Crochet · History · Tools

Small flat hooks and a rustic cap

Sweden is a good place to be located for someone researching the historical and contemporary use of flat hooks for slip stitch crochet. It’s only a thirty minute walk from the desk where this blog is maintained to a folkcraft store in central Stockholm that regularly stocks such hooks, so it was easy for me to gear up for testing my findings experimentally. (A few years ago flat hooks were to be had just around the corner at a local yarn store that has since closed.) Books about the traditional Swedish practice are currently in print and tools survive from the late-18th century. This is also when evidence of comparable traditions begins to appear at other locations significantly enough distant from each other to make investigating the possibility of cultural and technological exchange worthwhile.

A previous post discussed the earliest illustrated description of flat-hook slip stitch crochet, published in France in 1785, but I overlooked the importance of something stated in that document. It clearly indicates that flat hooks were made in varying sizes and selected as appropriate to the intended stitching. Reexamining the corpus of such hooks in that light quickly revealed that it was incorrect of me to have presumed that all such hooks were of a relatively large gauge.

An undated flat hook in the collections of the Vänersborg Museum (attribution here is clearly very narrow.


Another hook in the collections of the Nordic Museum (attribution here) shows the same secondary taper toward its tip and it seems clear that this dimension of a flat hook was matched to the gauge of the stitching and weight of the yarn.


I didn’t recognize the full significance of a document from 1812, either, when I made summary reference to it in another previous post. This is The Memoirs of a Highland Lady by Elisabeth Grant, where the English term “shepherd’s knitting” and its special hook first appear.

“…he wore a plaid cloak, and a nightcap, red or white, made by his industrious wife in a stitch she called shepherd’s knitting; it was done with a little hook which she manufactured for herself out of the tooth of an old tortoise-shell comb, and she used to go on looping her home-spun wool as quick as fingers could move, making not only caps, but drawers and waistcoats for winter wear…”

The thin finely tapered segment of the hook at the Vänersborg Museum can easily be reconciled with something that might be made from the tooth of a comb. In the doing, it also becomes apparent that shepherd’s knitting was not intrinsically limited to work in heavy wool yarn, nor was the shepherd’s hook restricted to slip stitch crochet.

This would provide one possible explanation for a cap in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, catalogued as crochet made in the 1700s or 1800s (detailed in a previous post).

va-cap© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

If it can be dated correctly to the 18th century, it would pretty much have to be categorized as shepherd’s knitting. The problem is that its primary stitch is treble crochet (UK), which is otherwise unattested at that time.

va-cap-detail© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

If it is from the 19th century, the stitch is no longer anachronistic but a fine-gauge hook would still be required. This can credibly be provided by one of the Vänersborg design or a smaller tool corresponding to its hooked segment, as might be fashioned from the tooth of a comb.

The cap can also be a deliberate attempt by a later crocheter at making something with a rustic appearance, unaware of the slip stitch being an identifying characteristic of shepherd’s knitting, or simply unconcerned with that level of detail. Whatever the correct explanation may be, it seems clear that the flat hook has never had a tightly set form. There are many additional examples with the configuration illustrated above, as well as of characteristic designs in other regions. In at least the north European traditions considered here, they were clearly made in gauges appropriate for both light and heavy yarn.

It is not possible to know whether people working fabric with what the Victorian literature sometimes termed a “shepherd crochet” saw any relationship with its traditional namesake. However, a Swedish flat hook in hallmarked silver from circa 1790, one shown in Dutch instructions from 1833, and later German ones, all indicate that the traditional craft from which they emanated was also practiced at the urban worktable.

Crochet · Nalbinding · Techniques · Tools

Crochet with an eyed needle

Schematic drawings of the slip stitch structure, identical to the ones seen in the preceding post, appear in published descriptions of other objects said to be nalbinding rather than crochet. Before considering individual such objects, I’m going to take a look at another way to use an eyed needle for producing not just crochet-type slip stitches but a variety of more complex structures normally identified as crochet.

In the present context, the difference between the two tools reduces to the single mechanical detail of whether the end that grasps the yarn is fully closed  — an eye — or is open on one side — a hook. The former holds the yarn more firmly and constrains its separation from the tool. The latter allows the yarn to be removed and reattached at any time but is conducive to unintentional separation. Both tools are otherwise made with dull and pointed tips, although that attribute is more relevant to the (by no means unrelated) comparison of ordinary and tambour embroidery.

