Archive for the ‘Knitting History’ Category

Wovember 2nd – Merino

November 2, 2011

What’s Wovember? Look here.

By far the most common knitting wool in use today, merino was not always so accessible. Sheep originate from Asia Minor and parts of Europe, but the ancient Phoenicians, in their role as importers and exporters, introduced them to the North African region, and from there they were imported to Spain, Wikipedia suggests as late as the 12th century. Compare this to England, where sheep were introduced by Neolithic settlers around 4000 B.C.E.

Superwash merino dyed by Sundara Yarns

Spain made up for lost time, though, by breeding a fine wool sheep. The Spanish imported English sheep to improve the quality of their stock and between the 12th and 16th centuries they became major wool exporters. The new breed, Merino, had a small body and soft, fine wool with a short staple. The flocks were owned primarily by powerful land owners in Castile who formed a guild known as Honrado Concejo de la Mesta. They formed agreements to allow the nomadic sheep right of way along Cañadas Reales (drover’s roads) still legally protected for sheep to this day, though the laws are no longer strictly followed. Some of the older cañadas may be neolithic in origin, following the paths laid out by migratory herd animals. Sheep can graze in areas too unstable for arable farming, so the sheep moved freely through the no man’s land between Islamic and Christian Spain, moving with the seasons, and making the members of the Mesta, who included many Spanish nobles and Church officials, rich. Members of the Mesta were exempted from military service. Exportation of their precious Merino sheep was punishable by death. Their power and wealth grew and wool money financed much of the Castilian economy. With only Spain and England as the only European wool exporters, it seemed like the wealth was only going to continue growing.

Single ply merino, dyed by Malabrigo Yarns.

Habsburg Spain, however, had become overdependent on the wool money of Castile. The Mesta’s power was too great, the sheep too cossetted. The powerful Mesta began to ignore the cañadas, allowing their sheep to trample farmland without fear of repercussion. The land of Castile became barren. Crops failed, and grain had to be brought in from outside the region at great expense. The price of food staples skyrocketed. The economy was in trouble for other reasons as well. Near constant wars fought largely on credit had brought Spain into difficult straits at a time when it was still recovering from plagues and famines of the previous centuries.

In the 18th century, Spain relaxed its hold on the merino and began exporting small numbers of live sheep to other countries. The first major exportation, though, would come in 1765, when a large number of sheep from the Royal Escurial flock were sent to Saxony. In 1786, King Louis XVI purchased more than three hundred Spanish Merinos, the foundation of what would become the Rambouillet breed, which would in turn be the basis for the Australian Merino. Merinos have served as the basis and backbone for many sheep breeds around the world since they became available as breeding stock. The world at large gained access to the Merino sheep after Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, during which time many flocks were killed or destroyed by the invading army.

Undyed Rambouillet yarn, from The Sincere Sheep.

Today, the sheep that once was a protected state valuable is now the most common in the world. Almost all finewool breeds today are at least in part Merino. There are worries that a preference for merino wool may be endangering some of the more rough coated sheep, as the fall prices of wool in favor of synthetic fabrics have made the wool industry a costly and losing business proposition for many sheep producers.

Extreme close up of superwash merino yarn, dyed by Little Red Bicycle.

(Note: Most information in the above post was obtained through specific web searches for information. I did try to find more than one source for much of the above, but there may be inaccuracies. Please let me know if I’m wrong in any specifics.)

Detective work

July 15, 2009

Knitting entered China on the back of a camel.  According to the academic Owen Lattimore, after the defeat of the White Army during the Russian Civil War, the monarchists retreated into China, where, as China fell into its own civil war, they were transported by camel to the eastern end of China. To pass the time, the Russian soldiers taught the Chinese camel pullers to knit.

White Army officers, some in sashes

White Army soldiers

That Russian soldiers were knitters should not perhaps be surprising when you consider that knitted stockings had been a uniform requirement since as early as 1630.  By the 18th century, officers wore knitted silk sashes.  While most of this knitting was done by hand knitters in the western provinces, it’s certainly possible and even likely that the soldiers themselves may have been doing some of the knitting and darning required to keep them in stockings and sashes.

In any case, the camel pullers took up knitting with a will.  Lattimore observed that, “they would reach back to the first camel of the file they were leading, pluck a handful of hair from the neck, and roll it in their palms into the beginning of a length of yarn; a weight was attached to this, and given a twist to start it spinning, and the man went on feeding wool into the thread until he had spun enough yarn to continue his knitting.”

Peking, 1946

Camel puller, Peking, 1946, Silk Road

China already had a long history of extraordinary textile production, of course.  Even before the opening of the Silk Road, which made trade between Europe and Asia a matter of routine, expensive silks and woolens had made their way West through complex trade organizations. Treadle looms had been in use in China from perhaps as early as 2000 B.C., creating fabrics that wouldn’t be possible to create in Europe until the 11th or 12th centuries.

Mary Thomas claims in her comprehensive Knitting Book that knitting came from the Arabian peninsula, so it seems odd that knitting would have avoided China until the early 20th century, considering the trade between China and the peninsula and the fact that early knitting seems to have been done with silk.  However, within the same book, Thomas notes that there is no trace of knitting in China or India prior to European influence, and that perhaps with their own rich textile traditions, no need for knitted fabric was felt.

