Sunday, July 21, 2013

More on crossed sitches

Working with the Coptic Stitch, I was reminded of how much I like fabrics made with crossed and plaited stitches.  It is no wonder that at one time such fabrics were held in very high esteem. Fabrics made with crossed stitches can be very thick to provided padding or cushion, and warmth.  However, they tend to be a bit less "weatherproof" than fabrics made with uncrossed stitches. Eastern Crossed stitch has holes in it that allow air to pass freely through the fabric.  As a sock, this allows ventilation.

Thus, we have different kinds of knitting for different uses. Thin stretchy, windproof gloves would be swaved with uncrossed stitches. A under garment (Jersey??) might be constructed of twisted garter stitch because of the stitch's thickness and the rapidity with which it can be knitted (read as lower cost).  The outer gansey would be knit with uncrossed stitches to make it more weatherproof.   Dress socks would be swaved to produce a thin fabric, while an infantryman's socks were constructed of crossed stitch knitting. And, as a heavy duty sock fabric, the Coptic Stitch/Eastern Crossed Knitting has no equal.   As a sandal sock in cotton it provides cool, durable protection.  As a wool boot sock, it is warm, durable, and offers more padding than any other stitch.

So why don't we see crossed stitch work in modern sock patterns? Why do modern authors suggest fisherman's rib or linen stitch for heels and soles, rather than the much better crossed stitch?  Why haven't all the "experienced" knitters pointed out the virtues of Eastern Cross Stitch?  

Well because it takes some skill to produce.  Neither Rutt or Burnham bothered to understand the virtues of (knit) Eastern Crossed Stitch. In fact, over the last few weeks, a large number of knitters have told me that such fabric cannot be knit.  And there is the rub.

Crossed stitch knitting was an early adventure in my discovery of knitting sheaths, and it shaped much of my early knitting sheath and needle designs. Those tools were overkill for knitting uncrossed fabric. And to a certain extent, knitting crossed stitches was an impediment to my development of gansey (long needle) and swaving tools.

How does one knit crossed stitches rapidly?  With rather pointy sock needles and a long knitting stick.  It is very difficult to pop a swaving prick into a crossed stitch, and thus Swaving and Eastern Crossed Knitting require different tools. I would also choose different knitting sheath designs for uncrossed gansey knitting and crossed stitch knitting. Also, the pointy needles and force required to put the needle into the stitch means that knitting needle will be forced through the  back of a leather knitting pouch.  Thus, we can be reasonably sure that fabrics with crossed stitches were knit with short, straight, pointy needles, fixed in knitting sheaths.  

At this point, we know there there was one kind of knitting sheath for swaving, and another kind of knitting sheath for producing Eastern Crossed Knitting, and that knitting pouches are not suitable for either of these styles of knitting. (However, knitting pouches do work well for both twisted garter stitch and plaited fabrics, which are not as tight as Eastern Crossed Knitting.)  Both Rutt and Brear missed these points about the differences in use of different knitting sheath styles as did earlier authors such as Mary Thomass.  At one time, knitting sheaths were like hammers, there were different kinds for different jobs.

The $64 question is did master knitters in Europe during the middle ages know swaving, gansey knitting, and crossed stitch or did each specialize to a single knitting technology? When did swaving and gansey knitting become separate industries?


Lily Goldwaring said...

This is interesting. Could you just clarify something? Are you saying that knitting sheaths could have been used in ancient Egypt?

I thought they originated much later in the Shetlands but I am not an expert so am keen to learn more.

Aaron said...

After 1707, I think the Shetlanders mostly used leather knitting belts. Folks have been making leather goods for a very long time and leather knitting belts work very well.

There is evidence of knitting sheaths and knitting sticks in Europe and GB earlier.

Anyone that knows the forest, can make a knitting sheath in minutes. Neanderthals had all the wood working technology required to make a knitting sheath. They learned how to make little pointy sticks by making arrows. The question is when did they start making yarn so that they had something to play with to learn to knit?

