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.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

From Double Points to Circulars

Knitting in the round, 1400-1410
Knitting in the round with double pointed needles is easy for small garments such as socks and hats, but using long double pointed needed for larger projects becomes cumbersome.

But cumbersome or not, for centuries that was the only option.  The picture at the right is one of a series of altar paintings done by Meister Bertram in Germany between 1400 and 1410.  It shows the Virgin Mary diligently doing her daily work; she hasn't yet noticed that angels have come to visit her.  It is the first known image of knitting in the round.  We don't have any way of knowing if Mary actually was a knitter, but the painting proves that in the year 1400 knitting in the round was commonplace.

Mary's work is an almost-finished shirt.  (Click here for the Wikimedia Commons image, which can be enlarged to show detail).  The back of the neck is already bound off and she is finishing the rest of the neckline.  The shirt appears to be seamless and entirely knit stitch (no purls), and she is using two strands of yarn, one pink and one white or tan.  There is also a green ball of yarn in her basket, but it doesn't appear that her current project has any green in it - perhaps she has the green yarn ready for her next project?  It is especially interesting to note that the picture is intended to show Mary as the ideal, perfect woman of 1400 - and she is a knitter!  I agree that knitting women are a cut above the rest!

Denise Interchangeable Set, 1970s
Circular knitting needles were patented 500 years later - in 1918.  But even then they weren't very common.  Early circular needles used steel wire cable with rigid ends crimped on.  The wire cable was stiff and sometimes broke (horrors!), and the wire-to-needle connection clamp often snagged the yarn.  The circular knitting needle wasn't perfected until the 1930s when needle company Boye improved the design, and the first plastic interchangeable needles were made by Denise in the 1970s. 

Now (2016) yet another improvement!  The new ChiaoGoo Adapters make your interchangeables even more interchangeable.  The ChiaoGoo interchangeables have always been amazingly versatile.  You can already switch between the Twist (red) cables or the Spin (clear) cables with the Twist (stainless steel) or Spin (bamboo) needle tips, and you can already use the cable connectors to create your own unique and extra-long cable lengths.

ChiaoGoo Adapter
But you were still limited by the cable join size.  Needle tips size 2 to 8 attach to the cable with a small join, and needle tips size 9 to 15 attach with a large join.  Period.  End of discussion.  There was just no mixing between the two.

Until now . . . . .  A tiny adapter the size of a Tic Tac candy allows you to use your large join needle tips with small join cables.  This means you can start a new project on large needles even if you already have your cables with a large join busy on another project.  Just use the adapter with your large needles and small cables.

Does anyone ever knit just one project at a time?  Of course not!  So why be limited by the join size of your cables.  You should have the freedom to have oodles of different projects being knitted at the same time! 

Umm, are you spelling that correctly?  Does adapter end with an ER or an OR?  Actually, both spellings are correct.  The ER ending is more common, and that's how ChiaoGoo spells it so that's how we've been spelling it, too.

Happy Knitting . . . . Scout

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

From Burnt Sand to Swarvoski Crystals

Stardust Mitts
Why shouldn't fine crystals be worn every day?  The Stardust Mitts Kit is the perfect combination of beautiful Rowan yarn and twinkly Swarovski crystal beads.  The pretty little crystals are tucked into the cables and add sparkle without being too much.  Don't save them for special occasions - these are perfect for adding a bit of sparkle to every day!

You already know that crystals - and especially Swarovski crystals - are a cut above plain old regular glass.  But why? 

Glass is made by melting silica, the main ingredient in sand.  This can occur naturally when lightening strikes sand, and the result is called fulgurite.  But fulgurite is quite ugly, just a metallic blue-grey colored lumpy thing.

Fulgurite - Ugly!
The first man-made glass was likely made in Mesopotamia around 3500 B.C. and - no surprise to knitters like us - the first glass item created was probably beads!  Metals are found in nature as ores, metal mixed with silica and other impurities.  When ancient metal workers heated the ores to remove the pure metal the leftover hot silica formed glass.  The little glass bits were pretty and shiny - but not clear.  Transparent glass came much later, around 300 A.D.

Through the next few centuries glass making ebbed and flowed as some cultures perfected the art while others seemed to have lost interest and then rediscovered it.

The Crystal Palace, London, 1851
In 1674 Englishman George Ravenscroft added lead oxide to molten glass forming what we today call lead crystal.  The lead increased the "working period" of the glass, making it easier to work with, and also made the glass not just transparent but a striking, gorgeous crystal clear.

Lead crystal is actually a form of glass and not technically a crystal in the scientific sense, but it has always been called lead crystal because the crystal-like brilliance and sparkle outshines ordinary glass. (Natural rock crystal is pretty but extremely brittle and difficult to work with.)

Within a few years glasshouses were producing glass and lead crystal all over Europe.  It was so popular in Europe that England imposed a glass tax in 1746.  It worked as an income tax, since the wealthy purchased more glass than lower classes.  The glass tax was repealed in 1845, and just as tax-free glass was becoming affordable for the masses the 1851 London Great Exposition was held in the Crystal Palace.  The Crystal Palace was a built of cast iron and large sheets of cheap but strong glass that created astonishing clear walls and ceilings the likes of which had never been seen.

Daniel Swarovski's Electric Crystal Cutting Machine, 1892
Daniel Swarovski was born in 1862, the son of a glass cutter, and became an apprentice at an early age learning to cut glass by hand.  In 1892 he patented an electric cutting machine that allowed lead crystal to be cut precisely.  Even the slightest bit of unevenness diminishes the sparkle of lead crystal, and his new cutting machine produced crystals with perfect facets for an incredible, sparkling brilliance that just wasn't possible with hand-cut lead crystal glass.  At the same time, he continuously refined his crystal formula to create greater and greater clarity.  Now run by the fifth generation Swarovski family, the exact formula of a Swarovski crystal is still a closely guarded secret today.

During World War I Swarovski used his expertise with precision cutting to help the war effort, and a branch of the company continued in the same direction after the war.  In 1935 Daniel's son Wilhelm, an amateur astronomer, produced a prototype pair of binoculars, and today Swarovski Optik designs binoculars, hunting rifle scopes, and photography equipment.

The Shine Collection
Since then Swarovski has added a lighting division, road safety division (Ever wonder why the road stripes are so bright?  They've got crystals embedded that reflect the light from your car's headlights), and a division that manufactures sawing and drilling tools.  But, of course, my favorite is their partnership with Rowan yarns to produce the Shine Collection, combining Rowan's finest yarns with Swarovski crystals designed for knitting and crocheting beadwork.

And that's why Swarovski crystals truly are not just a cut above the rest, but a precision cut above the rest!

Happy Knitting (and beading!) . . . . Scout