Thursday, January 21, 2016

The History of Knitting: Part I

Oldest Knitting: Sock at V&A Museum
The very first knitter in the history of mankind was . . . . well, nobody knows.

Very few examples of ancient knitting exist.  Since early knitting was made with natural fibers much of it naturally disintegrated on its own.  It is also likely that the earliest knitting was practical garments such as socks, caps and gloves.  And, seriously, do you save your old socks?  After ancient socks were worn beyond the mending point they were likely thrown away or tossed into the rag bag, just like today. 

But there is another reason that museums have so few examples of ancient knitting.  The golden age of archaeology was the 1920s.  Great tombs and fascinating pyramids were discovered and investigated.  In the race to acquire extraordinary mummies, valuable pottery and fascinating gold masks, ancient knitwear may have been tossed aside as worthless (A shocking concept to knitters like us!).  In addition, most of the early archaeologists were men who were unfamiliar with knitting, and as a result many nalbinded pieces were incorrectly identified as knitting, further confusing the history of knitting.  (For a fascinating look at rediscovering ancient knitting read Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years - Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times by Elizabeth Wayland Barber).

Nalbinded Socks in V&A Museum
This was the case with a gorgeous pair of red socks made in Egypt approximately 250 - 420 AD.  For many years these socks were thought to be the earliest known knitting, and it was only recently that they were discovered to be nalbinding.  These were excavated in the burial grounds of an ancient Greek colony in Egypt in the 19th century.  They were given to the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1900, and have remained there ever since.  The silly looking split toe is so that they can be worn with sandals.

So what is nalbinding?  Nalbinding is a method of connecting loops, similar to knitting (and often called single-needle knitting).  Nalbinding uses one needle with a hole in the end, like a huge a sewing needle, and like sewing it is done with a short length of yarn.  At the end of each length of yarn you must splice the end of one piece with the beginning of the next piece instead of working continuously from a ball of yarn.  It is thought to be a predecessor of knitting, but because it is so much slower, knitting became much more common.  There are still nalbinders today - but not many!

The oldest known knitting is a remnant of a sock made in Egypt around 1100 - 1300 and now in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum (pictured at the top).  A gorgeous two-color cotton design from an obviously experienced knitter, this is the oldest known surviving relic, but certainly was not the first-ever attempt at knitting. 

Knit Cap, 1500 - 1550, at V&A Museum
Through the centuries knitting spread from Egypt throughout Europe, but while China's culture was flourishing at this time there is, sadly, no evidence that the Chinese had adapted the craft.  Their strict trade and immigration policies meant that their culture remained uninfluenced by the outside world.  Knitting wasn't introduced in China until the early 1920s when anti-Communist Russians fled Russia after losing the Russian Civil War and settled in Shanghai.  The Chinese admired the Russians' warm knit caps and mittens and their beautifully knit military sashes, and the history of knitting in China began.

ChiaoGoo Bamboo Sock Set
Early knitting needles in Europe were metal, but in China - where bamboo is so abundant - bamboo needles were and still are very popular.  Some of the best bamboo needles come from ChiaoGoo, a company that is the result of three generations of bamboo craftsmen.  Grandfather Zheng was a bamboo craftsman who traveled from town to town with his bamboo kit making chairs, tables, barrels and baskets.  Father Zheng followed in his footsteps, but later quit traveling and built a permanent workshop.  He continued to make bamboo household goods, but also made bamboo knitting needles for Mama Zheng.  Mama Zheng was the original "ChiaoGoo" which means a "highly skilled and crafty lady."  She tested the bamboo needles and made suggestions, and soon Father Zheng's primary product became bamboo knitting needles.

In honor of Mama Zheng and all of the "crafty ladies" throughout history, we've got our ChiaoGoo needles on sale at 20% off now through February 21st, 2016.   

Stay tuned!  More on the history of knitting will follow in another post. 

Happy Knitting . . . . Scout

1 comment:

Heute strick ich said...

Loved to read the blog! Made my day!

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