Though Lattimore’s romantic story of camel pullers knitting from the backs of their camels is very appealing, knitting had in fact been introduced to China prior to the Russian Civil War.  China’s first hosiery factory was established in 1902, and by 1912, power driven knitting machines were being imported from the West.  By 1913, the New York Times was reporting on the popularization of knitted stockings in China.  Hand knitting, however, did not become widely popularized until after World War II.

Fashion designs for handknit woollen garments, 1924

Fashion designs for handknit woollen garments, 1924

The reason I found myself searching for traces of Chinese knitting past is that I’ve been trying to connect my loves of history, place, and knitting together recently.  I live in California, in the San Francisco Bay Area, and unlike knitters in Shetland, or Turkey, or even parts of the Eastern United States, there is no unique knitting history associated with my part of the world.

I’m currently reading a very interesting book about California history, and, as in any book on the topic, I cannot help but notice how very much Asian influence has shaped San Francisco and its surrounding climes.  The Chinese influx in California at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th was both deeply needed and deeply resented by the white Americans in California.  Because of the racial tensions, there wasn’t originally much integration between communities.  And I found myself wondering how this influx had influenced women in California.

Most of the women in the Bay Area during the mining boom were of Chinese origin, and many were slaves, sold or kidnapped into prostitution.  By the time of the great San Francisco fire in 1906, the state was a state and had set restrictive limits on Chinese immigration.  Ironically, the fire’s total destruction of Chinatown led to a greater openness in immigration policy.  Since immigration laws limited immigration to those with family ties with Chinese relatives already in America, the complete loss of paper records meant that a booming business in “paper sons” was born.

I had assumed that this ebbing and flowing population might have brought with them some new traditions in handicrafts and perhaps introduced new knitting techniques to the location, but if the record I was able to find can be believed, knitting was still in its infancy in China at this period.  I’m making the assumption that American Born Chinese were familiar with the tradition, but have been unable to find any connection to knitting history and the Bay Area as yet.

Further reading:
Dolores Bausum, Threading Time. Texas Christian University Press, 2001.
Antonia Finnane, Changing Clothes in China: Fashion, History, Nation. Columbia University Press, 2007.
Owen Lattimore, The Desert Road to Turkestan. originally published in 1929.
Mary Thomas, Mary Thomas’s Knitting Book. Dover Publications, reprinted in 1972.
David Wyatt, Five Fires: Race, Catastrophe, and the Shaping of California. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1999.

Twined Knitting – History Pt. 2

January 4, 2007

There’s a venerable history to knitting in Sweden, the best known traditions of which culminated in the Bohus Stickning company. (More on Bohus knitting later.) Twined knitting, though, is based on older, more practical concerns than the airy beauty that became the hallmark of Bohus Stickning, which was aiming to capture an affluent market and was directed by consumer demand. Twined knitting, in contrast, was work done by individuals for their own families’ use, and intended firstly as a practical craft, and only secondly as an ornamental one. To find out more about the history of the craft, it’s worthwhile to seek out the history of twined knitting in one particular region.

Dalarna is a province in central Sweden, today a popular tourist destination for those seeking what is most Swedish about Sweden. Why this should be has a lot to do with Dalarna’s history. It was the last province in Sweden to abandon the Runic alphabet, doing so only in the 20th century. The famous and iconic Dalahäst, which has become a symbol of Sweden abroad, has its origins in Dalarna. And Dalarna is the location of Sweden’s most famous copper mines, mines which played a huge role in Sweden’s history as a nation.

Dalarna is also the location of an archeological find that has particular bearing on the history of Swedish needlecraft. In 1974, a team investigating a site in Falun, an old copper-mining town, found a glove that would, in the words of Dandanell and Danielsson*, “prove to be so interesting that it alone would set in motion extensive research throughout the region and the country”.

The Falun glove was found under a slag heap that was dated to 1680, proving that the Falun glove is at least that old. It was twined knit in a fine gauge wool yarn with fringe at the cuff. The early date sets this as the oldest article of twined knitting ever found intact, and one of the oldest pieces of knitting yet found in Sweden. When it was found, the Falun glove was purl side out, and the fingertips were missing. We’ll probably never know which side was used as the outside of the glove, but what we do know for sure is that knitted items, and specifically twined knitted items, were in use in Falun in the 17th century.

Twined knitting seems, in fact, to have been the only known knitting method used in Dalarna for much of its history. What Danielsson and Dandanell do with this information is to create a sort of timeline, using the Falun glove as a marker to show that twined knitting was the earliest form of knitting used in Dalarna, and then combining that knowledge with written records referring to knit articles in order to piece together who was benefiting from the knitting, and what it was they were wearing. From a 1659 court record referring to the theft of a pair of knitted stocking from a servant girl, the pair are able to conclude that farm families were wearing knitted stockings in the 17th century. Other records at their disposal include estate inventories, and even a death register that records the death of a woman who supported herself by knitting stockings and spinning.

