Friday, August 9, 2013

Knitting or Naalbinding

Unfortunately, this subject fell into a discussion recently ("Knitting isn't period."), which lead me to do a little research to back up my stand-point ("Yes, it is.").

The non-existence of surviving needles and a general lack of viable information have lead to suppositions that knitting is not period to the medieval time frame.  Depending on where or when your persona may have lived, there is some merit to this supposition, but for the Germanic peoples, there are examples of knitting within at least my general area of study.

Existence: Knitting or Naalbinding

What is the basis for those who would claim that there wasn't knitting during period?

The main argument I have found against knitting in period is as follows (with only minor variations):
They only used a single long needle, similar to naalbinding or tatting, to achieve the appearance of knitting, therefore, they didn't have knitting in the middle ages.  Instead the people of the middle ages used a stitch called the Tarim-stitch or "Coptic" stitch, which is a naalbinding technique.  Many of the early medieval pieces (before the 14th century) which were identified as knitting were actually naalbinding instead of knitting.
While this could be a perfectly viable stand-point, there is at least one image in the Germanic area which concerns the use of knitting in period and there are a number of extant artifacts as well.
Buxtehuder Altar - The Visit of the Angels or Knitting Madonna by Meister Bertram of Minden, circa 1400-10
One image does not an argument make, but it can't be ignored for being only one painting.  Some authorities have dated this painting to around 1367-87 (bildindex), while others have dated it to 1400-10.  I am uncertain what the current acceptable date may be, but I have used the later in an effort to be reasonably consistent.  In either case, it shows knitting in the Germanic areas just prior to my particular time frame.  Unfortunately, these "knitting Madonnas" cannot be found everywhere in Europe.  Thus far, I've only seen this single Germanic piece, a Flemish etching (The Life of the Infant by Hieronymus Wierix, before 1619) and two from Italy, one of which, The Holy Family by Ambrogio Lorenzetter, was produced around 1345... decidedly before this piece.

Extant examples are provided by a couple of sources.

Firstly, by the Venetian ship, "Gagiana," which sank near the rocky inlet Gnalic just a few miles south of the town of Biograd, Croatia in 1583, as well as the English ship, "Mary Rose," which sank outside Portsmouth, England in 1545.  Instead of re-writing information that is already available online, here is another individual's research into the Knitted Flat Cap followed by the Curious Frau's cap pattern.

Secondly, has compiled a rather comprehensive list in Knit Clothing from the Middle Ages through the 17th century.

Appearance: Differences betweeen Naalbinding and Knitting Fabrics

I have noticed two differences between naalbinding and knitting once the fabrics are completed.  On the knit side of the fabric, there are obvious loops that appear like "v"s.  Using knitting needles, the individual skeins of these loops are separate and distinct at the point of the "v", while the naalbinding Tarim-stitch causes the skeins to be crossed one over the other.  On the perl side of the fabric, the fabric appears as horizontal dashed lines.  Using knitting needles, these lines appear straight, distinct, and perfectly horizontal, while the individual stitches of the naalbinding Tarim-stitch, while also horizontal, appear somewhat rounded.  (This may be an illusion based on what I've been able to observe.)

While the fabric does appear somewhat similar, it appears to behave somewhat differently when it is stretched.  If you stretch a knitted fabric, the holes remain somewhat even and uniform, almost square in fact, whereas naalbinding appears to have more stretch and the holes appear elongated.  Technique and skill may have a bit to do with how much naalbinding stretches, but this is not an area I have currently researched.


Both techniques were likely practiced during the later Middle Ages in many areas of Europe while the medieval population was transitioning from a cumbersome, though very elastic and durable, process (naalbinding) to a faster, though slightly less elastic, product (knitting). 

Further Reading:
  1. Medieval Egyptian Child's Sock
  2. Hand Knit Hose by Donna Flood Kenton 
  3. Knitted Caps by Cathy Snell
  4. The Knitting Crafts in Europe from the Thirteenth to the Eighteenth Century by Irena Turnau
  5. A Workwoman's Guide, containing instructions in cutting out and completing those articles of wearing apparel, &c., which are usually made at home; also, explanations on upholstery, straw-platting, bonnet-making, knitting, &c. by A Lady (1840)
  6. The Venetian Shipwreck at Gnalic: Biograd na moru by Tomaž Lauko and Zrinka Mileusnić

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