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hose-manu-MA-art - 10/21/97


Translation of "Hosiery Manufacture in the Middle Ages" by Marguerite Dubuisson. Translation by Johanna Lemercer (Jo Anne Fatherly)


NOTE: See also the files: hose-msg, shoes-msg, p-shoes-msg, knitting-msg, underwear-msg, patterns-msg, shoemaking-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org




by Marguerite Dubuisson, Bulletin of the Needle and Bobbin Club, 1969; Vol. 52, pp 34-45


Translated. 1997 by Johanna Lemercer (Jo Anne Fatherly)



The origins of hand knitting are obscure, and fantastic hypotheses have been put forth on the subject. Some think the famous "tapestry" of Penelope was, in reality, knitted, since only that technique would allow the work to be undone and redone indefinitely. Did the Egyptians of the Pharaonic age know how to knit? The supposition has been advanced, on the grounds that the queens and goddesses, with their limbs encased tightly in their clothes, could not have moved if their garments did not have a certain amount of elasticity. We do not know whether or not that explanation is true, but the tomb painters (who included every craft they recognized) seem never to have depicted a craftsman knitting.


James Norbury, the author of important researches on the origins of knitting, credits the Arabs with the invention of the technique and supposes, without supplying proof, that the first specimens can be dated to the 7th century BC and even before. According to Norbury, it is possible to establish a relationship between the ancient craft of the weaver and that of knitting. This would involve making a sort of frame similar to the primitive loom, but instead of threading a warp, to be crossed by the threads of the weft, it would have a series of  pegs more or less close together, around which the yarn would be wrapped to make a suitable number of loops. When the pegs were dressed with these loops, it would be possible, with the help of a stick or a hook, to pass a wool thread through each loop, thus making the first row — and so on. These primitive frames could be square, rectangular, or circular, but the item produced would be tubular. One can imagine the nomadic Arabs of the distant past, after a prolonged period of experimentation, arriving at the principle of circular work in a very basic form; but then they apparently abandoned it, waiting until the end of the 18th Century AD before rediscovering it.


The idea of using a frame is ingenious. It permits the establishment of a connection between the primitive weaving and the earliest forms of knitting. But how do we make the transition from the frame to working on two, four, or more needles? It's barely possible. It is more plausible to suppose that the frame, in its rudimentary form, became a sort of spiked stick on which could be mounted a starting row of loops as described above, producing a flat piece with two edges.


At what point would this stick (the forerunner of that knitting tool later called the sheath) be replaced by a system of two matching needles? It is hard to say precisely, but it seems that only from that point could the weaving of loops truly be called knitting, in the sense we use today. All the previous works seem rather to be ancestors of crochet.

In the present state of our knowledge, it seems that the most ancient examples of knitting are those in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum on London. These are a sort of sock (or slipper) found in Egyptian tombs of the Coptic era and have been dated to the fourth and fifth centuries AD.

Dr. Flinders Petrie, the great English Egyptologist, wrote about one of his discoveries:



"In a funerary chamber in the Hawara cemetery, were found pieces of a wooden box ornamented with ivory plaques ... in which we found a knitted slipper in thick brown wool."



Other Coptic specimens, dating from the third through sixth centuries, can be found in the V&A. One is a small baby cap, and four others are socks which  do not rise above the ankle and which have the peculiarity of including a separate compartment for the big toe. All these specimens seem to be knitted in alternating knit and purl stitches.


The Bahnasa necropolis has been the source of other specimens, among which we may cite a child's knitted slipper banded in red and yellow and having a division for the big toe (4th-5th century).


The knitters of that era apparently did not know how to bind off, so they usually finished the top of the slipper with a lacing (example no., 593, V&A). In this example, as in others, there is a separate division for the big toe, and close examination of the item reveals that this section was knitted separately and attached. (Cf. Milton N. Grass, History of Hosiery, Fairchild Publications, New York, 1955, pp. 108-109).


It seems that in these long-ago times the principle of decreasing was already known. It was achieved by [crossing stitches?] Further, there is an unusual method of finishing whereby the last row had a thread run through all the loops.

