History · Illustration · Knitting · Tools

Early knitting tools

The preceding post examined two medieval German portrayals of Mary making a garment for the child Jesus. They are apparently based on the description of the robe he wore on the Crucifix in the Gospel of John, which German exegetic texts contemporaneous with the images state that he had worn all his life. The appearance of the garment is effectively identical in both depictions but they illustrate two significantly different production techniques. One is looped in a manner that would credibly have been familiar to Mary but the other is knitted — a craft of which there is no tangible evidence until a few centuries after her lifetime.

There is nothing surprising about a text written toward the end of the first century CE describing looped fabric in a region where the first evidence of it has been dated to ca. 6500 BCE. An array of such material has also been recovered in Roman Egypt. Nonetheless, the Nile Valley or some nearby area is where the oldest known true knitting emerged and was subsequently conveyed into Europe.

In the spirit of relaxed academic rigor attendant to the date of this post’s release, let us posit that knitting was already under development at the time the gospel verse was penned. This would make an association (suggested in another previous post) between Roman industry and a plausible tool used for the new craft — a flexible circular knitting needle — worth further consideration.

The first written description of such needles that I’ve yet been able to locate appeared in the 1880s but states that they had fallen out of use before instructions for knitting had come into regular publication. The text also says that they were made of whalebone (baleen), a material that the Romans appear to have harvested industrially in the Mediterranean Sea from 400 BCE to around 500 CE. This spans the period during which true knitting developed in the environs of the Nile Valley and whalebone would have been available for making the associated tools.

The earliest manifestations of this yarncraft are long narrow tubes, the oldest of which has been radiocarbon dated to the interval 425–594 CE. One of the unresolved questions about them and the innovative form of looping they represent, is which of the resident cultural communities was running the R&D lab. Another is the implement(s) used in their manufacture. The candidates for the latter role are normally taken to be multiple straight needles with hooked tips, or a knitting loom. My post suggesting the additional alternative of flexible circular needles elicited a comment describing a prior successful experiment with such use.

In that light, it may be worth skipping forward on the timeline and extending the discussion begun in the last post by taking a look at a Knitting Madonna fifty years older than the one on the Buxtehude Altar. It is found in a triptych by Tommaso da Modena, dated to ca. 1350, now in the Pinacoteca Nazionale Bologna. It is a candidate for being the initial painting in the genre, squarely enough on Roman home territory to raise a question about whether the craft arrived there via the same path that brought it to northern Germany. Continue reading “Early knitting tools”

Illustration · Knitting · Looping · Tools

Early portrayals of knitting and looping

There are several challenges in assessing iconographic evidence of utilitarian implements and the contexts of their use. One is recognizing the difference between a representation of an object or process that may be stylized but can otherwise be corroborated, and an imagined depiction that coincidentally appears to be plausible. This difficulty is compounded when an image includes details that can be identified with a fair degree of confidence, in proximity to others that are more likely to be misrepresented. There is also a contextual aspect to this. If graphic evidence of a tool used for handicraft appears in seemingly realistic detail at a completely unexpected time or place, particular care is needed before basing revolutionary conclusions on it.

A range of such considerations attaches to early illustrations of the production of looped fabric. Current reviews of the history of knitting are commonly illustrated with portraits of so-called Knitting Madonnas. Perhaps the best known, and certainly the most clearly detailed, is in a scene on the Buxtehude Altar painted by Master Bertram ca. 1400. It unequivocally depicts four double-pointed knitting needles used for working a garment with what is now termed a seamless yoke construction.

Knitting Madonna

This design matches that of the robe worn by Jesus on the cross described in John 19:23: “This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.” The precise wording varies among translations and I have cited the one at the top of the listing here. The accompanying vocabulary provides this definition:

ὑφαντὸς (hyphantos)
Adjective – Nominative Masculine Singular
Strong’s Greek 5307: Woven. From huphaino to weave; woven, i.e. knitted.

