Last night, after my last post on knitting needles and materials to make them out of , I went and dug up my copy of "A History of Hand Knitting" (Richard Rutt) and looked at what he had to say. He also says that early needles were made from bronze and steel. However, he emphasizes European knitting and pretty much ignores the implications of all those bits found in Egypt, so I take him with a large grain of salt.
On the other hand, Rutt's boffo at details of specific artefacts, giving charts and gauge and material, and like that. According to him, the oldest bit of knitting that's known and substantiated in Europe is a pillow that was found in a tomb in Spain. The tomb was closed up in 1275 CE. So, obviously, the pillows were made then, or earlier. He includes charts and stuff, but the interesting bit is the gauge: Eighty stitches to ten centimeters, or about TWENTY STITCHES PER BLOODY INCH. That is fucking SMALL. (The smallest I've ever knit was twelve stitches to the inch, on 0000 needles, with thread, and I thought THAT was insane.) Among other things, I always wonder who the poor slob knitting was, and hope they had good light. But I doubt they did; Ott lights had a few years left in R&D.
For our puroses, the big point of that gauge is, there's no way it couldl have been knit with anything other than steel needles. Nothing else available in 1275 had the tensile strength to do it. At least not that I know of, and I live with a guy who does industrial inspection and have had an ongoing interest in archometallurgy, myself, since at least 1990. So if anyone ELSE can come up with something that could have made knitting needles smaller than quad-zeros, in 1275 CE, let me know. I sincerely want to hear it. Because I can't think of anything. I can't think of one organic material that could have managed it.
Steel would have been expensive then, limiting knitting to either religious orders with lots of money, or rich people (with lots of money). Spain produced some of the best steel in the world back then, so it's probable that the needles were fairly easy for them to come by, but they still would have been expensive. And of course, there was no way for them to ramp up production enough to provide knitting needles for every peasant in Europe. I think we may have hit upon a legitimate reason why knitting did not spread faster than it did.
Rutt also describes the process of making needles in the 1500s: the local blacksmith would basically cut lengths of wire, straighten and temper them, and point the ends. So by then needles were easier to get, but the blacksmith still had to get the wire from somewhere, and extrusion methods weren't really fast and cheap until, as I mentioned before, the Victorian era.
On a related topic, I was brooding over other ways technology has influenced knitting, and hit on something else: Fair Isle knitting. They were certainly doing banded patterns of stranded color for hundreds of years, but Fair Isle knitting did not exist, as we know it, with all those colors, until after the 1860s. Know what happened in the 1860s? Synthetic dyes were invented.
You can't knit in two dozen colors, until you can MAKE the two dozen colors.
More food for thought. I'm on a roll. Going to page through Rutt again, and ask the Husbeast metallurgy questions. I may wind up calling the uncle who is a retired industrial chemist and engineer who specialized in, you guessed it, metallurgy. This is an odd enough topic, from his point of view, to really get his attention. He's more used to working on nuclear reactors.
What I really need is an archeo-metallurgist. Anybody know one?