The excavations in the Bahnasia and d'Antinoe Coptic necropolises have furnished us with an important landmark in the development of hand knitting. After this, we meet uncertainty. In the following centuries, was the craft forgotten? Probably not, at least in the Orient where it seems to have beenwidespread; the rarity or even absence  of evidence does not mean that there was no knitting until the Middle Ages. It is necessary to remember that the slippers or socks were common articles, with little value, rapidly used up and worn out. The custom of placing items, including clothing, in 5th and 6th century tombs is the only reason we know anything of the Pharonaic times, the customs of which gave way before Christian influence.


We must wait until the 12th century before we can find any new examples of knitting, and it seems that from this point on the work is done on two needles, in the modern fashion.


In the Detroit Institute of Arts is a fragment of what seems to have been a stocking. It is worked in stockinette stitch, decorated with an elaborate geometric pattern in blue on white. The fragment has an Egyptian/Islamic origin, that is to say, it dates from shortly after the conquest of Egypt by the Arabs. In the Metropolitan Museum in New York there is a complete stocking in heavy wool, worked in horizontal bands of vivid color amid which it is possible to distinguish decorative motifs inspired by Arabic writing. (Milton N. Grass, op. cit., pp. 110-111, repr.).  The heel and toe are badly formed and one wonders how such a stocking could have been worn.


Also from the 12th century are three "house slippers" which were found at Beloozero [Byelorussia/Belarus?] (Vologod [Volgograd or Vologda?] region, Soviet Union) in the researches in 1958 and 1960 of Madame L.A. Goloubova. They are in the collection of the Historical Museum in Moscow. According to M.S. Dreyzen, the Museum's scientific secretary, they are made of heavy wool. In the same collection can be found a knitted mitt of the 14th century, discovered at Novgorod in 1960. (by A. V. Artzikovsky). It is in very heavy wool, and the stitch is similar to that of the older "house slippers" from Beloozero (Plates I, II).


At the Olsztyn Museum in Poland, is found a fragment of a garment (possibly a shawl) from Rowniny Dolnej. It is knitted in stockinette stitch in a very heavy wool, giving a high relief toi the stitches. (Cf. Irena Turnau, Precis d'Histoire du Textile sur les terres polonaise jusqu'a fin du XVIII siecle, Varsovie, 1966, p. 88, fig. 55).


Judging from these examples, it would seem that the art of knitting came from the East, passing first to Eastern Europe and then to the Central region. It is only in the 13th century that we can confirm the presence of knitted articles in the West, and particularly in France. Glove making gave considerable impetus to hand knitting. It consisted mostly of liturgical gloves, (although others may have been made for civil use, only the ecclesiastic ones (in excellent condition) have come down to us. They are found in linen, wool, and silk. According to the biographers of Innocent IV (d. 1254) that Pope wore knit silk gloves.


There are knit gloves  of Italian, Spanish, and German origin (Cf. Milton N. Grass, op. cit.,  reprod. en face de la page 112). In France, the treasury of the St. Sernin Basilica in Toulouse has a very beautiful pair of gloves in ecru linen, knitted in stockinette stitch on relatively large wooden or bone needles and have enameled copper rosettes stitched to the backs. It is the style of these rosettes which allow us to date these gloves (13th C), which are known as the "gloves of St. Remy" for some unknown reason (since they don't really date back to Clovis' day).


A beautiful pair, in purple wool with [formed designs?] and partly worked in gold thread, are in the collection of the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, and another of the same sort is in the Cluny Museum. Both are dated to the 15th century. Were all of these examples of French manufacture? It is possible but cannot be proved. In England,  knitting expanded rapidly in the 15th century, and at the beginning of the 16th, a number of strong Knitters Guilds were formed. A long and difficult apprenticeship was rigorously regulated: it took three years, after which the apprentice, now called a Companion or Journeyman, was to spend another three years working and studying elsewhere. After this six-year period he was admitted to the rank of master artisan upon the completion of:


A rug measuring eight by twelve feet

A shirt or jacket of wool

A pair of wool slippers


All this work had to be executed within thirteen weeks. (cf. James Norbury, Le Tricot Hier et Aujourd'hui, dans la revue, Wool Knowledge, hiver, 1952.)