The first translation of the New Testament directly from Greek into German was published by Martin Luther in 1522. He translated ὑφαντὸς as gewirkt (the adjectival form of wirken — a cognate of the English “to work”). This word has figured time and again in posts here dealing with German texts where it designates looped fabric in explicit contrast to woven. Luther states equally clearly that Continue reading “Early portrayals of knitting and looping”

Gauge systems · Tools

Calibrating tool gauges

Knitting needles and crochet hooks made according to the same gauging system and marked with the same gauge number — directly or on the packaging — can nonetheless differ to a perceptible degree in their actual diameters. This variation may be a simple result of careless sorting or otherwise insufficient quality control. However, it also has two significant nonrandom causes. One is that tools made in one country in compliance with its predominant standard, when intended for export, are marked with what is judged to be the nearest equivalent size in the standard of the destination country. Tools are also often labeled with the gauge designations of both countries.

The millimeter frequently appears either as the primary or alternate unit, rounded off to the nearest whole, half, or quarter. These increments are commonly used in countries where manufacturers work directly to a metric gauge (except for the finest-sized steel crochet hooks where the gradation is in tenths or five-hundredths of a millimeter). However, the sizes of hooks and needles produced elsewhere will not necessarily align with a scale divided exactly into quarter millimeters.

For example, I have two crochet hooks of the same highly regarded Japanese brand that are identical except for the size indications on their labels. When measured directly with slide calipers (explained below), the diameter of both hooks is 2.5 mm. One is intended for the domestic and European markets and labeled “4/0 — 2.50 mm.” The other is for export to the US, labeled “C-2 — 2.75 mm.”

Since these markings are on ergonomic handles I sacrificed the one on the latter hook, revealing the metal tool to be embossed “4/0 — 2.5.” The details of the Japanese gauge system are described in a post on the Japanese Knit and Crochet Pattern Help blog which says that a 4/0 hook can also be labeled as 2.25 mm. This means there is a ±10% tolerance in the indication of the actual size, gainsaying the widespread belief that millimeter markings are inherently more accurate than gauge numbers.

The second source of discrepancy between the nominal and actual diameters of hooks and needles is the precision with which the gauges used in their manufacture are calibrated against the underlying standard. (The term “gauge” designates both the measuring tool and the ordered system of numbers and dimensions that it incorporates.) This extends to the gauges commonly marketed to knitters and crocheters, which are typically accurate to about the same ±10% — even when marked in millimeters. (Anyone curious about slide calipers as an alternative, but less interested in background information about them, can skip directly to a how-to discussion below.)

This was a major industrial concern in mid-19th century England, when Imperial units of measurement were still in widespread international use but the push toward global metrication was gaining momentum. A leading participant in the debate, Joseph Whitworth, was among those who convincingly argued that the pivotal issue was the decimal representation of small linear measurements. In 1857, he proposed a standard wire gauge ranging from 0.001 to 0.500 inches, in increments gradually expanding from 0.001″ to 0.025″, with each represented size also serving as its gauge number. Continue reading “Calibrating tool gauges”

Crochet · History · Knitting · Tools

Gauging wooden crochet hooks and knitting needles

The first measuring tools and gauge systems documented for indicating the sizes of knitting needles and crochet hooks were developed by the wire drawing industry. This was an obvious means for labeling craft implements made from wire, but separate numbering schemes also began to appear for hooks and needles made from other materials. Larger diameters were also indicated by direct reference to ordinary measuring scales.

In a presentation of a gauge of her own devising, in 1843, Frances Lambert says:

“Knitting needles, which exceed the size of No. 1 [8 mm], can readily be measured by an inch rule.”

Swedish instructions for Tunisian crochet from 1856 state that:

“This work requires a bone crochet needle, 12 millimeters thick.”

Instructions for a foot warmer in the 23 February 1861 issue of Der Bazar, prescribe it to be:

“…knitted with two long wooden needles the size of 2 centimeters in circumference [⌀ 6.4 mm]…”

The explicit mention of circumference makes it unclear if the 1843 and 1856 texts also refer to that dimension, or if they mean diameter. Another interesting question is how precise this general form of measurement can be. Holding a needle against a ruler is a straightforward way to measure its diameter but results can easily vary from person to person. The same applies to measuring its circumference, say, by wrapping a length of thread around the needle and then measuring the length of that thread.