My guess is that knitting and nalbinding were known for a very long time before they became economically useful.

Anonymous said...

Is there anthropological evidence for widespread use of knitting sheaths in parts of Europe other than Great Britain?

Knitting methods in Great Britain have been heavily influenced by Victorian styles. However, there are a variety of other knitting techniques found in other parts of the world. If knitting sheaths were so widespread and so obvious, then why do we find many other regional knitting methods which neither employ knitting sheaths nor the knitting styles championed by the Victorians?

You have said that sheaths are much more efficient than pit knitting. Why would anyone practice pit knitting, in that case? Clearly, knitting sheaths are *not* obvious -- if they were, then we would have no local traditions of pit knitting.

Robert said...

Um, you do realise that Neanderthals and humans are not the same thing, right? and that their brains certainly weren't?

Aaron said...

Best new DNA evidence says that humans carry Neanderthal DNA, and European populations carry more Neanderthal DNA than African human populations.

Best archaeology suggests Neanderthals had a very complex process of making stone tools and producing the resin used to stabilize the bindings that held the spear tips on the spear shafts. These technologies were complex and stable for 100,000 years.

So Neanderthanls interbred with humans and produced fertile offspring. They had a complex culture that they passed on to their offspring. What else do they have to do to be "human"?

If their brains were really different, there would have been a genetic difference that would have prevented fertile offspring.

And, making spears that will kill big game requires that one be very smart about string and pointy sticks.

Aaron said...

I thought that a driving force for the wide spread use of knitting sheaths was the need for very warm clothing for fishermen and sailors as they started fishing Icelandic and North Atlantic grounds in the 12th century. I think that there is good evidence that the Channel Islands had a competitive advantage in the production of garments for North Atlantic seaman in the 12th century. This was likely "gansey" knitting producing a crossed stitch or plaited fabric.

If there was widespread production of Eastern Crossed Stitch fabrics earlier, I would have to reconsider. And, the production of fine knit silk fabrics by the Moors gives me pause.

Over all, I think knitting is old, and different dialects of it evolved to meet local needs. North Atlantic fishing was the need that required the warmest fabrics. And that need developed in the 11 th Century. Then, came sea trade with the East around Cape Horn and Drakes Passage.

In the past, I found production of crossed stitch fabric by gansey knitting to be difficult. We know some of the Channel Island knitting was "Ouvre", which must have been some kind of crossed or plaited stitch. This makes me sure that the Channel Islanders were using knitting sheaths. Recent experiments make me think that a plaited fabric might be more feasible.

Cherrycheek said...

What you have written about the Channel Islands and their knitting is just plain wrong.
They simply did not use knitting sheaths. They knitted on several SHORT needles(from the fine stocking knitting industry) and had done so since the 14th century, for which I can look at local documentary proof that you will not have been able to access.
Where does "ouvre" come from...not the Channel Islands and not a reference to any type of plaited or crossed stitch.
The knitted garments they produced which were short bodied, long sleeved and close fitting were originally called wastcoates. They were exported in their tens of thousands over more than 200 years to Englsnd and Europe during the 16th,17th and 18th centuries.
These facts are indisputable. Then, when the knitting industry died around the time of the French Revolution, the women of the Islands continued to knit these garments, now for their menfolk, farmers, quarrymen and fishermen alike. They called them "corsets d'oeuvre" which meant working clothes. Is this where you get the misspelled "ouvre" from?
Still no evidence either for twisted and cabled/plaited stitches though they did knit in elaborate family patterns that are rarely seen nowadays mostly because of the WWII evacuation of the Islands in 1940.

Robert said...

