Musical Instruments

Fifes and flageolets

The preceding post discusses a tune found in the third volume of “Aird’s Selection of Scotch, English, Irish, and foreign airs; Adapted for the Fife, Violin, or German Flute.” This is a six-volume series produced during the final two decades of the 18th century. The title page of the first volume illustrates a fife in a military context and the following volumes are dedicated to the British and Irish armed forces.

The collection does not include a noteworthy amount of military music and there is no obvious musical intention behind the dedication. This raises a question about whether the fife was highlighted at the start of the list of instruments simply as part of the homage, or if it had a more prominent role in civilian contexts than is generally recognized. A hand drawing on the back of the illustrated page sheds light on this and will be examined more closely below.

A fife is seen in a similar setting in this post’s banner image, taken from a French textbook on dance by Thoinot Arbeau, Orchesographie, published in 1596. His list of instruments used for military march and dance includes a “fifre” and an “arigot,” seen at the right and left sides of the illustration, respectively. In a subsequent discussion of recreational dance, he defines the fifre — fife — as “a small transverse flute with six holes, which the Germans and Swiss use, and since it has a very narrow bore the size of a pistol ball, it produces a sharp sound.”

Arbeau’s arigot is an end-blown duct flute — flageolet (“flajol”) — that “due to its small size has more or fewer holes; the best made have four holes in front and two behind.” This arrangement permits a closer placement of the fingers than does the one with all six holes on the same side. Arbeau otherwise regards the fife and flageolet as equivalent and notes that musicians accompanying recreational dance who find the sound of the fife too strident use the flageolet instead. (It may be more than a passing coincidence that the terms arigot and flageolet are echoed by the designations for the similarly diminutive haricot and flageolet beans.)

Marin Mersenne describes both the fifre and the flajolet in his monumental Harmonie Universelle, from 1636. He also clarifies the association of cylindrical transverse flutes with Germany. His discussion of the Fleute d’Allemande explicitly states that it had a cylindrical bore. The segment pierced by the toneholes was redesigned with a conical bore by French makers between 1660 and 1680, without giving the instrument a new name. The latter design is the one labeled a German Flute in Aird’s collection and numerous others like it.

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Looped Fabric · Musical Instruments

The Cardin’ o’t

The following song appears in the The Works of Roberts Burns, by Allan Cunningham, published in 1834, vol. 2, p. 430.

        THE CARDIN’ O’T.
 Tune—“Salt-fish and dumplings.”
                       I
I coft a stane o’ haslock woo’,
   To mak a wat to Johnny o’t;
For Johnny is my only jo,
   I lo'e him best of ony yet.
      The cardin’ o’t, the spinnin’ o’t,
         The warpin’ o’t, the winnin’ o’t;
      When ilka ell cost me a groat,
         The tailor staw the lynin o’t.
                       II
For though his locks be lyart grey,
   And tho’ his brow be beld aboon;
Yet I ha’e seen him on a day,
   The pride of a’ the parishen.
      The cardin’ o’t, the spinnin’ o’t,
         The warpin’ o’t, the winnin’ o’t;
      When ilka ell cost me a groat,
         The tailor staw the lynin’ o’t.

The title expands prosaically to The Carding of it and ‘wat’ appears as ‘coat’ in other sources. The remaining Scots vocabulary is:

coft a stane = bought a stone (14 lbs.)
jo = darling
winnin’ = weaving (winding)
ilka ell = all else
groat = small coin
staw = stole (overcharged)
lyart grey = silvery
beld aboon = bald above


Beyond the significance of this edition to the study of Burns’s poetry, Cunningham follows the song with a commentary that is relevant to the histories of both textiles and music.

The little of this song to which antiquity lays claim is so trifling that the whole may be said to be the work of Burns. The tenderness of Johnnie’s wife can only be fully felt by those who know that hause-lock wool is the softest and the finest of the fleece, and is shorn from the throats of sheep in the summer heat, to give them air, and keep them cool.

Burns was born on 25 January 1759 and died on 21 July 1796. The song initially appeared in a manuscript from the latter year. Cunningham’s commentary proceeds with a description of the provisioning of Highland wool to the Lowlands at that time. If the present text were intended solely for inclusion in the facet of this blog relating to fabric production, I would cite it in full and then delve further into wool processing in Scotland when my perennial favorite, shepherd’s knitting (aka Scottish knitting), was in its heyday. However, one of the thoughts underlying this post is to see if a single essay can prove worthwhile both to readers with an interest in textile history and to those more focused on musical instruments.

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Musical Instruments

Passing the bar exam


This post takes another look at the often blurry lines separating what are regarded as categorically distinct types of chord zithers. The focus this time is on variant forms of the autoharp that branched off before it had fully acquired its current identity. The baseline is an unmechanized zither with free strings only, tuned to a continuous scale that can be anything from single-key diatonic to fully chromatic.

It becomes an autoharp by the attachment of a battery of movable bars with damping pads — but there’s more to it. Adding that the pads on a given bar have to be arranged to mute the strings that don’t belonging to a specified chord still doesn’t cover everything. The lock bars now commonplace on two- and three-key diatonic autoharps mute strings that don’t belong to a specified scale, rather than chord. Systems that produce chords by pressing two bars simultaneously entail further variation, so it is also necessary to distinguish between one type of bar and another.