The optical comparison of a needle to a ruler has the advantages of simplicity and directly measuring diameter, rather than requiring its calculation (if needed) from circumference. The typical workbasket contains both a tape measure and thread, supporting either measuring technique without additional need for a gauging tool. And then there is the converse of the previous question — how accurate do such measurements need to be? Continue reading “Gauging wooden crochet hooks and knitting needles”

Crochet · History · Knitting · Tools

Frances Lambert’s knitting needle gauge

This post continues the examination of Victorian efforts at converging on a single standard for designating the sizes of knitting needles and crochet hooks, begun in the post before last. In 1842, one of the initial participants in the discussion of that topic, Frances Lambert, illustrated a gauging tool made according to a French standard based on the millimeter. In contrast, beginning in the same year, her colleagues repeatedly stated that the inch-based Standard Wire Gauge (SWG) — the source of the current UK knitting needle numbers — had been widely adopted in their field.

Lambert persisted in claiming that the SWG was only one of many systems in use and that a “Standard Filière” (wire gauge) of her own invention, tabulated below, was the way to resolve the alleged confusion. This led to a series of contentious exchanges on the subject of gauges — a term used to designate both a measuring tool and the ordered system of numbers and measurements that it incorporates. The debate is reviewed in detail in the earlier post, to which I’ve since added more information about the French system that weighed into Lambert’s work (also correcting an error in the initial version).

The evidence shows that Lambert’s alleged multiplicity of systems was not generally seen as the problem she repeatedly stated it to be. Her colleagues were comfortable indicating the sizes of knitting needles, crochet hooks, and netting meshes with the SWG, which was also employed by the manufacturers of such implements. As noted in 1848 by George Hope, the designer of one of the many alternate formats in which the SWG was produced, it “is a correct measure for the numbers used in every publication, except those of Miss Lambert.” Continue reading “Frances Lambert’s knitting needle gauge”

Crochet · Knitting · Tools

Gauging the needs of knitters and crocheters

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

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

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

Crochet · Instructions · Passementerie · Tools

French crochet and non-crochet in 1826

A comment on the preceding post about the status of crochet in the 1820s sent me back to revisit Elisabeth Bayle-Mouillard (the second of the early 19th-century authors on whom this blog focused shortly after its inception). The first edition of her “Young Ladies’ Handbook or Arts and Crafts” (Manuel des Demoiselles ou Arts et Métiers) was published in Paris, in 1826, under the pen name of Madame Celnart. The comment notes that this book served as the basis for a German counterpart written by Charlotte Leidenfrost, that appeared two years later and was the source of the text about crochet translated in the previous post.

Leidenfrost begins the preface to her “Small Handbook on Pleasant and Useful Activities for Young Women” (Handbüchlein zur angenehmen und nützlichen Beschäftigung für junge Damen), from 1828, by noting:

“The initiative for the present small work was taken when the publisher sent the author the Manuel des Demoiselles ou Arts et Métiers by Madame Celnart with the assignment of preparing a free translation.”

After a few complimentary words about Bayle-Mouillard’s efforts, Leidenfrost becomes rather critical of the stylistic and pedagogical shortcomings of the text she had been presented with. The preface goes on to note that the resulting German publication excludes some sections of the French one, completely rewrites others, and adds extensive new material, Continue reading “French crochet and non-crochet in 1826”

Crochet · History · Tools

Flat hooks in Medieval and Neolithic Europe

The History of Knitting Before Mass Production by Irena Turnau, published in 1991 (trans., Historia dziewiarstwa europejskiego do początku XIX wieku, 1979), includes a section headed “Knitwear in the Early Middle Ages.” In it she states that during this period, “in the Baltic countries…knowledge of…both knitting with two needles and crocheting is indisputable.” She supports the dating of crochet with an article from 1953 by Gabriela Mikołajczyk on “The origins of knitting in Poland” (Początki dziewiarstwa w Polsce). This illustrates a dozen flat hooks made of bone and horn that were recovered from 11th- and 12th-century archaeological sites in Poland.


Despite their explicit labeling as crochet hooks and Turnau’s acceptance of that ascription, it might be tempting to regard these objects as having been intended for other purposes. However, they withstand direct comparison with later hooks that are known to have been used for that craft. This is readily seen with a Swedish flat hook made of bone for traditional slip stitch crochet (discussed in an an earlier post). Other exemplars of the same type are found in Swedish museum collections. Continue reading “Flat hooks in Medieval and Neolithic Europe”

Crochet · Techniques · Terminology · Tools · Tunisian crochet

Very raised round shapes

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.)


The following snippet shows the gestational state of the English terminology, despite the ornate design. Continue reading “Very raised round shapes”

History · Knitting · Tools

Alien knitting techniques

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

va-carpet© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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