Looped Fabric

New article on the history of knotting and tatting

I am pleased to announce the publication of my article, “Knotting and Tatting: The Dual Role of the Shuttle as a Fashion Accessory and Instrument of Decoration,” in the Early Summer 2021 issue of The Journal of Dress History.

It is a totally reworked and expanded successor to a preliminary report on Early Tatting Instructions that was previously available via this blog but was taken offline quite a while ago. Here is the abstract of the new article:

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Looped Fabric

Pegging the origin of the slipped stitch

One of the nice parts about using a blog to present the results of ongoing historical research, is the ease with which a report of “the earliest evidence [of whatever] that has yet come to light” can be amended when even older evidence is uncovered. Since such work constantly strives to extend the resulting timeline, every new success paradoxically risks invalidating a previous one. The corresponding revision of the broader narrative may entail nothing more than noting that something is a few years older than previously believed. However, things such as the radiocarbon dating of a questioned fragment of fabric can necessitate a fundamental re-contextualization of previous documentation. This in turn can effect a major change in our understanding of, say, the origin of a given mode of looped fabric production.

I tacitly tweak posts on this blog to reflect subsequent insight without calling attention to such revision. However, there have been a few stop-press situations where the retroactive editing has been paired with a new post about the details of the more recently uncovered material. The last such case (reported here) arose from my having overlooked the first attested mention of Tunisian crochet — in a Swedish publication that I had in fact examined. It appeared one year earlier than the German source I had cited.

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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.

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Looped Fabric

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.

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Knitting the slipped crochet stitch

This post is an updated replacement for an earlier one titled Scottish and shepherd’s knitting revisited that I took offline before preparing an article on the underlying topic for publication. New questions about shepherd’s knitting and its relationship to crochet have arisen in the interim and a book that was central to the initial post sheds quite a bit of light on them. It was published in Dublin in 1835, with the title page:

SIMPLE DIRECTIONS
IN
NEEDLE-WORK AND CUTTING OUT
INTENDED FOR THE USE OF THE
NATIONAL FEMALE SCHOOLS OF IRELAND.
TO WHICH ARE ADDED,
SPECIMENS OF WORK
Executed by the Pupils of
THE NATIONAL MODEL FEMALE SCHOOL

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Looped Fabric

Revisiting crochet as warp knitting

The terms warp and weft are primarily associated with weaving but are also used when describing looped fabric, for example, as designations for the two basic forms of industrial machine knitting. A “weft knitting machine” drapes a continuous “weft thread” across a battery of parallel hooks that work it into a “course” (row) of loops from the one side of the fabric to the other. A second course is then knitted into it, releasing completed stitches into the fabric, and the process is repeated until the desired length of fabric is attained.

The action of a weft knitting machine is seen in a snippet from a tutorial video (from a suite provided by the equipment manufacturer Groz-Beckert). The fabric being produced is termed Jersey in the industrial glossary, and plain knitting, stocking stitch, or stockinette in that of hand knitting.

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Mrs. Gaugain’s combined crochet

The first tutorial text about crochet written entirely in English was published in 1840 by Jane Gaugain, in The Lady’s Assistant for Executing Useful and Fancy Designs in Knitting, Netting and Crotchet Work. She uses the French loanword (alternating between the spelling in the title and the native one) to designate the craft but not the individual stitches that it comprises. Each is labeled a “tambour” and the action of their production is “tambouring,” without any reference to crochet in the instructions. She settled on the now standard spelling in subsequent texts but left the substantive presentation of the craft unchanged in the enlarged 1847 edition of The Lady’s Assistant, despite the different nomenclature her colleagues had begun to apply in similar presentations starting in 1842.

This strongly suggests that Gaugain took tambour embroidery to be the sole point of departure for the new craft. Other authors saw tambour embroidery as having contributed elements that were merged with the older Scottish shepherd’s knitting, which they incorporated into the new stitch repertoire as single crochet (later aka slip stitch crochet). Gaugain was also the only one who placed the elemental chain stitch in the ordered sequence that extended to double and treble crochet.

