Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Not Magic

There is a class of knitters that knit as a social pastime.  Social pastimes have conventions that function like the rules of a game.  Like a game, social pastimes have winners and losers. (see for example the work of  Eric Bern, , )  The pastime of recreational knitting results in some knitters acquiring higher status.  This has significant value in their circles.

One of the social conventions and contracts of modern recreational knitting is that it uses hand-held needles. The use of other technologies would allow production of  high quality knit objects with lower effort, and thereby diminish the status of  recreational knitters who produced their objects using only hand held needles. The use of other technologies is thus not allowed except in the past, in  far away places, and behind the closed doors of commercial establishments.  Breaching this convention against such other technologies is met with shunning. Advocating that others also breach this convention is met with the full spectrum of social enforcement mechanisms.  People with high status, tend to vigorously defend that status.

Mary Thomas writing in the 1930s consigned knitting sheaths to museums, even though she knew that knitting sheaths were still being used professionally because they allowed faster knitting of finer and more uniform fabrics.  Rutt interviewed elderly knitters that had swaved in the 1930s, but he made no effort to preserve the technology.  Thomas and Rutt were recreational knitters, and they conformed to the social conventions of the pastime even as they discussed other hand knitting technologies.  Gladys Thompson used a knitting sheath, but does not mention that fact in her book, Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys & Arans.  Nor does Elizabeth Zimmerman mention the fact in her 1971 Note for American Knitters, where she does talk about long needles. This was dishonest in the extreme.  Only in the context of knitting sheaths is Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys & Arans a useful book on knitting.

Thus, recreational knitters made no effort to preserve the knitting technologies that use a knitting sheath.  These were not mythical or magically ways to knit; they were real world textile production technologies in use by professionals.   We know something of what they were, and we know something of what they were not. From that information the technologies can be reverse engineered.  Come on, this is knitting, it is not rocket science.

Anybody that needs to knit a large number of objects quickly, discovers that with hand held needles, the knitter's hands get tired and their wrists get sore. Eventually the other end of the working needle gets wedged in the thigh crease or tucked into the arm pit. More advanced are pads of straw and feathers as discussed in Mary Thomas.  However, professional knitters need better tools, and leather pouches stuffed with horse hair are much better than pads of straw and feathers.  However, Mary Thomas gives straw pads and Shetland knitting pouches each a single paragraph suggesting that they are equally valuable to the modern knitter.  In this, she dismisses both, and I at least did not find her instructions for using either a knitting sheath or knitting pouch to be useful. Certainly her illustrations of how to knit are for a Weldon style of  needle management. This is not fair to the reader that needs to knit a large number of objects quickly and picks up MT hoping for hints on how it can be done.  One might use Weldon for test knitting a pattern, but a professional knitter with an order for 6 dozen pairs of hose did not to use Weldon.

MT gives knitting sheaths 3 paragraphs of their own, but there is no hint in MT that knitting sheaths in fact support 3 very different knitting technologies; one based on the pitch/yaw of a stiff needle, one based on needle flex and spring, and one based on the rotation of a curved needle.  Thomas,  Rutt, and even Brears display an astonishing lack of interest in the functional details of how knitting sheaths were used.   The only explanation is that they considered all  use of knitting sheaths and knitting pouches to be outside the social conventions of modern recreational knitting.

I am not a recreational knitter.  Some days, I am a researcher.  Some days, I am a  textile artist. Some days, I am a subsistence knitter.  And, some days, I am a professional knitter.   I am not constrained by the social conventions of knitting as a pastime. Therefore, I am free to knit with any technology necessary to produce the fabrics that I want at the rate that I need.  I am willing to talk over the heads of all the  modern recreational knitters to other researchers, artists, subsistence knitters and professional knitters.  I want others to be able to knit better, and knit faster. I want others to know that there are a variety of hand knitting technologies.

One of those knitting technologies is based on the "roll" (rotation) of  a short, stiff, curved, blunt knitting needle with the axis of the roll fixed by one end of the needle inserted into the bore of a knitting sheath. A short forward stroke followed by a back stroke comprises the knitting technique that I call "swaving".  Details of needle and knitting sheath design and materials make the technology more functional, but do not change the name.  However, as I review the account of the invention of the knitting frame and the resulting mechanics of  frame knitting, it is likely that it was based on a knitting motion resulting from the rotation of curved needles.  Thus, circa 1590, what I call swaving was likely also known as "knitting".

