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Mary Thomas's Knitting Book
By Mary Thomas
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1972 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Knitting, like other of its kindred arts, came from the East, from the Arabian peninsula, whence it spread eastwards to Tibet, westwards as far as Spain, carried thence and to other Mediterranean ports by the Arabs, who were the great traders of those days. A superb specimen of Arabian knitting silk of the 7th to 9th centuries is shown about actual size in Fig. 82.
Egypt learned her knitting from the Arabs, and it is only in Coptic Egypt, and where Arabian influence could penetrate, that Egyptian knitting discoveries dating from the 4th and 5th centuries have been found (seeFig. 209). At what date knitting actually originated no one knows, but in the ancient city of Yemen, in Arabia Felix, earlier known as Shabwa, the city of the Queen of Sheba, it is said to have been known for ever, and that the pattern on the serpent's back was knitted by Eve. Such is Eastern chronology.
Historians place the date about A.D. 200, but legend claims that the seamless garment of Christ was knitted and so could not be cut or divided; and lots were cast for it.
Legend again provokes a claim to Penelope's web which she wrought by day and unravelled so quickly by night, saying it was knitted! Was this Frame knitting?
But legend is a whimsical handmaid, and, though facts are rare, and knitting relics even more rare than those of any other textile, historians generally agree that knitting had but one common source, Arabia, and that from thence it has penetrated to the far corners of the earth, carried hence by the traders, sailors and settlers of different nations.
Knitting, then, in its earlier history, would appear to have been taught to the outer world by men—the traders of Arabia and the sailors of the Mediterranean—and right up to the end of the 19th century men as well as women plied the knitting needles.
In the heyday of the Guilds, when knitting was as much an industry as weaving, men served an apprenticeship in its cause. This needed six years: three years to learn, three years to travel, after which the apprentice made his Masterpieces in thirteen weeks. These were:
(1) To knit a carpet 4 ells square, the design to contain flowers, foliage, birds and animals, in natural colours. (Existing carpets are mainly about 6 ft. × 5 ft.)
(2) To knit a beret.
(3) To knit a woollen shirt.
(4) To knit a pair of hose with Spanish clocks.
The details varied a little. In some Guilds it was specially stated, "stockings to be made after the English style," others that the beret, stockings and shirt were to be knitted and afterwards felted, but the knitted carpet, as principal masterpiece, was acknowledged by most Guilds after 1602.
For this, the prentice first submitted his design in colour, as a chart (see page 93), swearing on oath, or by clasping the hands if a Protestant, that it was his own work. This approved, he asked to be informed of the workshop in which he must execute the work, and upon being named, the candidate made here all four of his appointed works in thirteen weeks, and upon approval, was received as Master and member of the Guild.
These carpets are magnificent specimens of knitted fabric. They are in wool, and as full of detail and colour as many Persian carpets, and obviously, like most of these, are intended as wall hangings or covers. Fig. 1 contains twelve different colours, red, green, blue, violet, pale blue, black, yellow, dark red and light brown, the yarn being stranded from colour to colour on the back (see page 96), and the gauge about five stitches to the inch. The fabric is in one piece, and may have been done on extra long needles, with some mechanical support for the increasing weight of the fabric, or could with ease have been done on a frame, as described in Frame Knitting (see page 114). The date—1713—is knitted at base of central ornament, and the initials of the Master, P. I. E., either side. Some of the carpets bear full name and date as part of the design.
These carpets can be classified as follows: 1. Knitted carpets. 2. Knitted and felted carpets. The first come mainly from the Upper Rhine, embracing Alsace, where the Guilds held their charters from the Hapsburgs (see the double-headed eagle, Fig. 1). These are more square and floral in design.
The second come mainly from Silesia, and are larger, about 7 to 10 feet, with central panel containing figures and landscapes of religious nature, surrounded with texts and wide floral frame-like border.
Knitting and Hosiery Guilds as formed in the 15th and 16th centuries both on the Continent and in England, brought the standard of knitting to great perfection, especially after the introduction of silk to Europe, when garments would be knitted in several colours and in designs that resembled brocaded fabrics; often outlined or part knitted with gold or silver (see Fig. 83, page 92). This was knitting fit for kings and courtiers, and by such was it worn.
The knitted shirt worn by King Charles on the day of his execution in 1649, and now in the London Museum, belongs to this great period, and was no doubt the work of a master knitter.
Silk completely changed the appearance and objective of knitting. Hitherto woollen fabrics had striven to imitate woven cloth even to the extent of disguising its appearance through a process of felting, a treatment which completely obliterated the stitches and gave the effect of solid fabric.
