Friday, October 26, 2007

A related issue, in knitting history.

While brooding over the history of knitting at the gym today (hey, I've gotta think of something to distract me from my knees), I came up with another reason why the spread of knitting might have been rather slow. One that has little or nothing to do with culture and trade routes, per se.

Mind you, I'm talking about the Middle Ages, here, around 1100 CE.


I wonder, if perhaps the spread of knitting was slowed by a lack of decent knitting needles. Sounds crazy at first, but think about it. Back then they were knitting at really fine gauges (seven stitches to the inch, or less, average) and needles out of wood, that small, kind of suck. Not to mention, even making needles out of wood, by hand, can be a tricky proposition. (Look into arrow making, if you don't believe me.) Not impossible, of course, not by any stretch, but certainly a pain in the keester. And of course, the harder the wood, the more useful the needle is, and the more difficult it is to make in the first place.

Metal needles would be even harder to get. Iron and steel were both very expensive. Bronze and copper would be too soft to be useful (bronze, if pure, would work, but likely be expensive, too). And aluminum wouldn't be made in any useful, affordable way, until at least the 1880s (useless but interesting fact of the day: in the 1850s, aluminum was worth more than gold, because no one knew how to extract it from bauxite). Aluminum knitting needles didn't exist until after WW1, to my knowledge.

There are, of course, other things to make needles out of, bone and ivory and tortoise shell being the most common. And those are lovely, and certainly did exist. But again, the material isn't strong enough to make really small needles with.

I do know that lace knitting, at a very small gauge, did not exist in any real way until the Victorian era, because that was when wire-making technology made it possible for the masses to buy steel knitting needles cheaply (or make them out of bicycle spokes, or the ribs of umbrellas). Until then, only a few people could afford the needles to knit the really fine lace; I'm sure it existed, but it wasn't widespread until then.

So. More food for thought.


Alwen said...

Yeah, that had to be a biggie. I actually have a really old pair of aluminum dpns, pre-anodizing. I should have already known this from getting gray aluminum marks on my white shirts, leaning on our aluminum countertop edging as a girl, but hey guess what! Uncoated aluminum turns white thread gray. It's like knitting with lead.

So, yeah, definitely metallurgy and wire drawing technology. The Vikings were big on wire -- check out some of the jewelry that looks like spool-knitted wire from hoards. Graham-Campbell's book, cleverly named "The Vikings" or some such thing. Silver makes dandy wire and it doesn't crock off gray on the thread.

Oooo. I just had a thought for thick needles and not very big items: feather shafts. I have some turkey feathers somewhere.

Another thing we don't think about a lot these days is horn, "the plastic of the Middle Ages". It can be softened and worked, but it's not going to take you down to 7 st./inch.

Ivory can go pretty thin. It's flexy at those sizes, but they made netting needles (=shuttles) that were quite slender.

And I read a while ago that da Vinci discovered (or "unvented") milk casein "plastic", and used it to make, uhhhh, knife handles, I think it was. Just think if he'd been a knitter!

Dang it, my brain is firing off in all directions now. Stop it, you!

Brewgal said...

That's why the top of the Empire State Building has an aluminum cap. It was considered the most precious metal at the time.

Amy Lane said...

Cool thought! I just read alwen's post, which answered something I was wondering about... how did they get those little teeny tiny needles to knit those 32 st. to an inch items like Queen Elizabeth's stockings? Just wondering...

Carrie S. said...

Hrm. On the other hand, I have some wooden needles that are 2.5 mm, and I can get 7 st/in on them without too much effort, and I have broken only one so far--they're fine for socks, though it'd be a serious pain doing a whole shirt front with them and they'd likely break more easily from the extra weight. You couldn't get the insanely fine gauges, but relatively small is doable with wood.

On the other hand, "insanely fine" was likely a status symbol.

Which is to say, I agree with you in outline, but I imagine it was a combination of lack of metallurgy and lack of someone going, hey, but if all I want is knitted stockings...

debsnm said...

What about bamboo? You can get some pretty fine gauges with bamboo needles, and they might be flexible enough to have them longer for lace knitting? I have no clue, actually, just asking - and thinking that if knitting began in Egypt, wouldn't it have followed that they would have the needles? And bamboo was/is a pretty flexible stick, if you can use the branches.
OOOOOHH!! What about papyrus? Or was that too flexible?