Thursday, October 11, 2007

Knitting migrations.

Waay back in 2004, I wrote a research paper on the history of knitting, for an English class that required a research paper. Eventually, after some chaos and shuffling, it became the Knitty article that I wrote about the history of knitting, in 2006. For both projects, I stuck to the facts and avoided most of my more interesting conclusions, because it was entirely theory and I'm not an expert, so it was basically just some person who read some books, making guesses.


Archeology has produced a lot of solid evidence that knitting was invented in Egypt, or by nomads near Egypt, about a thousand years ago. Considering how little ANYTHING survives a thousand years, it's a significant amount of evidence, and as far as I'm concerned, there's no real question over it. We could argue over the exact date, and the exact location, but in general, the information is solid. (I'm of the opinion that knitting was invented a few hundred years earlier than what we've got evidence for, because the scraps of knitting we have are all very complex and fancy - lots of color, etc - and that takes a while to develop.)

The big question, to my mind, is how knitting got from Egypt into Europe.

The most accepted theory - and quite valid - is that knitting moved along North Africa with the Arab people, up into Spain (which was occupied by Arabs from 711 to 1492, exactly the time frame we're talking about), and from there into the rest of Europe. Artifacts and trade routes and what is known bear that out. But there's another route into Europe, that we, in the West, never think about.

Now that I've had a few years to think about it and look at maps, I suspect that knitting ALSO got up into Europe through the 'back door' - Through Istanbul/the bosporous, the Black Sea, and up into Russia and from there west. Knitting was revolutionary, and I imagine ANYONE who knew about it, wanted to know how to do it, or at least buy lots and trade it down the road for a big profit (imagine wearing woven socks, and you get my point). The Black Sea route was a major trade route at the time, and I can't imagine knitting NOT traveling along it.

The only real evidence is Orenburg lace. It's unusual enough, and dates back far enough, that a case can be made that it was developed independently of any lace traditions in Western Europe. It's got several unusual techniques that aren't seen in the West (the way edgings are put on, how color is used, etc) and it's entirely possible it's a unique tradition.

Unfortunately, thanks to politics, the Black Sea route has never been studied or excavated to the same degree as Western Europe has been, so we don't have the piles of artifacts to support the theory (at least, we don't know about the artifacts in the West, which comes to the same thing as not having them).

I've also been looking at motifs in knitting - mostly color knitting - and there seem to be two schools. Western Europe originally copied THINGS - family crests, writing, fake rings on gloves, birds, snowflakes, that sort of thing (still does, to a great degree). In the East, they used abstract patterns that often have interchangeable backgrounds and foregrounds. The Steeked Jacket pattern (which is adapted from a Turkish sock pattern) is a prime example:

Which is the background? The blue or the pink? This kind of thing is classic for Eastern patterns, and Baltic. If you figure the Black Sea route connects the Baltic cultures to central Asia, it would explain a lot. Not proof, but it's food for thought.

Thoughts, comments, arguments? Anyone?


Kate said...

I never knew that that was where knitting originated from. Now I have to tell my friend that, since he's a total Egypt-phile.

I believe your theory about the Black Sea route makes sense, because if you think about it, people were moving all over the place from Africa and the middle East. It only makes sense that something like knitting, which would be totally revolutionary and amazing, would spread like wildfire throughout different communities. It would be the equivalent of something going through our pop culture, don't you think?

Anonymous said...

you've finally enticed me out of lurkerdom...

I think you are right. I firmly believe that we have not even scratched the surface of some of the trade routes. We assume that ancient peoples were stupid, which is completely wrong.

DH tells the story of reasearchers in the former USSR scratching their heads over some fabric found in a dig. A visiting Celtic scholar came by and basically said something to the effect of wow, cool tartan. Where'd you get it? The Russians said, this is from a local dig and the Celtic scholar said no, it's a tartan design, ultimately leading to some very interesting conversation about trade routes from Ireland and/or independent developments.

OK, now that I've used all my words saved for MONTHS, I'm re-lurking...

April said...

But ... but ...

Where's The Goober?

Sheepish Annie said...