We do know that their brains were different, and that they were a different species than humans. It is true that there is evidence of some interbreeding, but that it was not wide spread; and, in certain cases, the possibility that interbreeding was the cause of humans raping neanderthal females has been raised. Nevertheless, analyses of fossil data has raised the theory that although similar in size, the Neanderthal brain had larger portions for vision and movement than human brain, preventing the higher level thinking necessary for forming large groups that moved from place to place together, rather than the many much smaller groups of Neanderthals. This would also lessen the necessary brain capacity to further develop tools and other material matter necessary to survive the harsh climate that decended with the Ice Ages. A horse and a donkey are different species, yet they are able to mate and produce mules, so Neanderthals and Humans mating doesn't really mean all that much in terms of putting them on an equal plain cognitively.

That said, I'm having a hard time believing that you actually believe Neanderthals knit and are not just trying on an elaborate joke.

Robert said...

Forgot one thing. If wooden knitting sheaths had existed in ancient Egypt, we almost certainly would have found them. Wood was a scarce and therefor an expensive and highly prized material, not likely to be used by the common Egyptian laborer. Because the dead were provided with all that was necessary to continue on in the afterlife, not only jars of food and beer, but personal objects, fabric, furniture, and multiple other items. Someone who owned a knitting sheath would therefore have been one of the textile producers for the pharaoh or another member of the elite, and as such would not have been given a commoner's burial, but a more elaborate one, and most definitely that would have included their textile tools.

Caitlin said...

Wow, in all my studies of ancient textiles, I have never come a cross ANY evidence that knitting existed in ancient times, let alone pre-historic. I know there is no archaeological evidence of this, which you explain away with your comment that it was practiced for a long time before it became economical. But surely even if it was a non-economical (that is, non-commercially-practiced?) craft, some evidence of its existence would have shown up in written or artistic sources from, say, ancient Egypt or Greece or somewhere?

Aaron said...

The key word is "capable". If two organisms are capable of having fertile offspring, they are the same species.

It does not require that two populations must repetitively inter-bred to be considered the same species. Rather, one fertile offspring from a single breeding event proves that the two populations are the same species.

It is the definition of species.

Aaron said...


I agree with what you said for the period after 1600; except for a couple of points. The first is that prior to 1840, essentially all professional knitters use some device to hold their working needle. It allows faster knitting, longer. The exception would be the shepherd knitting using hooked needles.

I find names of handmade textiles to vary over time and region. A seaman's sweater was the very essence of a working garment. Which tells us very little.

My interest is how did the the folks on the Channel Islands knit prior to 1485?

Certainly, uncrossed stitches produce a weatherproof fabric with less effort. However, crossed garter stitch produces a very warm fabric, very rapidly. Crossed garter is the warmest hand knit fabric that can be produced very rapidly (cheaply).

I have read that long needles and knitting sheaths were used on the Channel Islands as late as WW II, when an elderly islander (last professional gansey knitter on the island) taught the wife of a diplomat how to knit a sailor's sweater. This is consistent with the pattern in GT from Messrs de Cartaret and Patourel of Guernsey, saying the pattern was a island traditional style. This pattern is knit in the round, on 4+1 long needles.

Aaron said...

What research have you done on what kinds of artifacts survive?

What research have you done on what kinds of artifacts are properly identified by modern archaeologists?

Commercial tools tend not to survive. Modern knitters tend not to think of knitting as a profession or commercial trade. Trade knowledge tends not to be recorded. For example, try to find a commercial loom from 300 years ago. They are rare as hens teeth. If those big beams did not survive, what chance did a knitting needle have? Try to find a spinning wheel from that era used for commercial production. What you find will be wheels in domestic use. Those had sentimental value and survived.

Commercial tools are used and replaced on a regular basis. They disappear from the record.

Only a tiny fraction of material survives to become an artifact.
A culture may know a craft, but not do enough of it for some sample of the material to survive. If the craft is old but not common, it is not likely to make it into art.

Most woven textiles survive because they were preserved by metal residue from buttons. Knit material is less likely to have buttons, and thus much less likely to survive.

We know the Coptic communities had socks. Try to find a Coptic drawing of some one wearing socks.