In 1966, Angela Huber was granted US Patent no. 3,228,212 for a Method of Hand Knitting and Knitting Needle, five years after filing a corresponding application in Austria.

“This invention relates to a method of hand knitting and a knitting needle for it. Both the method and the needle distinguish by being particularly simple because only a single thread and a single needle are employed.”

An eyed needle used to push a new loop through a preexisting one, gauging its size with an adjustable collar. The patent illustrates both knit-type and crochet-type looping, showing only the latter here.huber-patent

A tool of the same design was sold in the late 1960s as the “Grant One Needle Looper” with a pattern booklet titled Grant’s One Needle Looping. It was telemarketed shortly thereafter as “The Original K-Tel Knitter — a revolutionary new method of knitting and crocheting with one needle.”

There is no indication of the relationship between the Grant/K-Tel items and the Huber patent but the instruction booklet in the K-Tel package (and presumably also Grant’s) illustrates a “simplicity stitch” with essentially the same drawings as the preceding ones.


This technique is currently marketed as Fauxchét® using a composite needle that is identical to a standard machine knitting 1×2 transfer tool (but trademarked nonetheless). It is again unclear if there is a relationship to the Huber patent.

As is seen in other videos in that series, an eyed needle can be used in the same manner to make crochet stitches of increasing complexity. This can be compared to the production of hand knitted fabric on a peg loom instead of knitting needles. In both cases, the adherents to the conventional technique are in a substantial majority and have varying opinions about the utility of the alternative.

A similar comparison can be made between the structurally identical cross-knit looping made with an eyed needle, and twisted-stitch knitting made with knitting needles. This highlights why the discussion of the structure of a piece of fabric so often needs to be separated from that of the various tools and techniques that can be used to produce it. This is further demonstrated by the basic principle of a sewing machine, which is to push a loop of thread through fabric using the eyed end of a needle, and that of a knitting machine, using what is essentially a battery of crochet hooks to create vertically chained knitted structures.

The eyed end of the needle is also commonly used in hand embroidery to pass the working thread between preexisting stitches and the base fabric without risk of piercing either. With all this it mind, it is reasonable to wonder why a second point is frequently seen on archaeologically recovered needles such as those found at the Viking settlement in Birka and currently on display at the Swedish History Museum.


Similar needles from an earlier Celtic settlement in Colchester are on display at the British Museum.


Just as it is frequently impossible to look at a piece of looped fabric and know what tools were involved in its production, a tool doesn’t always reveal what it was used for. It is safe to assume that it had a primary function. However, for example, it does not follow from the similarity between the second needle from the top in this photo and the needles used in the Nordic nalbinding tradition, as first documented in the 1940s, that the older implement was ever used for that craft. In fact, it cannot be proven that it was intended for work with yarn at all.

With the same caveat, if historical precedent for the production of crochet-type slip stitch fabric using an eyed needle can be established, one with two points at longer and shorter distances from the eye would easily support either of the techniques we’ve now seen.

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.

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.

History · Knitting · Techniques · Tools

A stilted perspective on hooked knitting

The shepherds in Landes, the northernmost part of the French Basque Country, were a subject of popular attention during the 19th century for two traits. One was their use of stilts to deal with the marshy heathlands on which their flocks grazed, and the other was their practice of knitting while watching over them. A chapter on ‘The Shepherds of Les Bas Landes’ in the US publication Forrester’s Pictorial Miscellany from 1855 illustrates how widespread the interest in them had become. An article in the Scientific American Supplement from 26 September 1891 on ‘Stilt Walking’ describes the shepherds’ ambulatory prowess and social circumstance.

Illustrations of them knitting began to proliferate mid-century but rarely focus on its detail. The clearest one I have thus far been able to find is from 1863 (source information here) and shows yarn-around-neck (probably using a shoulder hook), with what may be a small pouch holding the yarn just below the sock that is in progress.


