Saturday, May 16, 2009

Knitting before Newton

Lack of evidence for existence may or MAY NOT be evidence of non-existence. Lack of evidence may simply be good evidence for moths, mold, damp, hearths without chimneys, and frogging for reuse. Lack of evidence may be a problem with experimental design or the mechanics of the sampling methodology. I find that knitters tend not to spend a lot of time pondering design of experiment and sampling methodologies.

A careful reading of Rutt suggests that he never knit with a knitting sheath, which I find a singular lack in someone writing about an industry where the knitting sheath was a primary tool. He handled ganseys in a museum context and did not go out and determine their functional qualities. His statement to the effect that too much has been made about how weatherproof fisherman’s ganseys tells me that he did not understand the rigors of sailing in a wooden ship or the warmth of a real gansey. As one's body cools, one loses judgement and coordination. For a sailor working in the rigging, loss of either judgement or coodination is sudden death as he falls. In contrast, a cold farmer may stumble on his way home, and still make it back to his warm hearth. If one does not understand these two points, one cannot make sense of that knitting masterpiece called a “fisherman’s gansey.” Rutt did not understand the physics of knitting, the physics of how a knit fabric insulates, or human physiology.

Fisherman’s ganseys and seaman’s gansey are functionally similar and produced with the same materials and tools. For all practical purposes they are the same. While the British navy did not set a uniform, they constrained what a seaman could wear by what was available for him to buy aboard ship. A sailor pressed off of a merchant ship might be wearing a gansey, but but a landsman would not. Now, go back through the British Admiralty contracts, and see what they put in the "slop chests" from which every British seaman had to buy the clothes that he wore. A good place to start is Admiral Nelson and work backwards. This is piles and piles of documentation in the best British tradition. Every British Naval vessel had what we would recognize as seamen's ganseys aboard to sell to the seamen.

The French built Louisbourg on a cold point in Nova Scotia to protect their cod fishery and to a lesser extent their fur trade from the British. King Georg was projecting his navy across the Atlantic and we have records of what was in the slop chests on those ships, and thus what British sailors were wearing. We can make a reasonable assumption that the French sailor’s supporting Louisbourg were similarly dressed. And yet, when I visited Louisbourg nobody on their huge staff knew about knitting sheaths. Nobody knew what a gansey needle was. They had not even looked for DPN – they had looked for Victorian style SPN. There were living history staff for a remote, cold, outpost set in 1740, knitting lace with SPN?! No wonder they did not find evidence for knitting in a very cold place where there were sheep bones and wooden shoes in the midden. They did not seem to know what to look for in the way of knitting tools. While we were there, one of the enactors got hypothermia, and they had to send her off to get warm. It was June! It was nice and warm (6C & 25 knot wind) right there on that parapit. Of course, I was wearing a gansey, hat, and wool socks, all knit from local wool. (My wife in her Patagonia gear was very cold. No other tourists stayed on top of the wall for more than -- seconds.) While I expect that the ladies of Louisbourg did knit lace in 1740, I am also sure that somebody in that fortress was knitting warm woolens.

When I visited the archeology dig at York, they told me that they had not looked for knitting tools because everything they were looking at was before knitting was introduced into Europe. I suggested, maybe not, and showed them what wear marks would indicate knitting needles rather than awls. Recent publication reports the finding of 14th century metal double pointed knitting needles at York.

Estonia, Ireland, and Scotland were all very much in the Norse world of trade from the 8th through the 13th centuries. Consider the fragment of elaborate “Fair Isle knitting” that was found in 1949 in a 13th century Votic grave. It was in the literature, and yet ignored by Rutt. This tells me that the York knitting needles are not anomalous, and there was elaborate knitting being done in Europe in the 13th century. We can be sure that in the 13th century knitting was established from Estonia to Ireland.

In the early 13 th century the Portuguese were selling cod form the Newfound Land Banks. They must have had ganseys. Ganseys made commercial, long range fishing economic. Knit ganseys kept sailors from getting so cold that they fell to their death. If too many of the sailors on board get chilled the ship is lost and the venture is not econmic. In this same time frame the English from Norfolk were fishing cod from square rigged ships as shown by the bench ends from King's Lynn. They fished so well that in 200 years the grounds were fished out and the tradition of cod fishing in ships from Norfolk was forgotten. All that remained was a knitting tradition, supporting fishermen in small boats.