I think that any water route is a key link to knitting. Net making was a necessary part of life on the water and there is a pretty strong similarity between the two tasks. I know that lace knitting was something that some women took up after years of net-making, but I don't have a lot of the history on that. And the lucet was used, I think, by Vikings (or some such type of fellow) for the making of strong, elastic lines.

I live near and love the ocean...I need to believe that there is a connection between that big, beautiful body of water and my needles, I suppose.

Anonymous said...

So did Marco Polo have anything do do with this? Or is he too late in time.



Julie said...


He was too late in the game. Plus he would have followed the Silk Road, more due east, than the north-south route between the Baltic and the Black Sea.

If he went anywhere at all. Modern scholars argue about that.

B said...

That's really interesting. Makes me want to go dig up the ancient knitting. As far as motifs and whatnot, how much did religion play a roll? I don't know that much about the different religions (so I hope I don't offend anyone if I accidentally say something wrong), but aren't icons very important to Greek Orthodox,and weren't a lot of places that were Greek Orthodox in Eastern Europe taken over by people of Islamic faith ? And isn't Islam a religion where pictures aren't knitted into things--more like the motif on your jacket? Or am I way off in time?

Anonymous said...

Wow! What an interesting discussion. I have a background in archeology/anthropology and am relatively new to knitting. I imagine that people felted wool before they began to knit. I vaguely remember reading about a felt garment being found in a bog (perhaps somewhere in England?) that had been preserved for quite a long time.

I do think that Islam prohibits certain images as does Judaism, at least in a religious context, so that might explain designs rather than representations of objects.

The design for your sweater is reminiscent of the designs on 16th century Iznik (Turkish) tiles and also of Turkish embroidery. Very beautiful, by the way.

As for the archeological process, in Egypt -- a dry desert environment -- things (ceramics, bone, fiber, etc) last longer and if found are often in a pretty good state. In Western Europe or Russia, where the climate is wetter, colder, etc., sometimes it is hard to find remains of even ceramics let alone fiber. That doesn't mean it didn't exist of course. . .

Amy Lane said...

I'm buying it...I think that, for all the individuality of knitting, one of the reasons we love it is that it's simple, clean, and logical. It makes sense that as the world was making advances in textiles, that more than one people would make an advance in this particular textile technique. The design thing is making sense to me too--very much so, although I've pored over that book, 1001 Fair Isle motifs, and I've noticed that the Gaelic, the Scandinavian, and the Russian do tend to overlap quite a bit...sometimes, there's only so much you can do on a geometric grid.

Amy Lane said...

Mmm... anonymous? If they found something in a bog, odds are it was around 400-450 AD--that's when druids were dumping peasants into peat bogs, right? So that still fits in with the timeline/trade route thing, doesn't it? Egypt to Rome to England... (or did I just pull that out of my ass? I think I confused myself, dammit!)

Roxie said...

I have to agree with the theory that knitting started much earlier than the existing artifacts would indicate. Knitting is such a practical art. People were no doubt wearing out their socks for a century or more before someone came up with a pair that were too good for everyday use. And I'm totally with Anonymous about the climate affecting the ancient textiles. I hadn't ever considered the possible routes for the craft to travel. Heck, the Phoenicians could have taken it up to Wales on their tin mining expeditions. Or maybe it moved down from the north (where warm sockies make a LOT of sense) to the south where the economic climate was more conducive to development of luxury goods, and the meteorlogical climate was more conducive to the preservation of same.

Alwen said...

One thing I've learned through knitting and netmaking is that the word "knitting" used to work a lot harder than it does today. Today it mostly means a specific craft.

In older texts, "knitting" meant "to set fruit" (they talk about melon blossoms knitting -- what a confusing mental image!).

It meant things like healing, the way we still say "a bone knitted".

It could mean a form of crochet ("shepherds' knitting").

And "knitting" is still used in some places to mean netmaking ("knit up your nets").

I can see that some decorative net patterns could be translated to knitting, but physically they are pretty different -- a knitter doing the mental translation would have to be pretty skilled.

Net making is just knot after knot after knot -- it's such a relief to be able to unravel knitting!