As  S. M. McGee-Russell told us on the first day of class, "Everything has a proper name.  Use it!  If you find something without a proper name; name it, and write a paper."  If you go for a walk, you are likely to see plants and critters.  Most have species names, but finding those species names may take some work and require specialized knowledge.   Knitting by rotating the working needle has a name, and knitters that know their craft can figure it out.  The knitters that only knit as a social pastime are unwilling to say what swaving was, and what swaving was not.  They want swaving to be something very vague, that cannot occur today.  This is logically equivalent to asserting that swaving (was) a mystical, magical activity.   


Anonymous said...

The usual comment from me, Aaron. Prove that your method is swaving or stop claiming that it is. Descriptions of old knitters describe distinctive body movements that your videos show no sign of. You may well have reinvented a very efficient way of knitting but without evidence, it isn't swaving.

megan blogs said...

I was taught to knit by my mother who knew hand-held knitting. I don't know where she learned to knit, as her mother didn't, although at least one of her aunts knew tatting and embroidery, so she may have learned from that auntie.

A friend mentioned something about one of her forbearers knitting with a pouch, but i'd never seen it done so really had no visual.

When i saw a video of a knitter encouraging other knitters to stick the needle under their arms and knit that way, i quickly realized that my longer needles were too flimsy and the stronger needles too short.

It wasn't until i saw your video of how to use a sheath when knitting a gansey that it clicked in my brain.

Not every knitter who knits for social pastime is adverse to learning something new. Sometimes, they simply are not aware and are not researchers, so unless they see someone else doing it, they may be content to do as they've always done.

In my little knitting group, where i'd say we are all recreational knitters with one who's a very talented knitter and willing to help those of us less experienced, there's been quite a stir since i've been reading up on ganseys and preparing myself to knit one. I deliberated about getting needles and a sheath from you and finally decided to do so when i found it difficult to find long enough and sturdy enough dpns. I knew what tools i wanted, but they seem hard to find. I told my knitting group about ordering the sheath and needles and how i'm sure it'll take me a little bit to catch on how to do it. They are all eager to see how it works once my order arrives. I am, too!

chathamh said...

In "swaving," you have reconstructed a technique (swaving) that is not well-recorded in history. You have essentially back-bred this technique and have recorded excellent and useful results, if limited by the "rowing out" characteristic of the flat-knit sections (I suppose you could flatten them with looser knit sections, but I presume those are a. difficult to do within that technique, if I understand it correctly, and b. a lower priority than a tight knit).

In an earlier post, you said that that "Kersey" in Admiralty documents referred to a knit fabric, based on "Kersey" referring to a knit fabric in a document 200 years earlier. You were wrong, and reasonably retracted your assertion. Yet, here you are again jumping to conclusions. It is not necessarily swaving just because you have a working technique that is also based on curved, rotating needles. Swaving has not been well enough defined for you to be certain you have replicated it. I would agree that your technique is swaving-like. It is, however, imprudent to call your technique swaving when you cannot be sure that is what it is.

You go out on these historical limbs to justify your conclusions and legitimize your innovation, and I think you're better off letting your knitting speak for itself.

Lisa said...

"The use of other technologies would allow production of high quality knit objects with lower effort, and thereby diminish the status of recreational knitters who produced their objects using only hand held needles."

This makes me laugh. I had no idea that I had some sort of higher social status because I use hand-held needles. Can you please back up this fanciful notion with proof that this higher social status exists?

"The use of other technologies is thus not allowed except in the past, in far away places, and behind the closed doors of commercial establishments. Breaching this convention against such other technologies is met with shunning. Advocating that others also breach this convention is met with the full spectrum of social enforcement mechanisms. People with high status, tend to vigorously defend that status."

If you're referring to your own experience in this quote, you've got it all wrong. Nobody is shunning the technique--I would love to learn to use a knitting pouch or stick. What people are "shunning" is the continual assertion that it is the ONLY way to knit and the BEST way to knit. Your condescension (and rampant misogyny) toward other knitters is sickening. The problem is not the knitting method, it's your overwhelming ego and contempt for other opinions.