The shepherds’ knitting technique is described in Mary Thomas’s Knitting Book from 1938, showing the tools at the outset of the chapter on ‘Knitting Implements Ancient and Modern.’ (The preceding post discusses other aspects of her description of knitting in Landes.)


This photo shows an “ancient weatherbeaten knitting pouch” together with “modern…hooked needles…made by a shepherd…from old umbrella ribs…hand filed and shaped as they have always been made” in Landes. It is not clear what ‘ancient’ and ‘always’ actually mean.

Thomas says that hooked needles can be traced back to the Arabic origins of knitting, which applies in equal measure to the needles used in all the other schools of yarn-around-neck knitting discussed in previous posts. There is no evidence of a similarly characteristic shared use of a knitting pouch. It is of obvious utility for work while perched on stilts and, at least the form shown here, may have developed specifically in that context. The pouch is also seen clearly in a photo from the early-20th century, by which time the wetlands had been drained and the need for stilts had ended.


The knitting shepherds are also noted in the Victorian fancywork literature. The introductory remarks about crochet in The industrial handbook containing plain instructions in needlework and knittingpublished anonymously in 1853 state:

“This kind of work, which has lately become fashionable under its new name, was formerly called ‘Shepherd’s Knitting.’ It has long been a favourite occupation of this class of persons, particularly in the south of France, where, whilst tending their sheep on the mountains, they fabricate a number of useful and ingenious articles.”

This conflates the knitting of the Landes shepherds, who were approaching the heyday of their international renown, with the traditional slip stitch crochet called “shepherd’s knitting” and described in earlier British texts on crochet as the initial manifestation of that craft.

“Crochet,—a species of knitting originally practised by the peasants in Scotland, with a small hooked needle called a shepherd’s hook…”

That snippet was discussed in greater detail in an earlier post, leading to yet another form of knitting with a hook-tipped needle associated with Scotland, termed Scottish knitting or Tricot éccosais. This was most commonly referred to in the Victorian literature as “tricot” (now generally termed Tunisian crochet) and worked with a “tricot hook.” This gainsays Mary Thomas’s concluding remark about the practice in Landes, that “There appears no trace of hooked needles in Britain…”

Crochet · Techniques · Terminology · Tools

More about Bosnian crochet

The description of Bosnian crochet given by Luise Schinnerer in 1897 and discussed in detail in the preceding post, is echoed in almost all points of detail in the article on crochet in the Encyclopedia of Needlework; New Edition by Thérèse de Dillmont. This work has appeared in numerous editions beginning in 1886 but the first one makes no mention of Bosnian crochet, nor do the first French or German editions. The revised French edition appeared in 1900 (briefly reviewed in the newspaper Le Radical on 31 July 1900) and the various translated versions would not have been released earlier. This left ample time for de Dillmont (a native German speaker) to have taken note of Schinnerer’s article in the interim. (The online copy linked to above is of a printing from January 1922, as indicated by the numerical code ‘122’ at the bottom of the page following the title page.)

Linda Ligon reviewed the de Dillmont article in the July/August 1994 issue of PieceWork Magazine also noting that there was no mention of Bosnian crochet in the first edition of the Encyclopedia, “so it’s not clear when this special kind of work came to her attention.” I believe the answer to that question is when she found Schinnerer’s description of it.

Beyond illustrating the craft, de Dillmont’s text is particularly important because it enters the English term “Bosnian crochet” into the fancywork glossary, defining it according to Schinnerer’s description. However, de Dillmont does not retain Schinnerer’s exclusive focus on traditional tools and applications. The shared basic stitch is described in the Encyclopedia as the “single stitch” noting that it “is also known as the slip stitch.”


The work is not turned at the end of a row and the yarn is simply carried a bit beyond the final stitch and cut. When the next row is started, “the thread has to be fastened on afresh, each time.”

De Dillmont provides detailed instructions for making a strip of the mixed-color form, working into the back loop only of the corresponding stitch in the preceding row. (Schinnerer only says that the same loop is used without specifying which.)


Another instruction is for the characteristic relief pattern that results from working selectively into the front and back loops, which both Schinnerer and de Dillmont say is only done using a single color.


Schinnerer also shows a photo of a hat where the upper closed-work portion is made in this manner (but does not describe the stitch structure of the wide band at the bottom).