A few felted woollen caps of early Tudor period are to be seen in the London Museum. Two are shown in Figs. 2 and 3, and reveal that the fabric could be cut with safety, after the felting process had been applied.
The last surviving use of felting, as applied to knitting, can be seen to-day in the French beret and the Eastern fez, both of which carry in the middle of the crown the knitter's end of wool, showing how the work commenced. In early days it was the custom to knit the article in the natural colour of the wool, and then dye and felt it in one process by leaving it to soak for some four or five days. When the wool had thickened, the hat or cap would be blocked to any shape, brushed with a teasle brush and even cut, since there was no fear of the knitting unravelling.
Thus disguised, it is difficult to ascertain at this stage to what extent knitted articles or garments were worn in early days, but in England an Act of Parliament passed during the reign of Henry VII in 1488 speaks of knitted caps, and later another Act of 1553, in the reign of Edward VI, enumerates "knitte peticotes, knitte gloves, knitte sleeves and knitte hose," and it is quite certain that before any Act of Parliament could be passed, knitting as an industry would be well established.
The object of felting was to induce a rainproof fabric, as weather conditions have ever been the problem of man and his clothes. The fisher-folk of Aran, in Ireland, still knit and felt their socks. The Russians knit and felt slippers, boots and thigh hose.
The old Greeks and Romans felted for the same purpose, though whether the fabric they felted was woven or knitted is not known, but felting is said to have been invented before weaving by a process of matting wool together.
Herodotus describes the Persian soldier as wearing light flexible caps of felt, and those worn by the ancient Greek fishermen bear a strong resemblance to the fez, even to the point in the middle of the crown.
Knitting was always highly regarded as a feminine accomplishment in the home, and in old documents a bride's ability to knit was quoted as part of her dowry.
A Knitting Cup was one drunk at a medieval wedding feast, and the word knit seems to have played an important part in the language of the people, who up to the end of the 19th century would talk of "knitting a hedge" or to "knit the gate." A surgeon still talks of "knitting a broken bone together." The Anglo-Saxon word for knitting is cnyttan, cnotta—a knot.
The beautiful picture shown in the Frontispiece, entitled "The Visit of the Angels," was part of the inside right wing of the Buxtehuder Altar, painted by the Master Bertram between the years 1390 and 1400. This was originally erected in the Buxtehuder Abbey, and would suggest that the homely occupation of knitting was revered and encouraged by the nuns of this abbey. It is an historical picture and of great interest to knitters, as the artist reveals that knitting then was much as it is to-day, even to the manner of picking up the stitches and forming the neck of a garment.
Shakespeare makes mention of knitting in his plays as a common accomplishment, while Knitting Bees, we read, were then a means of whiling away the long winter evenings.
Mistress Lee, the wife of William Lee, the inventor of the Stocking machine (1589), was a great knitter, and helped to swell the family funds with her earnings, and we read it was to lighten her task that Lee invented his machine. This is one of the earliest records of a woman, mentioned by name as earning money by knitting.
Thus it would appear that knitting had two sources of development: (1) The Guilds, which brought the art to such a high degree of perfection; (2) the home and convents.
In Scotland the order of knitting has always been high, and at one time it was reputed the Scottish lay claim to its invention, St. Fiacre, the son of a Scottish King, being adopted as the patron saint of a Guild of Stocking Knitters formed in Paris about 1527. But knitting began earlier than this, though the beautiful lace knitting of Scotland has, like their openwork embroidery, ever been a source of wonder and admiration.
In the Shetlands, knitting remains an industry of the islands, and this small community, situated on the edge of civilisation, has something unique to offer a post-war, machine-minded generation; as here survives a knitting industry such as might have thrived in the days of the Guilds. Children are taught to knit from their earliest childhood, and are given a pair of knitting needles at the tender age of four years, but not for knitting. The child holds these needles as she sees her mother hold her needles, and pretends to knit, beating the needles up and down as though making stitches, and so acquires rhythm and speed, for a Shetlander knits at the rate of 200 odd stitches a minute!
This incredible pace is attained to-day in much the same way as the master knitters of old must have knitted, with the aid of a knitting stick or sheath (see page 19). Into this he inserted the end of his right needle and the stick itself into a belt on the right hip. The Shetland knitter, prompted by the same impulse, inserts her needle into a knitting pouch (see page 21) and so frees her right hand, which is then held over the extreme point of the right needle, operating the wool with the forefinger only, while the fingers of both hands "play" the stitches to and from the needle points as though playing a musical instrument. (See also page 20.)
