Friday, October 26, 2007

Knitting migrations, revisited.

Partly because my Vogue Knitting holiday issue seems to have disappeared (it may be time to clean the house), and partly because HistoricStitcher left me a comment about it (you can read it, here.)

In a nutshell, she makes a case for knitting being brought to Europe during the Crusades, by returning camp followers and the like, who'd gone to the Middle East.

I do think that the Crusades did trigger the movement of knitting, along both trade routes we've discussed before; across N Africa into Spain, and up through the Black Sea into Eastern Europe. There were probably a lot of refugees from the fighting, and they'd have moved along those trade routes to get away from it. Stands to reason.

It's likely there were also all kinds of single bits of knitting brought back by the Crusaders, shirts and socks and gloves and all, and spread out all over Europe. Archeology just hasn't found them. Most were probably worn to rags, and the rest lost in the coming thousand years.

But the thing is, knitting isn't just a trade good, it's a SKILL, something that has to be taught, and learned, to be truly passed along. And it's more the skill of knitting and it's movement, than plain old knitted socks, that I'm talking about. There were other things that the Crusaders brought back to Europe, that are well-documented - spices and citrus fruit leap to my mind, thanks to the food research I do - and both of those goods exploded onto the scene, historically speaking. Looking back, it's like one minute, no one in Europe had heard of them, and the next, every rich person from Ireland to Moscow was eating cinnamon-orange pudding. Blam. Sudden influx.

Knitting's movements weren't like that. There's no sudden appearance. It can be tracked across Europe (at least Western Europe) pretty easily, looking at paintings and fragments and linguistics. It took hundreds of years to spread all the way to Scandinavia, from Spain, which is kind of what you'd expect of a skill that has to be learned. (Iron working, which was only invented once, in China, and then spread west to India, the Middle East, and Europe, can be tracked much the same way, though it took longer to move, because it traveled further.)

So... Crusades and knitting. Yeah, I bet the Crusades did have an effect on knitting's movement. But I still don't think the skill was brought back by returning crusaders, at least not in numbers large enough to matter. Certainly it's possible, even probable, that single people returned with the knowledge, and may explain odd bits and pieces that have been found. But knitting as a trade? That took some time.

Opinions? Anyone?


Anonymous said...

I think knitting may have spread in a whambamthankyoumaam fashion through the working people, so unlike the rich people's cinnamon orange pudding, it isn't as well documented. New techniques that make the work easier or more efficient explode and become popular. The best example that comes to mind is Magic Loop. I've never used it and I'm a relatively new knitter, so my logic is sketchy and based on hearsay, but I remember reading on a blog comment once before that sock knitting became much more popular after that technique was invented.

Or the complete opposite could have happened, and Europeans might not have wanted anything to do with those strange foreign ways, and that's why knitting traveled at a snail's pace.

Rachel H said...

No idea. Yet. But if I find anything in the Consice History of World Textiles book I picked up this week I'll let you know!

Louiz said...

I do know that arabic numerals came back with returning crusaders, especially the concept of zero (0), which is fairly impossible to write in roman numerals which is what there was in Europe before that. So if numbers and the idea of zero were brought back, why not knitting?

LadyBills said...

Forgive me for my considerable lack of preciseness, but I know that some eastern cultures, after invading, pretty much captured and enslaved the weavers to work in their own royal shops. Couldn't that be the case with knitting? Steal the skilled rather than the skill?

historicstitcher said...

I thought I mentioned in my comments the other day that I think it was not so much the articles of clothing brought back by the Crusaders as the skills and possibly the skilled.

The rich can buy "things". Money can buy all sorts of things, but it can't buy the technology or skill if it's not already there or on the brink of "there". Did the Crusdaers bring back knitters? I think that at least a few knitters emerged in Europe post-Crusades.

But you're right about the needles, too.

Even if a dozen knitters were brought back to one town after the Crusades, which is unlikely in and of itself, they would not have access to steel needles. Granted, they would have brought at least one set back with them, but the humidity of Europe is _nothing_ like the arid Middle East. Those needles would be subject to rust and decay (yet another reason we don't find the needles in archaeological sites...). I know American settlers kept their knitting needles in the flour sack to avoid rust, but would these new immigrants have known to do that? Probably not.

Without access to replacement needles, they would have stopped knitting, or the pace of the spread of the talent would have been extremely slow.

Now, another thing to consider is the culture.

Imagine a Middle Eastern woman, brought back from the Crusades, going to a local blacksmith and asking for a set of knitting needles. In an age of extreme prejudice and patriarchy, she would most likely have been ignored.

I think men were responsible for the spread of knitting far more than the women were.

The men would have to want the knitted articles. They would have to want it enough to request the blacksmith make these things. In the Middle Ages, a rich woman was an oxymoron - the men owned the property, and essestially the women, too. It wouldn't matter how many women knew how to knit, if the men didn't support it.

Another point: Along with the scarcity of steel needles would be an adaptation of materials. If we recall, all the early knitted socks and such are made from cotton - a Middle Eastern product. As knitting migrated across whatever route we choose to trace, there had to be a change in materials. The finest European knitting was done in silk and metals, yes? The most skilled knitters would most likely have learned on such fine, small needles and threads.

I suspect that the best knitters were the immigrants, and that the lack of steel needles and cotton and silk threads forced them to chage their techniques. It was not simply a migration, nor simply a matter of technology, but a massive shift. I would not expect to find any evidence for this shift, as it would have been worn to rags. But keep in mind that of all the extant knitting out there, the majority of the early pieces is done in silk or cotton. Not wool (the predominant fiber in Europe, along with linen). Silk and cotton needed to be imported. SO did the needles for a while.

OK, so in a very roundabout way, I'm saying that focussing on metallurgy may not give you the answer you're looking for. Just because the first European knitters used steel needles does not mean that they were forced to continue using steel needles. Just as when we teach children to knit, larger needles would have been both useful and used. These larger gauge socks would have bene worn to shreds. BUT - and here's the thing - knitting was not for the masses for a long time. This was not unique to knitting, either. Silk, cotton, spices...all these were within the realm of the rich long before they went to the masses. Trades and skills were generally passed from parent to child, so knitting was probably passed as a coveted skill from parent to child.

I would venture to guess that the formation of the knitting guilds in Europe coincides fairly well with the explosion of knitting on the European scene. There would be no need of a guild if only a few people knew the skill (and were employed by the wealthy), but the guild would become necessary when the livlihood of the skilled knitters was threatened by the ability of the masses to do the same type of work, and potentially sell it for less.

Now, I would be curious to know how the dates associated with the spread of steel-making coincide with the formation of the European knitting guilds...might yield some interesting tidbits!