Anonymous said...

Using a name just because you want it to be so doesn't make it the correct name. What you do is clearly not swaving, please stop trying to pretend that it is and more important, stop trying to convince others.

Projektmanagerin: said...

Dear Aron,
while I am really inspired by your thorough research and reverse-engineering approach I sometimes wonder about the judgement in your tone...
Not every baseball player can give you the physics and the math of a curve ball, most likely they'd tell you to go and hit the ball just so, and then go on and practice. Still they could be excellent and professional baseball players.

Your reference authors most likely did either not use any or all of the techniques involving knitting sheaths (not being professional knitters themselves, if I understood correctly); or they took the skill/craft for granted (as is often the case: you do not explain what everybody knows anyway, but once you have to explain it in a manual, the skill is probably already on the verge of disappearing. Like a species nearing extinction).
Most definitely most knitters (and not even the professional knitters of yore) did not go at their task like a modern scholarly-minded textile engineer.
You combine scientific research, experiment, historic research, try-and-error etc into reverse engineering. I think that's cool.
But why is it "dishonest" if people did not have the same goals?

Before the last Dodo was killed and the species extinct, people probably said things like: you know, tastes like Dodo, or looks like Dodo plumage - you know the way their tail feathers glitter? or something like that.
There are drawings of Dodos, and probably some stuffed Dodos in museums etc. Now you come along, trying to "re-create" a Dodo, possibly even coming really really close to the original, but complaining that the Dodo-breeders of the past did not better describe how they looked, were bred and feeded.

All I am saying: I wish you would not be so condescending towards your references. I am sure it is frustrating, but they had different needs, goals, and starting points. They did not leave out the information to spite you.

Cherrycheek said...

Interesting, but......
For 200 years through the 17th and 18th centuries,(though the earliest record I have so far of knitted stockings is actually 1525), the main industry of the Channel Islands of Alderney Guernsey and Jersey was the knitting of stockings and wastcotes, the vast majority of which were sent to France and thence to the rest of Europe.
This knitwear was exceptionally fine and affordable only by the wealthy, including royalty such as Louis XVI.
The Islanders were clearly extremely accomplished knitters and they were fast because it's documented that in one year during the 1660s,240000 pairs of stockings were exported to France alone. Many, many thousands of pairs plus wastcotes were also exported to England, which is where the raw wool originated. (The trade was probably very dodgy but lucrative!)
The population of Jersey was around 20000 at this time and about half were professional stocking knitters. Guernsey's population was much lower and Alderney's lower still so a rough estimate is that each knitter was producing a pair of stockings in around a fortnight (there was no knitting on Sundays).
That's fast. The needles were 16s and 17s or finer and the stockings were often highly patterned with colourwork too.
The point I'm getting to is that they used no special tools to enable them to knit faster. They simply knitted on short straight needles, often while standing, walking or on horseback and this style has been maintained through the centuries up to the present day, where around eleven short dpns were traditionally used to knit a guernsey. I prefer a circular needle though because our modern day clothes don't protect me from all those points.
I have a picture on my blog of an old Jerseywoman knitting just like this that was painted at the beginning of the 20th century.

Aaron said...


Look at the picture again! From the position of her hands she is using a knitting sheath that is concealed by her right arm.

The knitting sheath is tucked into her apron string.

Thanks for that picture, it is great!


Cherrycheek said...

Sorry, but you're seeing things that simply aren't there. Don't you think there'd be some physical evidence after nearly 500 years of continuous industry? There's enough evidence around of everything else.

Anonymous said...

That lady's knitting position is exactly how I hold my needles, with no knitting sheath.

Aaron said...

The fingers of her right hand are too open. If the needle was not supported by (sheath/poutch/etc) the needle would drop out of her hand.

The yarn passes over her index finger in the wrong place for lever knitting.

No, working needle is supported by a sheath, she uses the base of thumb to push the needle into the stitch, and a tiny motion of her index finger carries the yarn over the needle, she releases pressure on the needle and it springs back through the working stitch, thereby forming the new stitch.

This process is faster and more ergonomic than knitting without some kind of needle support.

Most people have not put a much effort into working out the details that distinguish a drawing/photo of a knitter working with and without a knitting sheath.

Anonymous said...

