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”