The 11th century saw Cistercian Order with abbeys in Portugal, France, England, Ireland, and Scotland moving rams to improve their flocks of sheep. They had wool, ships, and they had a mission to teach. I think we can be sure that they taught knitting and even gansey making.

Knitting is knitting, whether it is done from cotton or wool or silk or silk with gold threads. That is, knit fabrics containing metal threads has always been considered knitting. We have Irish and Scotch metal work, with good provenance clearly dating to the 8th and 8-9th centuries containing knit metal wire. We have all seen these examples in our art history books, we just did not think about what we were seeing. Ladies and Gentlemen, knitting in Great Britain is an ancient art.

One thing that is unique about knitting, and that makes it different from naalbinding and woven material is knit fabrics' ability to be easily unraveled, and the yarn reused, or re-spun and reused. If I am a thrifty housewife with a drop spindle, every bit of yarn is precious. If I have an old bit of thread-bare knitting, I am likely to unravel it, and use the old threadbare yarn as one ply in a new yarn. Or, I might just reknit the piece. In a land of hand spinning, I would never expect to see any scrap of old knitting. If the owner did not want the yarn out of it, somebody else would. We should be very surprised to see old knit fabrics. If the moths or mold did eat the fabric, then the nearest spinner or knitter would have used the fabric.

What is an old knitting sheath? Firewood! Firewood next to the fire is always better than firewood out in the yard. Old knitting sheaths went on the fire. Old wooden knitting needles were saved for kindling. Any blacksmith would buy steel or iron or brass or bronze knitting needles for cash money. We should not expect to find many old knitting implements.

So, why don’t we find ganseys in the document record? Why are they not listed in wills? Well they were a work garment, and work garments wear out. No, they were THE work garment. A seaman was likely to be wearing his best gansey, and one way or another, he was likely to be buried in it. If he is planning on being buried in it, it is not going to show up in his will. In fact, a man on land did not need a seaman’s gansey at all, and a gansey was a very expensive thing to own if one did not need such an elaborate garment. If he sells it of gives it away, it is not going to show up in his will or inventory. If he is wearing it, it is not going to show up in an inventory of the house. I would not expect to see much documentary evidence relating to “fishermen’s” or “seaman’s” ganseys. Which brings us back to – What was in the slop chests of the British Navy? There, where we expect it, we have references to knit frocks.

A ship is a complex system. Change any part of it, and other systems much be changed. The great changes in western ships counting backward were, use of liquid petroleum fuel, use of coal, use of square rigged sails. . . . . . . . Diesel and steam meant that sailors could operate the ship without going above the deck, and without the kind of gymnastics that sailors traditionally performed. Engines also provided heat for the crew. Thus, after the advent of steam power, sailors could have a warm dry place to sleep, this changed their clothing requirements. And, the costume of sailors changed.

We know that square rigged ships sailed by sailors in ganseys worked very well for a very long time. The question arises, “Which came first, square rigged ships in Europe, or knitting in Europe?” Square rigged ships appeared around 1000 AD or two centuries AFTER we know the Irish were knitting even very difficult things like wire. Thus, the system of square rigged ships and knit sailors’ ganseys could have evolved together.

To move the above from an isolated chronology to a documented web of history, consider the Channel Islands. Early on, they were agrarian, developing their own fine breeds of milk cows, sheep, and very complicated land inheritance traditions. In the period of the 8-10th centuries, they became the primary provider of salt fish to Catholic Europe (and England) for fast days. They were such good fishermen that they fished out their local waters and in the 11th century were selling “exceptionally cunning” garments knit from their local wool to other sailors and fishermen. By the 12th century, their knitting production exceeded local wool production and they were importing wool from England. The customs taxes on that wool were the primary source of cash income for the cash strapped treasury of the English Crown. This continued until the Tudor wool act which stopped the export of raw wool. (Thus, a few years later, Cabot's men were wearing Englsih knit frocks rather than Guernsey knit.) Suddenly cut off from the wool for their knitting that was their principle source of income, the Channel Islands turned to piracy to support themselves. Elisabeth R sent Sir Walter Rayleigh to stop the piracy. Rayleigh helped the islanders reestablish their knitting industry.