Her article additionally discusses Bosnian-Herzegovinian knitting with hook-tipped needles, and the regional practice of making fabric with alternating bands of slip stitch crochet and knitting. Although something of a centerpiece for Schinnerer, de Dillmont says nothing about it.

One interesting characteristic of the hybrid fabric is that the crochet is made using a special hook and not with the hook-tipped knitting needles, despite de Dillmont indicating that the latter option would be viable. Her illustration of an ordinary crochet hook being used to produce slip stitches could as easily show the end of a hook-tipped knitting needle. In fact, this ties into an earlier post that I left dangling with the intention of following up much sooner, where a cylindrical crochet hook (found in trade listings up to 35 cm long) is illustrated in use for what may well have been slip stitch crochet.

Nonetheless, traditional slip stitch crochet is often associated with the use of a special hook, not just in the Bosnian school, but in others as well. Various local manifestations have been discussed in several previous posts. The current Swedish tradition uses this form, which can be traced back into the late 18th century.


It is also described in an early Dutch publication (details here ) and presumably used elsewhere. However, given the clear difference between it and the Bosnian hook shown by Schinnerer,bosnian-hook

there is no substantive basis for the frequent reference to the Nordic/Dutch form as a Bosnian crochet hook.

History · Knitting · Techniques · Tools

Hook-tipped knitting needles and their traveling companions

The preceding post discussed hook-tipped knitting needles and the reasons why they are thought to be older than smooth-tipped ones. The schools of knitting in which they are used are further characterized by a method of holding the yarn that is generically termed “yarn around neck.” This is believed to resemble the form of knitting initially transmitted from Islamic Egypt more closely than any other. An early description of it appears below and its most extensively documented form is now widely known as Portuguese knitting.

The only structural detail that might differentiate fabric knitted around the neck from that produced by other methods is too subtle to be measured, much less recognized in older material. The physical evidence that specifically indicates the method is an ancillary mechanical device used in a limited number of schools and unlikely to be recognized as such in an inventory of archaeologically recovered artifacts. (This is the chest ring in the description below and seen in the media linked to above)

Nonetheless, the geographic distribution of yarn-around-neck knitting coincides well enough with that of hooked needles for it to be likely that the tool and method accompanied each other along whatever transmission paths they may have traversed. (Twisted stitches are often regarded as an additional fellow traveler but they are readily made by other methods of knitting and are specific to none. Their occurrence is not geographically bounded, notwithstanding the popular designation “Eastern knitting” which I’ll discuss in a separate post.)

I examined early texts about hooked knitting needles in two previous posts regarding the precursors of Tunisian crochet and am now going to revisit the source documents with specific focus on knitting.

In brief review, the first written description of hooked needles in hand knitting that I’ve so far managed to locate is of their introduction in Hannover, Germany, in 1787 (source reference and translation here). This is corroborated in a more detailed text from 1800 by J. F. Netto and F. L. Lehmann (whose book on knitting is detailed here). This associates it specifically with knitting in the round using five needles, with a separate section describing how a named Swiss knitter worked flat with two needles using a fixed-needle technique (translated and explained via the preceding link). This description overlaps almost entirely with that of Portuguese knitting, which traditionally uses a shoulder ring and hook-tipped needles, although smooth-tipped needles are also commonly employed.

Fourteenth Chapter

Knitting purses … with needles and hooks


“Dübois knit the purse with heavy knitting needles into the one end of which a space had been filed forming a small hook like a tambour needle. He had a ball of silk thread in his vest pocket. On the left side of his chest there was a horn ring with a hook attached, through which the working thread passed. The hooked needle was thus used to pull a new loop through the previous one more quickly than usual. He kept the thread under light pressure with his left arm. The thread passing through the ring was therefore under slight tension, largely accounting for, first, the rapidity of his knitting, and second the beauty and evenness of his stitches.”

Recent texts that discuss differences in the working properties of knitting needles with smooth and hooked tips generally conclude that nothing can be done with the one that cannot be done with the other, but that hooked tips can do certain things more efficiently. One example of this is the economy of motion and material resulting from the ability of a hook to pull a new loop through a preexisting stitch without first wrapping the yarn around the needle.

