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.

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”

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.

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”

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

“Der Bazar” — a 14th-anniversary retrospective

The issue of Der Bazar from 23 December 1868 is devoted to an article responding to numerous letters from readers asking for information about the way the publication was produced. The editors took this as “necessary justification for writing about the Bazar in the Bazar.” They commemorated the 14th anniversary of the appearance of its first issue with a detailed retrospective about the publication’s development from an initial biweekly “modest octavo” to a “folio upon folio” weekly series.

bazar-banner-1855 Continue reading ““Der Bazar” — a 14th-anniversary retrospective”