It is worth noting that despite great advances in scholarship the field of knitting history, Rutt has not updated his book.


yrs etc said...

Interesting about knitting sticks.

I came across a velvet-clad conical sheath containing what look like spills/thin chopsticks recently. The whole thing is perhaps 10" long & the spills do not come out. Noone in the museum knew what it was but I reasoned that if these spills wouldn't come out, perhaps something else might go in - and I guess it's a home made knitting support. I was shown it having run an exhibition on Ganseys last autumn so these things were on my mind. I'd send you a picture but perhaps the easiest way is if I put some on my blog & invite you to become a Friend; if you're interested please send me your email. Deb Gillanders, Whitby.

=Tamar said...

I think Rutt is in his nineties by now. He was going to update it but I think he just got too old.

Where did you find the information about the "exceptionally cunning" garments made in the 11th century in the Channel islands?

sablegerbil said...

My comment re knitting sheath has appeared on my email but as it seems to have come from noreply I can't email you - if you'd like a picture I'll need your address.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading your blog with great interest, and I am wondering what information you have come across about knit undergarments for added warmth. My experience and interest comes from long distance cycling, where one rides straight through a few days and nights with minimal or no sleep, and through all weather. If it's raining, staying dry is pretty much a lost cause because anything waterproof enough to keep the rain out will have you soaked in sweat. But a soaking wet wool cycling jersey will keep you much warmer than a soaking wet synthetic one, and nothing enhances that property (for synthetic clothing as well) as well as a good undershirt. At present, my favorite undershirt for highly variable weather is a fairly open synthetic mesh. If you had nothing over it, it would be about as warm as fishnet stockings. But put it under just about anything, and it does a terrific job of keeping wet fabric away from your skin and keeping you comfortable to temperatures considerably lower than the outer garment alone would allow for. (Incidentally, it even works well for cotton flannel, which is ordinarily not so great at keeping you warm when it's wet!)
At the moment, I am experimenting with a knitted wool version, which I'm making in loose stockinette using a wool yarn on the heavier end of laceweight. My theory is that the meshy nature of the fabric has as much to do with the function of the undershirt as the fiber, because of the small air pockets it traps.
Anyway, after that long explanation, I'm wondering if you have found any evidence of finer/softer wool undergarments under ganseys? An undershirt like this has a whole lot fewer stitches than anything else I can think of that gives you the same increase in comfortable temperature range, with less yarn, although it does require the yarn to be relatively soft and fine. Of course, there's probably even less chance that something like this would survive than there is with a gansey, so who knows. I'm just wondering.

Aaron said...

Ganseys were worn aboard ships. The conditions aboard ships in those days were terrible. The tight knit, coarse wool would stand up to that abuse. I doubt if finer fibers would last.

The sailors slept in their ganseys. They were often wet, either by rain or sea spray, and often while wet they were subject to abrasion. Under such conditions, finer wool fibers would felt. We have the log of a ship that went 5 months between allowing the men to wash their clothes. Under those conditions, I expect finer fibers to have limited utility.

Anonymous said...

That is a good point, I didn't think about felting (the stuff I am using is superwash).
Felting aside, undergarments don't take quite the abuse that outer garments do, since they're on the inside. All I know is that I have really learned the value of a good undershirt. :)

Capt Elias said...

All evidence I have found to date indicate that Sailors in pre1600wore to combat the cold multiple layers of linen cloth, hemp linen sailcloth, Fulled wool, and, very rarely (and very late) knit hosen.
manuifests and orders to supply ships that have come from period do not list the carriage of wool yarn to be used for the sailors to knit warm weather gear.
"Slop chests" are a post-Napoleonic artifact, and the eqwuivalent from pre 17600 would have been the distribution of retired sailcloth for use by the crew in making clothing.
Please cite your resources that Sailors in the 14th century had sweaters (which is counter to all iconography I have encountered).

Aaron said...

Uniforms for British Seamen were post Nelson. Look at Admiralty contracts for slop chests. The contractor supplying the slopps and the ship's captain both took a profit on the sale of clothing to the crew.

Whalers were about the only seamen that had time to knit at sea. we know of British ships of the line that went almost 9 months without a "wash and mend" day.