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Getting the New Year started

This year marks the 50th anniversary of my first submission of an article for publication in an academic journal, prepared shortly after I started working at the first of the two museums in Stockholm where I was to spend the rest of my career. Although I hadn’t anticipated carrying museum-based research into my retirement, with the exception of shifting its focus to the history and technology of looped fabric production, that’s exactly what this blog represents. Without calling particular attention to it, almost every post has been framed as an essay that might serve as a preliminary study for a future journal article.

My good friend Dora Ohrenstein, who has been following this undertaking since the earliest “maybe a blog would be a good idea” phase, recently suggested that describing the research process itself, and not simply reporting its outcome, would be of interest to many readers. I’ll be taking that advice but am uncertain about how best to integrate commentary about the added form of geekery into the one I’ve been plying here all along. For openers, here is a retrospective introduction to it from the perspective of a researcher who in real time tracked the effects of the introduction of digital technologies on both the research and publication processes.

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The slanted senses of double crochet and other naming slips

There are two well-established glossaries used to describe crochet in the English language. They are referred to as “US” and “UK,” with other anglophone countries using the one or the other. Both include the same terms and present the same stitches, but associate the labels with the structures differently. A “single crochet (US)” is a “double crochet (UK)” and a “double crochet (US)” is a “treble crochet (UK).” A “slip stitch” is now the same in both but was a “single crochet” on, and for a long time after its first appearance in the UK terminology. This was the earlier of the two to develop and is used in the following discussion unless otherwise noted.

Frances Lambert published an ordered set of definitions for crochet stitches in 1844, in My Crochet Sampler. A “plain single crochet” starts a counting sequence that continues with a “plain double crochet.” However, there is a confusingly similar “double stitch crochet” that designates a stitch made by pulling its initial loop under both legs of the loop to which it is anchored.

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The chain at the top of the long stitch

This post continues the series describing Tunisian crochet stitches found in the series of five booklets dedicated to that craft published by Cornelia Mee and Mary Austin beginning in 1858. The one presented here is in the second booklet, which appeared in November 1859 and is the first description of Tunisian filet mesh that has yet come to light.

In the previous posts, the stitches are designating by a shorthand based on the order of their introduction in the booklets. A generalized drawing of an unspecified TC stitch appears without instructions in several of them and is MA0. The first stitch with illustrated instructions is MA1. I’m preparing similar presentations of all of their stitches that are cited in my recent article on the history of the craft, and selected others beyond that.

However, it became clear with the present post that this scheme won’t scale well across the entire series of booklets. From here on, the booklet number will be included in the abbreviation and the stitch numbering started afresh for each. This makes the one described below MA2:6 (and the remaining ones from the first booklet, MA1:2, etc.).

The illustration of MA2:6 is the one of all those provided by Mee and Austin that comes closest to matching the prefatory drawing of MA0, although they still differ significantly. As with it, a new forward-pass loop is drawn through the preceding return chain, but the hook is inserted into the back loop (aka back bump) rather than the chain loop of the anchor stitch. Another obvious difference between the two illustrations is the greater vertical distance between the return chains in MA2:6, effected with treble crochet stitches (US, as in all following references).

Such stitches were well established in the crochet repertoire by the mid-19th century. Detailed instructions from 1848 are discussed in a previous post, repeating an illustration in it here for comparison with the one of MA2:6. As was customary in ordinary crochet flatwork at the time, the fabric was not turned at the end of a row unless explicitly called for in instructions. The illustrated structure is therefore equivalent to the Tunisian variant except for the horizontal spacing between the stitches.

Mee and Austin don’t illustrate their Tunisian treble crochet with the clarity of the preceding drawing. Nonetheless, the engravings in their second booklet are significantly more detailed than those in the first. The written instructions for MA2:6 lead directly to the swatch shown in the accompanying illustration. Continue reading “The chain at the top of the long stitch”