The quick staccato music of the 17th and 18th centuries must surely have found its inspiration in the rapid rhythmical "click" of the knitting needles.
But while the technique of a Shetland knitter rekindles ideas of the Guilds, her spinning and carding of the wool rekindles ideas still more ancient.
The Shetland knitter still uses her distaff and spinning wheel. Her wool is plucked from the backs of her own sheep, and these she tends and breeds herself, nursing the tiny lambs through the difficult period of their early months, and often rescuing them, at danger to herself, from snow, sea or bog. The sheep are so small and their wool so delicately long that, when the time comes, the fleece can be "lifted" from the backs of the sheep by the simple process of running the hand, with fingers spread apart, along the back of the animal and "lifting" or "roeing" it away.
The fleece is then cleaned to remove dirt, heather, twigs, etc., placed before a large fire, and covered with a dressing of seal oil. This must be equally distributed by mixing and turning the wool about in this fire-heated atmosphere. When thoroughly soaked, the "combing" or "carding" begins, and as the wool is combed it is made into "rourers" (rolls) ready for spinning. The finest spun is a single hair, which is reeled off into a two-ply wool and hanked. This is then washed, as it is still permeated with oil, but for the very finest fabrics it is not washed until it has been knitted up, as by this means the delicate gossamer hair is stronger, though the knitting process is rather a messy one.
In early days, some such long procedure as this would have been the work of every knitter, and here in our midst to-day exists this medieval knitting sanctuary, free of the sound of machinery, kept alive by the women of these little islands.
Over the world in general, knitting spread with persistent speed. Within the home it was part of the daily work. In the fields, shepherds ever had their knitting in their hands, gathering their precious wool from the thickets, twigs and bushes against which the animals brushed in passing. Wool-gathering had another meaning then. They, too, would spin and make their own yarns, and knit socks, scarves and caps for themselves and their families, and as we approach the 18th century it is to find all Europe and western Asia to Tibet, knitting.
But while the story of knitting in Europe is difficult enough to follow, it is still more difficult in Asia. The knitting of Bokhara is brilliant in colour and magnificent in design, being similar in pattern to their embroideries. Colour knitting had, and still has, a great vogue in the East. The long thighlength hose worn by the Tibetans scintillated in colour and pattern, and, curiously enough, the knitting of the Corvichan Indians of Vancouver bears similar designs.
There seems no early trace of knitting in China, and little in India until European influence is felt, for these great countries, which gave such magnificent woven textiles and embroideries to the world, seem to have specialised in other forms of work, plaiting, etc., and since, perhaps, as they did not wear hose, never felt the urge to knit. Neither is there early trace of knitting in Africa except along the fringes of the Mediterranean, but things were soon to change. Europe, who had learnt the art from the East, was colonising. The British, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese were all acquiring colonies, and the settlers were spreading the cult over the seas of the world. Soon a grand panorama of world-wide activity was to respond in accord to that which had previously actuated the countries of Europe and Asia. We find the shepherds of Peru knitted as they tended their llama-herds, in common with the lonely Dutch settler in the Cape, or the impish donkey-boy of Morocco.
Knitting, because of its practical use, made its appeal in the new world, as it did in the old, to all classes, and perhaps why so little remains of all this activity is because of its too general acceptance and obvious utility.
But silk knitting, which made such a stir in Europe and in England when Good Queen Bess decided she would never again wear woollen hose, was to be superseded in the early 18th century by white knitting in linen and cotton yarns. With the importation of white Eastern muslins, the craze for cotton surpassed that of silk, and white knitting, just as white embroideries, became fashionable. The knitting was ambitious, and aspired to be regarded no longer as fabric or brocade, but lace, and so fine and open in pattern did it grow that the finest lace thread was used, knitted upon needles known as "wires."
Here, with the advent of cotton, dawned another great period of knitting. The lacemakers seized the art, and used knitted backgrounds as a cheaper and more expedient way upon which to embroider their lace stitches (seeFig. 146, page 142). Hosiery, too, was changing, and fine stockings of cotton were knitted with openwork fronts; mittens that rose up above the elbow bore openwork designs; bonnets, coats, scarves and fichus, all in finest openwork knitting, were the order of the day and fashion, while the knitting samplers as exemplified in Fig. 4 reveal what wealth of pattern and diversity of design was then in use. This sampler contains 150 different stitch patterns, and the stitches of the final pattern are not cast-off, but left ready for morel So the collection was never finished. The strip is mounted on pink sarsenet ribbon, the patterns being numbered in tens, with embroidered figures.
Excerpted from Mary Thomas's Knitting Book by Mary Thomas. Copyright © 1972 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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