Again, her fingers are exactly where I knit. I knit continental, and throw while purling. It's rather weird, but partly because of some joint issues I have.

Said lady in painting is rather old. Perhaps she had joint issues like I do.

But please, continue along thinking that no one ever can knit in that position without a sheath. I'll just sit here and laugh, while knitting.

Aaron said...

Post pix.

Anonymous said...

Waiting for you to post pics first, instead of just saying "I know she has a sheath because I KNOW she has a sheath!" Seriously, can you not see how that makes you look delusional?

Evidence of things not seen, indeed.

Aaron said...

It is like bird watching. First you have to understand that there are different kinds of birds. Then, you have to learn how to distinguish between them. Then, you have to practice.

Try telling an ornithologist that they are delusional when they say, "That is a house finch."

If you look back through the blog, you will find pix of me using a knitting sheath. Characteristic is that the hand is more open. See also Mary Thomas's Book of Knitting and the Knitters of Gayle. Same hand position as the painting and MT notes that they are using knitting sheaths, even though neither knitting sheath is visible in the drawing.

Aaron said...

Mary Wright in Cornish Guernseys & Knit-frocks also uses position of the hands to identify knitters in photographs using knitting sheaths where the sheath is not visible. note for example the caption of the photo on page 20.

Anonymous said...

It is, in fact, nothing like birding. To count as a confirmed sighting, a birder, whether amateur OR ornithologist needs to SEE the bird. Not the branch the bird is supposed to be behind.

You may suspect and suppose anything you like, but a picture that does not show a knitting sheath is not a proof of a knitting sheath's presence. Not only are people's hand positions when knitting highly individual and variable, but there is no guarantee that they are accurately recorded in posed photos or paintings.

Sorry, Aaron, that bird just won't fly.

Aaron said...

Recordings of calls and any source of DNA can count as confirmed sightings. A feather or "bit of bird poop" proves the bird was there.

And the guys who do endangered species studies for my wife's environmental consulting firm can identify a bird with a glimpse that tells me nothing what so ever. So these guys are very sharp eyed.

One of them knits. He came up to me at a Christmas party, (I was knitting) and told me that he also knit. However, he did not notice that I was using a knitting sheath until I told him so and showed him the tools.

The only 2 knitters who ever seemed to notice that I was using a knitting sheath were both knitters that used knitting sheaths. One was a sailor on WWII ship where everyone knit (with knitting sheaths) while on battle stations and the other was was in Amsterdam, NL. In both cases, they were able to identify that I was knitting with a knitting sheath across a parking lot or across a road with several lanes of traffic.

If you know the field signs of knitting with a knitting sheath, you can see it instantly, at a distance. If you do not know the field signs of a person knitting with a knitting sheath, you will not see it - even at 4 feet.

Teresa said...

Thankyou for this post. I consider myself a professional knitter and am always looking for something faster, though not with the energy that you invest in the search!

I do agree that there are interesting attitudes to those that do something faster. I remember a friend who is a very good long draw spinner, that never did it at her spinning group because they said she 'cheated'!!!

I've always wondered about the speed of past knitters. I'm fast, but nowhere near the times that I've seen quoted.

Will read further into your blog and gather more information. Thanks.

Aaron said...

I wonder about the speed of past knitters. I did not start knitting until I was old (in miles, if not years).

I go to a knitting group, and the bright-eyed, nimble fingered woman next to me is knitting Irish Cottage Style, and everyone notices how fast she is knitting. My hand motions are smaller, so nobody notices that I am knitting 8 stitches for her 5. And she knits for one hour of the 3 hour meeting, while I knit steadily. Thus, at the end of the evening, I have knit 4 times as many stitches as she did. On the other hand, my stitches are much smaller, so she actually knit a larger area of fabric. As I said, my hands have suffered too many injuries to actually knit fast.

I think the physiological limit for knitting based on pitch/ yaw needle motions is on the close order of 100 stitches per minute. In other words, Hazel Tindall is fast.

However, there are still the stories of trained professional knitters, knitting 200 spm. Perhaps, a trained knitter using needle flex or needle rotation technique could knit with half as many muscle motions, and thus the physiological limit for such knitting would be on the close order of 200 spm. This does seem very plausible to me.

Like the 4 minute mile, it is not something I am ever going to achieve. ( )