A further difference is not immediately apparent when the comparison is made from the perspective of mainstream contemporary knitting. An unworked stitch can be slipped from one hooked needle to the other and knitted with the receiving needle alone by pulling a loop through it crochet style. In any case, it has the advantage Netto lists in the section on flat knitting that “stitches will not as easily be dropped or slip off in the process.”

Yarn-around-neck knitting also has an important property that lacks counterpart in any other method. It leads the yarn to the front of the work, making the purl stitch simpler to form than the knit one. Fabric now produced in this manner is ordinarily held with the purl side facing the knitter. Tubular knitting intended to show ordinary stocking stitch on the public side is worked inside out and the finished item then re-inverted.

There is no way to trace that practice back to its origin. Nonetheless, if yarn-around-neck knitting is accepted as an attribute of Coptic tubular knitting, or even if the trail begins with knitting in the form initially carried into Islamic Europe, purling would be far older than is currently believed.


History · Knitting · Sprang · Structures · Tools

Early knitting with hook-tipped needles

Texts about knitting often present needles with hooked tips as limited regional preferences to the commonplace smooth-tipped needles. The hooked form is considered to be the older of the two and initially used in Egypt where the craft is also believed to have originated. Such needles have been documented in Eastern Europe, Portugal, and Southern France — all on or near routes along which knitting would have been carried into Europe from Egypt before diffusing more widely.

One problem with taking this as an indication of hook-tipped needles in prior Egyptian practice is that the presumed origin of knitting there and the more recently observed distribution of hook-tipped needles, are circularly taken to provide evidence of each other. Another problem is that there is no way to determine if the local European hooked-needle traditions all date back to the period when the Egyptian technology would have been transferred, or if they reflect later intra-European cultural exchange or even independent development. (This becomes particularly interesting when considering the relationship between the knitting carried to South America by Iberian colonialists and the indigenous looping traditions, which were often of breathtaking intricacy, in practice before European contact.)

Needles with smooth tips were illustrated in European portraits of “Knitting Madonnas” not all that long after the craft would have arrived in the locations where the paintings were made. The earliest is Italian from ca. 1345. Perhaps the best known of the genre, and certainly the one with the clearest detail, appears on the Buxtehude Altar from ca. 1400. (A set of five needles is shown in an illustration of a sock being knitted from ca. 1450.)


This either gainsays the northward importation (or at least its dating) or indicates that the hooks were dropped in rapid order thereafter — assuming that they were present in the first place. Assessing this also requires account to be taken of the Celtic and Viking knitting in wire prior to the putative arrival of knitting with non-rigid fibers via southern Europe.

It is also often suggested that the first device used for narrow tubular knitting in Egypt was a peg loom. This is based on the relative ease with which such implements can be used to knit all of the stitch structures seen in extant material, with a single hook. If that is accepted as correct, it could then be posited that needle knitting was spawned by the realization that a number of identical hooks could be used in a manner that obviated need for the loom. However, it could be suggested conversely that loom knitting is the younger technique, devised to provide a more easily mastered alternative to multi-needle knitting, also reducing the battery of needles — whether smooth or hook tipped — to a single hook.

There is no conclusive way of determining if loom knitting and needle knitting appeared sequentially in the same lineage or developed independently, perhaps even before either was introduced into Coptic Egypt. Nor is there any reason to assume that both methods were practiced there. Turning the perspective instead to structural detail, the simple and compound open stocking stitch observed in early tubular knitting can be characterized by the parallel chains that are formed at right angles to the path of the yarn as each row is worked into the preceding one.



Such chains also appear in the significantly older plaited fabric widely termed sprang, which is worked in two symmetrical halves toward a central “meeting line.” If this is retained in the final object (which is otherwise split into separate halves), it is secured by one of several methods that include looping a row of chains across the fabric. The plaiting is normally done with bare hands but the room for maneuvering decreases as the two halves approach each other, and the chained form of the meeting line is therefore made with  a hook. (I’ll revisit this all in greater historical and technical detail in separate posts and, as sprang is a Swedish word, will also examine relevant documents in which it appears.)

Here is a detail of the simple chain meeting line in the oldest known exemplar of sprang — a cap found in a Danish grave from ca. 1300 BCE,


and another of a compound chain meeting line in a hairnet found at a Danish site from ca. 490 BCE.