Based on their research, they conclude that twined knitting was known to Dalarna’s peasant population by the mid 1600s, though when it became a nearly ubiquitous skill among the women of Dalarna is less clear. What is clear is that by the mid 1700s, a visitor to Dalarna was going to encounter knit items everywhere he turned, both on the bodies of the people themselves, and available for purchase.

Whether the seed of twined knitting truly germinated in Dalarna, or whether the knowledge was brought from elsewhere, it is known that it spread quickly, and that it survives. By participating in this ancient craft, we make a choice to join a tried and proven handicraft that has passed on through the generations because of its beauty, its central integrity, and the very fact that its antiquity connects us to those who came before us. One of the great beauties of knitting history is that it connects us so intimately with the history of women. Knitting is an equal opportunity activity today, but in the past it was primarily a woman’s job, despite all male guilds in the Middle Ages. There’s something that feels really special about connecting backward with the less celebrated, but intensely vital, traditions, as well as having some connection to how an item as important as clothing is made.

* This was referred to in other entries, but most knitting information in this post comes from the book Twined Knitting, by Birgitta Dandanell and Ulla Danielsson.  The book is currently out of print.

Twined Knitting – History Pt. 1

November 16, 2006

There’s nothing that can make you feel more like an inferior knitter than opening the book Twined Knitting by Birgitta Dandanell and Ulla Danielsson, and noting the many, many pictures of women toting small children and farm implements about as they work industriously on a beautifully detailed piece of knitting. It also brings home the fact that knitting used to be a more utilitarian part of everyday life with a small bump. I’ll quote here the first three sentences of the book:

“‘An industrious knitter could just about finish a man’s stocking in a 15 kilometer stretch of even, easy walking.’ So said an 80-year old woman from Leksand in the 1890’s. While certainly not true, it expresses the diligence of Swedish knitters at the time.”

Well, thank heavens it’s not true. I think we’ve all got enough to feel inferior about without thinking we should be capable of walking 15 kilometers and knitting a stocking at the same time. Nonetheless, it is true that knitting was not something that Swedish women did to the exclusion of other activities. One woman born in 1890 described how her mother taught her to hold a rake under her arm and thus leave her hands free to knit.

The summer months were often given over to knitting, meaning that by the time winter rolled around, a family would have a good stock of socks, mittens, and other winter necessities. These were all knit in the style known as twined knitting (tvåändsstickning). Twined knitting differs from other forms of knitting in its extreme durability, its incredible warmth, and its unusual stiffness, which meant that the fabric held its shape.

All of these qualities, as you can imagine, were useful during the cold Swedish winter. (The Cold Swedish Winter, coincidentally, is the name of a song by Jens Lekman. He has nothing to do with knitting at all, but I encourage you to check him out.) Mittens and stockings needed to hold up through work and weather, and the inflexible and thick fabric created by twined knitting was perfect for the job.

Knitting was not a uniform art throughout Sweden. In parts of Sweden, the Norwegian tradition of using the purl side of mittens on the outside was common, while in other areas, the knit side was the one favored. Naturally, the Norwegian crossovers occurred close to the Norwegian border, and it seems that Swedish knitting similarly influenced Norwegian knitters. Early drawings show Norwegian knitters of the 19th century plugging away at their twined knitting.

We can see, then, that twined knitting, though rarely used and nearly unknown today, was a common and useful tool that Scandanavian knitters have utilized with great results. I’ll continue the history of twined knitting in a future entry. As to how I intend to use it myself – well, obviously the winter months in California simply don’t have the bite of a frigid Northern icestorm, but still, my extremities begin to turn blue with cold. I’m thinking that the stiffness and warmth of the cloth would make this technique perfect for slippers.

Twined Knitting

October 19, 2006

A couple of weeks ago, I checked a book out of the library for reading in my downtime. It just looked like an interesting book, so I thought I’d try to read it when I had a chance. It’s called Twined Knitting, and it’s by Brigitta Dandanell and Ulla Danielsson. I’m finally getting a look at it now, and it’s amazing! I looked it up on Amazon in the hopes of purchasing a copy, and sadly, it’s out of print and starts at $57.95. I suppose the book is famous in the annals of knitting history and I’m only now coming to it, but I have come to it.

It would be a shame to let this book fall by the wayside. Here’s what I’m going to do. I may not have the best camera, I may not be the best photographer, but I’m going to renew the book, Xerox some of the charts and pictures, and I’m going to start learning twined knitting, which I will update on here with picture of my progress and tutorials as well. Since I’m going to be learning, I’ll be making a lot of mistakes, but at the very least I can pass on some of the information in this wonderful book. Knitty has a nice tutorial to get anyone started with twined knitting, so that seems like a good place to start, and then we’ll take it from there. Really, in many ways the twined knitting is the least of it. It’s more that this book contains so many charts and patterns the likes of which I’ve never seen, and I need to be able to try them out.

I’ll also be transcribing some of the information here about the history of knitting in Sweden. I’m already amazed by the wealth of information in this book, and I’ve barely cracked the surface, so to speak. Wowza.

Twined Knitting