Saturday, October 27, 2007

Still more about knitting and technology.

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?


Louiz said...

Try emailing Time Team care of Or a university with a good archealogy department? Very interesting comments though. Some frame knitting can be done with wood, but not at the gauge you mentioned, so keep us updated. History and knitting, of course I'm interested!

Amy Lane said...

That's so funny...I read yesterday's post and asked the exact questionyou answered with todays...

Now...about Shakespeare... (LOL!!!)

Anonymous said...

did you see the interweave piece about the woman who knits miniature sweaters etc. at 80 (yes, eight- zero) stitches to the inch, using silk thread and needles she has made from surgical wire?

she actually makes a living doing this!

ellen in indy

Julie said...

I did see the Interweave bit, and I don't know what amazes me more... that she DOES that, or that she MAKES A LIVING AT IT. I had actually seen some of her work previosly, most notably the gloves. I've got a friend who does minatures on striaght pins, too.

Craziness. Total craziness.

Alwen said...

Another thing the Crusades brought back was Damascus steel. So I'm agreeing, getting down to squinty-sized needles was one of the bottlenecks for the spread of knitting. (In contrast, look at what nalbinding used: a needle.) As soon as the wire tech. developed and spread, poof, knitting could, too.

We've gotten Discover magazine for years [goes away on a Google hunt]

and I knew I'd read about forging technology that used funnelled wind to achieve forge temperatures that verged on kiln heats, a lot older than some of the previous textbook dates for steel. Look at who was snaffling up this steel: Syria.

Oh, and as long as you're looking at Rutt, too, here's something weird. Plate 26, page 35. Check out the knitting direction of the top of that fragment vs. the knitting direction of the very bottom.

The DIA is reopening in November but I can't find that fragment in their online collection so far.

Donna Lee said...

I have to admit that I didn't know archeo-metallurgists existed until I read this. Today I learned something new and it isn't even 9 am. You have really piqued my interest.

Alwen said...

One thing's for sure, knitting didn't wait around for just any old wire -- wire shows up as jewelry (mostly gold, silver, copper) long before we get to steel.

Bells said...

Oh yeah, Time Team, that'd be fantastic. I would love to see Tony Robinson exploring ancient knitting techniques. Good idea Louiz!

b said...

My uncle is a metallurgist too. Not an archeo-metallurgist, though.

historicstitcher said...

As an example of the art waiting on the technology: what we recognize as the Elizabethan blossoming of embroidery was only possible because of the invention of the small, strong, fine, steel stitching needle. While nalbinding was done with a needle, it didn't have to be terribly strong, simply because it was short and didn't needle to be super-fine. Embroidery needles needed to be very fine and smooth, and quite sharp, so the art was limited by the technology. Once the technology was invented - poof - we have elaborate embroidery.

Kit said...

The thing is that I don't believe the Egypt story at all. Not as it is being handed to us. That the oldest fragments come from there, sure. It's a good climate for preserving fabric and the culture encouraged them to try. But we're to believe that the first step is knit in the round and steeked - in cotton, linen, and silk?

Nope, no, no, no - that idea wasn't come up with by a knitter. The first knitting would have been a variation on naalbinding. NOT fine knitting at dozens of stitches per inch and then steeked in a fiber that would have immediately fallen apart.

The first successful steeking would have been done on wool. Otherwise it just falls apart into lengths of string and all your work is gone, leaving the intelligent person firmly opposed to doing that again. Steeking would be tried on something like cotton only by a skilled craftsperson who already knew it worked on wool and had the creativity to figure out how to do it on a slippery fiber.

You are probably right that the fine work did have to wait on steel needles, and the craft was refined into luxury work in the middle east somewhere.

But first steps. I believe the first step was someone who was skilled at naalbinding deciding to take a handy stick and do a bunch of loops rather than locking each loop down one at a time. Next step was smoothing the stick. The second stick probably took quite a while. I'd vote for a sheepherding culture. Could have been the middle east, but more likely up into the mountains of Asia. The early work probably didn't look different from naalbinding for a long, long time.

So - no evidence but the reasoning of a craftsperson - but I'm voting for wool, somewhere colder with sheep, and someone making improvements on naalbinding. And it spreading from there south into the civilized world and getting all luxury type work. Knitting isn't really all that better a thing to do with cotton.