Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Knitting history

Ah, I should have known that a single post about knitting will draw more people out of the woodwork and get comments than all the other techniques. And actually, I wonder why - is it because more people can relate to knitting stuff, doing the technique themselves?

Comments yesterday made clear that there is huge interest in the history of knitting. When I was writing my thesis, of course knitting was one of the textile techniques to be mentioned, so I did some reading on that topic. And found (again) that knitting is a very, very hard technique to trace - about as nigh impossible as felting, if for different reasons.

Felting has no regular internal structure and thus is prone to fall apart into single hairs in adverse conditions - and adverse conditions for felt even include those that are generally good for organic material. With knitting, the problem lies elsewhere. Knitting can be unraveled so easily - and partly or completely "frogging" the work, if modern knitting blogs are any indication, is quite usual for things not living up to expectance. (Please tell me, do you frog knitted things that you don't wear anymore as well? Or only new stuff that doesn't fit or please well enough?)

If we assume that yarn was a valuable thing, and especially fine, colourful silk yarns, I can very well imagine that the yarns were unraveled and stored for another use - which would greatly reduce the number of knitted finds. Recycling and re-using (or remaking) of standard, sewn-from-fabric garments can be frequently seen in the archaeological evidence: Small, cut-off bits with seams in them, obviously the bits that could not be salvaged and used in a re-make because they were too crooked, too small or too oddly formed, or bits that were too worn. Now imagine somebody frogging a piece of knitting to re-knit. All that will be left might be a snippet of yarn - which, unfortunately, doesn't carry a sign telling the textile researcher "hey, I was part of knitting once!". And this makes knitting research a huge problem.

From what I could find in sources that were recent enough to already factor in the discussion of nalbinding against sprang, there was no evidence for true knitting before the start of the 12th century. There's a little more in the 13th, and more and more in the late middle ages and early modern age, but nothing earlier. The early datings usually come from the "coptic socks", and those I will consider as all nalbinding until somebody can prove the opposite by re-evaluation of the actual finds.

To round this off, for those of you hungry for references: Here's my list of things about knitting, taken from my bib database. I have not read all of those, so I can't guarantee that they will be good or insightful - if you know any of them, comments are very welcome!

CARDON, DOMINIQUE: Fils renoués. Trésors textiles du Moyen Âge en Languedoc-Rousillon. Carcassonne 1993.

GREINER, SYLVIA: Kulturphänomen Stricken. Grunbach 2002.

KJELLBERG, ANNE: "Knitting and the use of knitted goods in Norway before 1700. From archaeological finds to documentary evidence." In NOCKERT, MARGARETA und ESTHAM, INGER (Hrsg.), Opera Textilia Variorum Temporum. To honour Agnes Geijer on her ninetieth birthday 26th October 1988. Stockholm 1988. 145-152.

TURNAU, IRENA: "The Diffusion of Knitting in Mediaeval Europe." In HARTE, N.B. und PONTING, K.G (Hrsg.), Cloth and Clothing in Mediaeval Europe. Essays in Memory of Professor E. M. Carus-Wilson. London 1983. 368-389.

WYSS, ROBERT L.: "Die Handarbeiten der Maria. Eine ikonographische Studie unter Berücksichtigung der textilen Technik." In STETTLER, MICHAEL und LEMBERG, MECHTHILD (Hrsg.), Artes Minores. Dank an Werner Abegg. Bern 1973. 113-188.


Marije said...

Thank you for the references, I'll see if I can track them down!

Chris Laning said...

Irena Turnau's work is somewhat problematic and lacking in references, and there are also a few places where she seems to get her facts mixed. She developed a theory about the origins of knitting that as far as I know is shared by no one else, and seems to be contradicted by some of the early evidence -- partly, I think, because she was working in almost complete isolation from other knitting historians, and also because the structure of knitted fabric was not really her main concern: she was far more interested in the economic and social aspects of home-made versus commercial textiles, so for her purposes the details of technique were far less important.

The English translation of her book also suffers from many serious typographical errors (and possibly translation problems as well -- I don't read Polish so I have no way of knowing).

For the early Islamic pieces, the best resource I've found is:

ANDRÉ, PAUL: Tissus d’Égypte: Témoins du monde arabe, VIIIe-XVe siècles. Éditions de l’Albaron, Société Présence du Livre, 1993,ISBN 2-908-528-525.

This book (in French) presents the Bouvier Collection of Arabic textiles: woven, embroidered, printed, and including fifteen fragments of knitting. Most have color photos. This is more pieces of early knitting in one place than I've seen anywhere else, even though they're only a small part of the over 200 textiles in the book. Unfortunately this private collection does not seem to be available to researchers. And like most private collections, the textiles in it were purchased from antiquities dealers, which means they have little or no archaeological context.

To the best of my knowledge, none of the early Islamic pieces have yet been carbon-dated. I believe they have mostly been dated by comparing the decorative motifs used to those in other more securely dated textiles.

The earliest pieces in this book may be from as early as the 9th century, but the 11th is perhaps more probable -- the evidence being motifs popular in that century.

The earliest date on a Spanish piece that I'm aware of is a glove from the tomb of Archbishop Rodrigo Ximenez de Rada, who died in 1245. The cushion from the tomb of Fernando de la Cerda, who died in 1275, seems to be the next oldest. I don't know whether any of the other 13th century fragments can be dated to a certain decade.

Anonymous said...

I can recommend two articles that might help.

Caune A., and Zarina A., 'Rigas 13.-15. gs. vilnas cimdi'. Latvijas PSR zinatnu akademijas vestis, 1:39, (1980). 60-9.
(If I remember correctly, the 13th century finds are nalbinding, but there is a knitted glove from the 15th century.)

Peets, J. 'Totenhandschuhe im Bestattungsbrauchtum der Esten und anderen Ostseefinnen.' Fennoscandia archaeologica IV, (1987). 105-116.
(Largely nalbinding again, but it also discusses that 13th century mitten fragment from Estonia.)

From attempting once to translate some of Turnau from the original Polish, the problem with the English stuff was (as best as my dictionary could help) that a lot of the textile terms were translated vaguely, because the original terms seem to be vague themselves, and not by someone knowledgeable in English textile terms.

A lot of things that might have been nalbinded are described as crocheted, for example, (but Turnau isn't the only scholar to do this, and the English summaries become more incomprehensible as terms are awkwardly butchered the older the article.)

Machteld said...

Thanks for the references!

Regardless of its content, the paper by Turnau is just badly written (strange arguments, bad structure..). I don't understand how it could ever pass peer review... There are some interesting pictures in it though!

These are my favorite medieval knitting references:

Schmedding, B. (1978), Mittelalterliche Textilien in Kirchen und Klöstern der Schweiz, Bern: Abegg-Stiftung
-pictures and technical details of 14th c. knitted silk pouches

Gomez-Moreno, M (1946), El panteon real de las Huelgas de Burgos, Madrid: Consejo superior de investigaciones cientificas, Instituto Diego Velazquez
- pictures and technical data of 13th century knitted silk pillows

a stitch in time said...

Thanks everybody for your references and input!