Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Shetland Knitting Belts

My first major knitting project was his and hers Icelandic socks as gifts for my parents on their 50th wedding anniversary. Thus, as a knitter, I have always been something of a sock guy.

I make a point of knitting different features into my hiking socks and my ski socks and my gardening socks. I played with different sock constructions, and the one thing that I always liked but could not reasonably produce was socks in Eastern Crossed Stitch. I could do little samples and swatches to test, but I could knot produce the fabric at a practical speed.

Knit Eastern Crossed Stitch was a highly regarded fabric for socks from our earliest knit sock fragments until hand knit socks went out of production -- call it some 1,500 years.  Anything that people like for 15 centuries, must be good. I wanted it, but I could not figure out to make it at a reasonable pace.  It had be possible, or it would not have been so widely available.  It can be knit with hand held needles, but that is slow, and nice sock fabric is hard on the wrists. It is faster and easier on the hands with DPN and a knitting sheath, but that was never quite right. Swaving the fabric is not quire right either.  The right tool kit seems to be a knitting belt and  DPN.

A sock for my gardening sandals knit from MacAusland 2-ply and
knit in Eastern Cross Stitch. The fabric is discolored
because of the polishing compound used as the
needle design evolves. It will wash out,
and they will get worn in the mud anyway.

You cannot tell form the picture, but it really is a soft, thick fabric with great cushion.  It is NOT as weatherproof as uncrossed knitting, but it is thicker, and has more cushion, and it feels softer. I think the fact that it is not as weatherproof as plain knitting is one of the reasons that I never put the energy into working out a production technique.

I am a bit chagrined to realize that for the first time, I am actually making (pointy) needles for my Shetland knitting belt - previously, I just used what ever needles were available. Now, I am starting to understand the wonderful nuances of  the  Shetland tool kit. Like all good tool kits, it is not as simple as it looks.

There are hints that before knitters on the Shetland Islands made lace for England, they (illicitly) knit socks for the Dutch. Not Dutch farmers, but fine socks for Dutch traders to sell to the rich and powerful of Europe.  It may not be true, but it would help explain their traditions of professional knitting craftsmanship when the market for lace in England opened up.  I think, the Shetland knitters were already familiar with high-end knitting for the rich and powerful, when they moved into the lace market.  Moving from fine socks to fine lace could be done without changing the tool kit.   I read about the Shetland- Dutch sock trade years ago, but had never thought through the implications - e.g., that a knitting belt and making pins are the right tools for very fine socks.  That is, socks that is the socks were knit in Eastern Crossed Stitch. I suggest right here and now that knitting the best socks and the best lace take the same level of knitting skill. (I am not talking about socks for farmers and gardeners!)

To misquote a Diva that we all know:  Respect the Shetland Knitting belt.


kingstonman said...

Please could you cite your sources for knitting being 1500 years old, I've never been able to find any sources that date knitting earlier than about late 13th century, which would make knitting 750 years old and I'd love to have more info.

Aaron said...

Excavations at Gerasa
C. H. K.
Bulletin of the Associates in Fine Arts at Yale University
Vol. 7, No. 1 (Feb., 1936), pp. 7-10

kingstonman said...

I meant can you cite some sources that I could access easily, perhaps a direct weblink , it's just I can't find any sources myself that show knitting as early as you suggest

Aaron said...

Try also http://www.scatoday.net/node/3765
Early Period Knitting
(Site Excerpt) In 1935 archeologists working in the Roman city of Dura Europos found true knitted fabric. Dura Europos, which fell in 256 A.D., is located on the borders of modern Israel. The fabric was knitted with two needles in a technique referred to as 'crossed' or 'oriental' knitting. One piece had intricate leaf patterns knitted into it. We know the Copts were using knitting, because knitted anklets were buried with their dead. One pair was divided at the big toe like Japanese tabi and used drop knitting and cross stitching at the heel to fit the heel.

raymondduncan said...

I'm finding sources that say the Dura-Europos fragments have been proven to be nalbinding. Additionally, it is stated that the Coptic sock fragments which have been held to be proven knitting, are also made by the single-needle technique.

As for the site you linked, the opening statement is said to be an erroneous repetition of the early statements about the D-E fragments. They were discovered, it is said, at a time when nalbinding wasn't widely known, so it likely never even came up as a possibility to the researchers involved.

Interestingly, I was looking at the Yale Museum site and they still have the Dura-Europos fragments described as knitting.

There is one feature that brings up the possibility of a needle technique: there are loops attached to the fragment(s) that appear to be made by a common embroidery technique used to reinforce buttonholes, aptly named "buttonhole stitch" in which the thread or yarn is made over a fabric or over a threaded core of some kind, or made over a toroidial core designed for that purpose.

I am still searching for a paper that describes what was discovered about the fragments (both the D-E and the Egyptian ones)that proved they are not knitted.

Another "issue" with knitting's origins, is the lack of knitting needles that can be dated. Of course, a lack of evidence isn't evidence of lack. We just try to find the earliest evidence we can to affix a date that we know had knitters, and know that it was at least done by a certain date.

About dates and their accuracy: I was looking at some archaeological find that was said to date from 1000 CE to 1400 CE. I don't know about you, but a 400 year spread is laughable. Imagine some distant future archaeologist (from another planet?) saying that the television came into existence between 1600 and 2000 CE. Ridiculous, no?

Aaron said...

"At a time when nalbinding was not widely known"????

When was that? Show me that Mary Thomas did not know "nalbinding"!!
She did not call it "nalbinding", but she knew it, and she used it. She used it for mending (darning) and she used it for borders on knit objects. However, she knit because it was much faster way to produce the body of an object even if the borders were "nalbinding".

Some site such as York have produced a large number of "awls - I would submit that some of those "awls" were broken knitting needles, but the archaeologists coming out of Victorian hand knitting did not recognize them. Go to the York site, talk to the archaeologists, and see how many of them are fully competent using knitting sheath techniques. I did.

People of various kinds have been sitting around fires with straight pointy sticks and string for half a million years. They had complex technologies for weapons manufacture that were passed down complete and unchanged for 100,000 years. People have hand twisted cord and needles for more than 30,000 years. Millions of bright eyed, young people sitting around fires with sticks and string means that crochet, nalbinding, knitting, and similar are old technologies. Older than the Victorians trying to fit everything onto a timeline that began in 4004 BC could dream.

Now you want to tell me that the Pope's Stocking of knit silk and gold at 30 stitches per inch was Nalbinding? It is what, a thousand years old? I will believe that when you show post a link to nalbinding metal wire. It does not work. After a few stitches, the metal is work hardened and must be annealed. However, as I had to demonstrate to Alden Amos, if you have a knitting sheath and steel needles, knitting metal wire is very easy. If you understand knitting sheaths, you know that Scotland and Ireland had fine knitting in the 9th century, because we find knit metal work.

The problem is that most modern textile historians have not bothered to learn the primary traditional knitting technologies.