There are also instruments where the damping action is reversed, muting all strings until a bar is activated. Such arrangements are also scale-oriented, with a bar opening every instance of a given note, and typically present the player with a piano-type keyboard rather than one or more rows of buttons. However, both operate damper bars and the requisite additional qualifier is whether they cause strings to be muted — ‘additive action’ — or unmuted — ‘subtractive action.’

Instruments with additional devices that strike or pluck the strings, sometimes in elaborate hybrid configurations, are aggregated under the apt heading ‘gizmo’ harps. In terms of family relationships, they are cousins of the autoharp and don’t need to be weighed into any precise definition of it. However, plucking mechanisms appear side-by-side with damping mechanisms in early patents for instruments that are presented as autoharps and would otherwise be seen as such. The following closer look at them is intended to inform the discussion of how current notions of design specificity developed.

I’ll wade into it midstream with an illustration taken from a patent for a “Harp” applied for by John St. John on 11 December 1890 and issued as US Patent No. 463368 on 17 November 1891.

Continue reading “Passing the bar exam”
Musical Instruments

The value of $50

One of the most widely known details about the history of the autoharp is that its name first appeared in a US patent issued to Charles Zimmerman in 1882. Seeing one mentioned in an advertisement in the 21 September 1884 issue of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat is therefore unsurprising.

E. W. Muller instructs on piano, guitar, mendiline, zither, auto-harp, singing, etc.: a lodging-room in exchange for instructions.

This also provides a concrete date by which the autoharp had come into circulation, pushing the generally accepted estimate back from 1885. There is a useful clue about the model that Muller owned, in the section headed “Criminal Notes” in the 16 February 1885 edition of the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

Frank Muller was jailed to-day on a charge of stealing an autoharp valued at $50, from Ernest W. Muller.

Assuming that it was made by Zimmermann, $50 is roughly what one might expect him to have charged for a handmade instrument of the design illustrated in his patent. We know that such things existed through a photograph of him playing one, in an article by Ivan Stiles in the Spring 1991 issue of the Autoharp Quarterly, titled “The True History of the Autoharp.” (However, a close look at that photo shows a bar arrangement that may differ from the one in the patent drawing.) Here is the patent illustration, flipped vertically for comparison with the following images.

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Musical Instruments

Zither accordions

For decades, my day job gave regular need for bridging the gaps between the academically derived terminologies used for the labeling and classification of musical instruments in museum collections, the craft-oriented vocabularies of musical instrument makers, and the freer glossary used by musicians. I was deeply embroiled in what remains lively controversy about classification systems and am finding it increasingly difficult to steer clear of that topic on this blog.

At the moment, though, it seems to be something of a “Patent of the Month Club.” The nomenclature applied to the description of musical instruments in the reported documents varies widely and wildly, and is often severely at odds with that accepted in explicitly music-oriented contexts. Dealing with this is keeping the terminologist in me happily occupied. The present installment also provides a springboard into the discussion of tuning and tuning systems, which is another topic that I’ve been saying less about than I ultimately intend to.

Before getting to it, some of this blog’s followers may wish to note that I’ve recently edited last month’s post about overlapping patent claims fairly extensively in light of one that I had previously overlooked (for reasons not entirely unrelated to the introductory theme of the following discussion). The shield bars that define the Phonoharp were not an American invention datable to 1891. They appeared in an earlier German patent issued in 1887.

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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

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

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”

Looped Fabric

Mlle. Riego’s crochet stitch atlas

In 1847, Eleanore Riego de la Branchardière published the first series of instructions for crochet lace in a planned multipart production titled The Crochet Book. The preface to the second series is dated 1 January 1848 and its preparation was likely coordinated with that of the first. The two series define basic concepts and techniques of the craft separately from the instructions to which they are applied and illustrate a number of crochet stitches with unprecedented clarity. Written stitch descriptions appear in a few of the subsequent series but only the first two include tutorial drawings.

Those in the first volume begin with how “To Make a Chain,” calling each element of the aggregate structure a “chain stitch.” They continue with the “Plain Stitch called French or Double Crochet” (US single) and then a “Treble Stitch” (US double). The intermediate “Single Crochet, or Shepherd’s Knitting” (slip stitch) is deferred until the second series. In that one, Riego drops the alternative designations for the plain stitch and redefines “Double Crochet” as discussed below.

The third series also appeared in 1848, referring the reader to the first two for basic definitions with one exception — “For Long stitch, see ‘Winter Book,’ page 18, in Mary Stuart Hood.” That was yet another of Riego’s publications from 1848. It only provides a written description of the long stitch but this unambiguously details what she might have called a quadruple stitch (US treble) if she had left double crochet with its initial meaning.

Riego uses a more rigorous terminology in The Crochet Book than she does in her earlier writing, where the word crochet is a generic synonym for stitch made with a hook. Here a “stitch” is an attribute of the fabric. A “loop” is something initially found on the tool and then worked into other loops to produce a stitch, which is further specified by parts of the component loops. The illustration of single crochet provides a useful introduction to her descriptive methodology (and commercial prowess; the Taylor named on the spool was one of her sponsors).

single crochet

“After making a chain, the loop E being on the needle, put the needle in a stitch as F, draw the thread through, forming a loop, and also through the loop on the needle E.” Continue reading “Mlle. Riego’s crochet stitch atlas”

Looped Fabric

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”