely.
The craft that Elsa learned from her mother and grandmother casts an entirely different light. The commentary to the blog post just cited also notes that her aunts were involved in teaching it to her. She was therefore the third-generation bearer of a what would only have been a single-family tradition if her grandmother had invented it, rather than having herself been taught it in a broader context.
The Arbrå pattern is a product of that tradition, whatever the scope of the community that shared it may have been. In contrast, the Jämtland pattern is the result of a single examination of an object by someone who, although clearly in an expert position to distinguish between crochet and nalbinding, had no prior involvement with whatever tradition the mitten might represent.
The four-loops-on-hook commonality of all the patterns Ulrika describes harks directly back to the earlier hybrid crochet stitches. The chronology of their appearance during the latter half of the 19th century comfortably allows Elsa’s grandmother, or even great-grandmother, to have been familiar with them or any undocumented form of traditional crochet or hooking that they may have typified.
Had Hedvig Berg included the Arbrå (or Jämtland or Simple) pattern in her 1873 compilation, she would certainly have placed it under the heading of crochet. If presenting it in the context of mitten production, or some other garment with a strong traditional association with nalbinding, she could easily have labeled it ‘imitation af bindning,’ ‘imitation af nålning,’ or whatever her preferred designation for the emulated technique may have been. If contemporized to ‘crocheted imitation nalbinding’ the added qualifier allows the stitch pattern(s) to take an unladen position on the spectrum of looped techniques used for making mittens in Sweden, deserving further investigation in its own right.
This post was taken offline during the preparation of an article in the Summer 2020 issue of The Journal of Dress History. Material in the initial post that was not carried forward into the article will be restored here shortly.
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.
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 8388:1998, Knitted 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.