Chains also appear in multiple adjacent rows at meeting lines and as decorative ridges in other positions. This structure is properly classified as knitting-type interlooping and is an element of sprang even if not primarily identified with it. As with the early contemporaneous manifestations of remarkably similar forms of needle binding and tubular knitting in Northern Europe and Egypt, sprang also appears in both regions. (Extensive additional material about Nordic and Coptic sprang are found in the monumental Ancient Danish Textiles from Bogs and Burials by Margrethe Hald, who we met in an earlier post about nalbinding and whose illustrations of meeting lines appear above.)

Coptic sprang survives from the 4th century CE and the craft was practiced in Egypt through and beyond the entire period during which knitting developed there. It thus seems reasonable at least to wonder if the simple and compound knitted structures found in sprang, and their production with a hooked needle, provided impetus to the development of true knitting as initially seen in the tubular pieces that began to appear during the 5th century CE.

Knitting · Structures · Techniques · Tools

More about the structure of early Egyptian knitting

A previous post discussed several pieces of tubular knitting reported to have been made in Egypt during the 1st millennium CE. (Thanks to Matthew Pius for spotting the earlier studies and guest blogging their central details, summarized and commented on below.) One of the tubes had been radiocarbon dated to the interval 425–594 CE (in this test report) and is thus the oldest such object of substantiated age that has yet come to light. It is described by Dominique Bénazeth in an article titled “Accessoires vestimentaires dans la collection de textiles coptes du musée du Louvre” in a report from a conference in 2009, published in 2013 as Drawing the threads together; Dress accessories of the 1st millennium AD from Egypt.

The direct indications of this item having been made in Egypt are too weak to establish its provenance. However, its similarity to other knitted tubes that have a better-established Egyptian nexus — particularly one that is currently at the Museum of Byzantine Art in Berlin — was accepted as sufficient for grouping the Louvre piece with them. The Berlin tube is not clearly dated but is of certain geographic provenance and has been examined in greater structural detail. A report about it appears in an exhibition catalog from 2010 prepared by Klaus Finneiser, Petra Linscheid, and Meliné Pehlivanian, titled Georg Schweinfurth; Pionier der Textilforschung und Afrikaforscher. Their structural analysis concluded that it was likely to have been knitted on a peg loom, which is generally an efficient production device for tubular knitting. Since the Paris tube is both longer and narrower, the same method of production was assumed for it, as well.

The fabric structure of the Berlin tube is what a present-day knitter would call open (or uncrossed or untwisted) stocking stitch, albeit in a compound variant where each stitch is worked over the corresponding stitches in both of the two preceding courses (discussed and illustrated here). Loom knitters call this 1-over-2 (or double stitch) knitting. Its twisted “e-wrap” form commonly appears in stitch dictionaries of loom knitting, but descriptions of an open 1-over-2 structure produced with open “u-wrap” or “true” knitted stitches do not.

Compound knitting isn’t found in the established glossary of contemporary needle knitting but the structure appears in single-wale “false seams” worked with a crochet hook, such as Elizabeth Zimmerman’s phony seam (alternating 1-over-2 and 2-over-1). However, there is no particular difficulty in making compound stitches with ordinary knitting needles that justifies, much less necessitates, positing the greater utility of a knitting loom. There is no unequivocal physical or iconographic evidence of any of the candidate implements until significantly later than the production date of the Paris tube. There is also some basis for adding a circular needle to the speculative list of applicable tools.

An illustrated description of the needle-based technique was published in 1997 in a catalog prepared by Marianne Erikson titled Textiles in Egypt 200–1500 AD. It is part of the analysis of a fragment from ca. 1000 CE presented as flatwork but plausibly a segment of a piece worked in the round. That method of compound knitting was considered in further detail in a series of tutorial blog posts by Katrin Kania, in turn based on a workshop conducted by Petra Linscheid that examined the spool-based approach. A book recently published by Assia Brill titled Distitch, describes several needle-based techniques from the perspective of their contemporary application.

