Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The History of Knitting: Part II

Eleonora, perhaps wearing purled stockings?*
Knitting began in Ancient Egypt, but through time and travel it spread to Western Europe during the medieval era.  The earliest known knitting in Europe is in Spain, most likely made by Muslim knitters who brought their art with them while employed by the Spanish royal families.  An early example are the knit silk cushions and ceremonial gloves found in the tomb of Spanish Prince Fernando de la Creda, who died in 1275.

Knitting during Medieval times tended to be smaller items such as stockings, mittens, gloves, bags and hats (large garments such as coats and shirts were woven, not knit).  Knitters used small stitches, often 15 or 20 stitches per inch, using silk or wool and often in bright, multi-colored patterns. 

Today knitters learn flat knitting first, knitting back and forth on two needles, then progress to knitting in the round, but Medieval knit items almost always show the tell-tale "jog" that means it was knit in the round.  The earliest flat knitting examples are much later, from the 1600s.

A king in gorgeous red stockings! (1466)**
Not surprisingly, the most commonly knit item seems to be socks and stockings.  Primitive socks were made by sewing together woven material, but knitted stockings were stretchy and more comfortable - far superior in every possible way.  Once a person had worn knit stockings there was no going back!  Fashionable men wore short trunks (think capris), and well-fitted silk stockings were essential to the look.

The demand for well-made knit stockings was so strong that knitting became a full-time and quite profitable profession.  Men and women both knit from home as a source of income.  Knitting guilds started in the 1400s and these men-only guilds took knitting to a higher level by protecting trade secrets and providing training to improve the quality of the profession.  A young man who aspired to become a Master Knitter spent three years as an apprentice, then another three years as a journeyman where he literally went on a journey, traveling the world to learn foreign techniques and patterns.  The final exam required knitting an assortment of garments that would then be inspected by Master Knitters who would decide if he was worthy of becoming a fellow Master Knitter.  Just as celebrities have their favorite clothing designers today, Medieval royalty had their favorite Master Knitters.

Eleonora of Toledo's Stockings - 1562
Early Medieval knitting was all in the knit stitch.  Although the Ancient Egyptians had used both knit and purl stitches, somewhere along the way the purl stitch was lost when knitting traveled to Europe.  An early example of the purl stitch in Europe is the silk stockings buried with Eleonora of Toledo at her death in 1562.  The Spanish noblewoman was married to Cosimo I de Medici, the ruler of Tuscany.  She was known for her style and had ten gold and silver weavers to create her clothes.  If there was a new knitting stitch available that could create stockings prettier and better fitted than the ordinary knit stitch alone, it is not surprising that the marvelous "new" purl stitch would be used to knit Eleonora's stockings.  You can reproduce her famous stockings with this free Ravelry pattern that includes both written instructions and a chart.

Disturbing Tangent:  How is it that we have photographs of the stockings that Eleonora of Toledo was buried in?  Where is her body?  In 2003 the Medici crypts were opened and a ton of cool medical research done on the bodies.  Not much clothing overall had remained, but Eleonora's dress and stockings were in relatively good shape.  Today the dress and stockings are on display in the collection of the Galleria del Costume in Palazzo Pitti in Florence, Italy. You can read about the fascinating medical discoveries here and here.  The 400-year-old Medici bodies are mostly dust, with nothing to return to the crypt but bones. 

In 1589 William Lee invented a stocking knitting machine, but hand knitting provided so much needed income to her subjects that Queen Elizabeth I refused to give him a patent.  He tried his luck in France, where he failed there as well and died in poverty.  It was another 100 years before the knitting machine became common, which led to the next big change in knitting history (more on that in a future blog!).

The SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) is an interesting group dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th-century Europe.  Read their fascinating article on Medieval knitting (including some sample projects!) here

Happy Knitting . . . . Scout

*The painting of Eleonora of Toledo at the top is "Portrait of Eleanor of Toledo with her Son Giovanni de' Medici" painted by Bronzino in 1544 & 1545.  The original is in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

**The gorgeous red stockings worn by one of the visiting kings is from "Adoration of the Magi" by Nikolaus Obilman, painted in 1466.  The original is in the National Museum in Warsaw.

1 comment:

Syd T. said...

I am soooooo enjoying your historical blogs! Thank you so much for such amazing research and fascinating subjects. More please!

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