Friday, November 09, 2007

Yet again with the steel knitting needles.

Remember the discussion about how, possibly, the spread of knitting was limited by the lack of steel knitting needles? Um. Yeah.

Today, Alwen (bless her) went a little crazy and sat down to figure out what it takes to knit at twenty stitches to the inch. (That's eighty stitches to ten centimeters, for youse guys living in Metric Land.) That is the gauge used to knit some of the earliest known knitting in Europe. What it takes, it turns out, is needles .85 mm in diameter. That's almost HALF the diameter of triple-zero knitting needles.

I can't possibly see how you could knit on anything that thin, other than steel. I'm not even sure aluminum would hold up; I'm betting not (and aluminum is a moot point when we're talking about 1275, because it's a modern metal. Titanium or platinum would work, haha, but they weren't available in 1275 either.)

Anyone with ANY thoughts on alternative materials for knitting needles that small, let me know. Please. I really, really really want to hear it. I'm going to be contacting my uncle the metallurgist about this, soon. He's not an archeo-metallurgist, but he IS married to a knitter, so I'm hoping what with one thing and another, he can answer my questions. I'm sure, at the least, he's got better metallurgy books in his office to look stuff up in, than I do. (In fact, now that I think of it, I'll ask if he's got books in layman's terms to suggest.)

I'm also speculating on the sudden appearance of larger gauge knitting on the scene in the 1400s-1500s. Maybe people got tired of waiting for steel needles and started knitting on wood. The Monmouth caps of England were knit at about two stitches per inch, a gauge very easily attained on needles made from nearly anything - wood, ivory, bone, shell, you name it. This was also the era when knitted clothing showed up, possibly done on knitting frames. It looks VERY likely that people found alternatives to expensive steel needles with typical ingenuity.

More food for thought. Feel free to aruge with me.


debsnm said...

What if we're thinking about this all wrong??? What if only the points were solid, and were attached to something else (like bamboo, or some king of small grass. Don't have needles to look at at the moment, so that small a needle kind of escapes me, BUT, what if just the very tip were made of bone, with a tiny hole in one end to put something to hold live stitches? Then the other end could have a matching point, or a holder. We're used to these long things we hold in our hands, what if, in the beginning, it was more like having 2 sewing needles attached???? HMMMM - good at the creative thinking, I am.

Alwen said...

Don't worry, I'm not so nuts as to do this as a regular thing.

Since I've been knitting on actual needle-needles (needles with an eye), and that Dutch wool petticoat has 2600+ stitches, I'll admit I've been wondering if somebody invented a take on the circular needle using needles with something tied in the needle eye.

2600 stitches. It would have to be something strong. I don't know, would silk tied between two steel eyed needles be strong enough?

Sheepish Annie said...

I'm leaning towards bone being a popular choice. I don't know if that would hold up well, but it would certainly have been an available resource and it seems likely that folks would be supportive of the whole "all parts of the animal" theory.

Anonymous said...

i dunno about the past, but did you see the interweave(?) article about the woman in bloomington, indiana, who knits "dollhouse for dollhouse scale" sweaters, etc., at eighty -- yes, freakin' eight-zero -- stitches to the inch? she uses silk thread, needles she makes for herself from surgical steel wire and -- naturally -- a magnifier. phenomenal stuff, and she makes a living selling it, too.

ellen in indy

Anne said...

I saw that article about the knitter of dollhouse-sized objects and I have to say my first thought was, "only in the era of electric lights". Can you imagine trying to do that kind of work with the glare of sunlight or by the light of a fire? I do wonder about using some sort of plant material for the needle and/or cable holding the extra stitches...

Alwen said...

I remembered that I have a bone needle I bought at a SCA event, so I just measured it. It's not perfectly round. It's an oval cross-section 1.3mm by 1.67mm.

This needle has a drilled eye, probably made with a steel micro drill bit. (I have those, too!)

The difficulty I see with making a bone needle tip smaller than this is that the hole has to be even smaller than the needle.

I've read about a needle factory in the 1800's where the children eyeing the needles would eye a piece of human hair and thread it with a second hair, so it's not impossible. But by the 1800's you have steel eyeing punches.

(Okay, that's probably more than anyone wanted to know about needle manufacturing.)

Roxie said...

First, I would love to get a squint at this impossibly fine piece of knitting. Sometimes, the construction of the fabric tells us about the tools.

Second, howinhell did they spin the wool that fine?

Carolyn Bahm said...

Check out the site of -- for Althea Merback's tiny gloves, she does miniature knitting on .001" steel wires that she says get more than 80 stitches to the inch. I'm featuring some of her photos (with permission) on my blog on Monday. :o)