The photograph included in the Berlin report shows the compound structure from both the front and back of the fabric. The tube is not intact and several courses can be seen from the inside. The photograph in the report on the piece at the Louvre shows similar damage and reveals additional structural detail that might otherwise go unnoticed. Both tubes display the notable vertical compression of the individual stitches that is typical of compound knitting.

However, the second yellow band from the left in the lower segment in the following photo of the Paris tube has several stitches that are strained open and appear as though they might be looped into the immediately adjacent course only. The entire piece is close to two meters long and the full published photograph shows it in a serpentine position. The fineness of the stitching can be understood by visualizing the segments shown here as parts of a continuous tube of such length. If it is accepted that mistakes in this form of compound knitting can appear as ordinary knit stitches, there is no need for further explanation of the deviation in the lower segment.


The Berlin report references additional examples of Coptic tubular knitting and other sources include still more. Both simple and compound stocking stitch are represented and the detailed examination of a larger number of samples would permit a more certain determination of the balance between the two types. Some of the tubes are also closed at one end either with a drawstring or decreases in the final few rounds of stitches. The analysis of those structures might also provide more specific detail about the technique(s) applied to their production.

History · Looping · Structures · Tools

Crochet isn’t for the birds

Hooks and needles have been around immeasurably longer than any evidence of either being used in the production of looped fabric, and looping without tools all but certainly predates the use of any such implements for that craft. In fact, there’s no way even to determine if our species was the first to figure out how to do any of this.

Tailorbirds know how to draw loose fiber into thread and sew with it.

Weaverbirds know how to gather uniform strips of vegetable fiber and loop and weave them into shaped structures.

A slender pointed beak that can both pierce and grasp is remarkably well suited to the sewing and looping seen here. It is also useful for converting a needle into a hook when needed.

From the perspective of sewing-tool design, the dual-purpose awl and tweezers provided by a beak is a more precise implement than the functionally equivalent index finger and opposable thumb on a human hand. There is no reason to assume that these birds developed their needlecraft and toolmaking skills before we started doing similar things but Homo sapiens can’t even claim credit for the oldest known eyed needle.

It’s a fair guess that this needle was used to pierce fabric and pull some kind of fiber through the resulting hole but that doesn’t preclude similar action at the site of the needle’s manufacture or elsewhere with other tools. It would be more of a stretch to see the needle as evidence of tool-based looping but at some point eyed needles clearly did come into use for that purpose.

There is an obvious upshot to all this. Just as there are several basic looped structures that can readily be made without tools and are seen as universal constructs, appearing independently at uncountable times and places, a battery of ubiquitous tools has been available throughout to ease and extend the production and design of looped fabric. However much local applications might diverge and whatever degree of specialized complexity a craft might ultimately acquire, at least in principle, all can be traced back to one or more elements of the same initial set of structures and tools.

In the largest number of cases, the appearance of similar techniques at widely separated times and locations is therefore best treated as coincidental. However, there are situations where corroborating evidence indicates cultural cross-pollination, if not the outright transfer of technology. One possible such occurrence can be seen in previous posts about the parallels between Egyptian yarncraft and Viking wirecraft, with tubular knitting appearing in each. A similar parallel is found in the looped yarncraft of the two regions.

The eyed needle was used by both communities when working with yarn but the only evidence of a hook used with that material is Egyptian, assuming the practice of  knitting on a peg loom. The Vikings similarly appear likely to have used a hook for knitting wire but, again, there is no indication of their having used such tools to work yarn. That technique does appear in Northern Europe far later as “shepherd’s knitting” (the basic form of what is now called slip stitch crochet), where it is believed to have developed over an indeterminate period for producing the types of warm utilitarian garments that were also made in the same region by nalbinding.

However, there is at least one instance of shepherd’s knitting in archaeologically recovered material claimed to be from Coptic Egypt. If that provenance is accepted, it raises a few interesting questions. It is entirely possible that the object is simply an isolated occurrence of a fairly obvious method of looping that would become commonplace at a significantly later date, both in North Africa and Northern Europe. On the other hand, if the parallels between the looping techniques in those two regions are a result of cultural interaction — of which there is otherwise ample evidence — it may be possible that the use of a hook to make crochet-type structures was communicated via those channels. I’ll get into the details of this by describing the Coptic object in a subsequent post.