The rug had to be of a complex pattern composed of leaves, flowers, and birds, stylized in a conventional fashion and using twenty or thirty colors. This would not be the floor rug we know today, but a tapestry to adorn a wall. The Unterlinden Museum in Colmar has a number of these tapestries, done in stockinette stitch, made as masterpieces for the Bonnetiers (Hosiers) Guild in Colmar. Given their style, it is astonishing that they only date to the 18th century, but this is attested by the  dates worked into some of the rare specimens (1740 in one of them).


It is a curious fact that knitting, in the Middle Ages and even earlier, was a masculine craft, while women spun the yarn. However, it is also a fact that, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, knitting (which provided a living, however modest, to many English) was practiced equally by women.


The examples we have cited indicate that knitting was restricted to the manufacture of socks, slippers, gloves, and rugs. But we have to suppose that many other items were knitted. Because of the number of footwear items we have seen in the course of this study, it is surprising to find that stockings such as we wear today cannot be found before the end of the 16th century. At any rate, that is the opinion widely held by historians studying hosiery making. We have in fact already mentioned a stocking dated to the 12th century, and a miniature in the Psalter of Queen Mary (14th century, British Museum; London) shows that at that time stockings already were in existence. Here one sees a woman seated on a bed putting on her stockings, of which one is being held by a servant while the other is on her leg. Certainly this is not enough to prove the existence of knitted stockings in the 14th century, because they could also be hose of woven fabric, cut and sewn, such as were worn in the Merovingian era. Nothing can be proven. Certainly the painter has shown what look remarkably like short stockings, made to fit a slim leg, but perhaps this is only artistic invention. It is not easy to decide. On the other hand, when one looks with today's eyes at these young men in their tight pants, almost like what is being sold in our shops, it is tempting to ask whether some of these tights weren't formed on knitting needles. At the first Congres International des Arts du Costume (Venice, 1952) this hypothesis was neither rejected nor accepted.

In any case, at the beginning of the 15th century, certain garments were knitted, and the famous altarpiece of Buxtehude (German school, early 15th Century, Kunsthalle de Hambourg) is indisputable proof. In it the Virgin sits in a little Gothic chapel, knitting a robe for the Baby Jesus, using four needles. The garment is large enough to fall in lovely folds; and it has elegant short sleeves, knitted in one piece with the body. This is not the invention of an Old Master; he has obviously seen such items being knitted.


The monastery of Las Huelgas, near Burgos, Spain, has some cushions knitted in stockinette stitch, on two relatively fine needles, which use contrasting colors to form handsome patterns composed of motifs enclosed in blocks. These motifs include birds, rosettes, and pattée crosses, all in s stylized manner pointing to an origin in the 15th century or even (for one of them) to the end of the 14th. A third item is a glove fragment from one of the tombs in the choir of the church of Las Huelgas. It is a fine example of knitting done in linen (or perhaps in silk) on very fine needles, probably metal ones. The very elaborate design does not help us date the item; it is just as possible to find such motifs in the Romanesque as in the Gothic period. Historical fact is a little more helpful: The tombs at Las Huelgas are those of Alfonso VII, of his queen, Eleanor of England, and of other members of the royal family. These tombs can therefore be dated to the first few decades of the 13th century. (Alfonso VII died in 1214.) (Plates III, IV, Plate V).


An interesting point: if we compare this find, so elaborate and highly finished, with the nearly contemporaneous work we have found in Russia and Poland, and then to the Egyptian/Islamic items in American collections, we can see that the Spanish work is far more refined, both in concept and in technique. It is this refinement and distinction, and the luxurious quality of the work, which, later, in the 16th century, put their production (notably in silk stockings) in the first rank of work done for kings and princes. The Spanish, alone in Europe, were at that time capable of knitting silk stockings, highly-priced items well out of the reach of common mortals. Even the great lords and kings considered the work exceptional. In the Annals of John Stow, published in London in 1615, Henry VIII is shown as wearing hose cut and sewn of cloth, however sumptuous. And the chronicler adds "unless by chance a pair of silk stockings arrived from Spain."


Commenting on the wardrobe of Edward VI, successor of Henry VIII, the same Stow observes, "King Edward VI has a pair of long silk stockings, which came from Spain, a wonderful gift." And, in the margin, we read "Sir Thomas Gresham gave them to him."


In the castle at Hatfield (Hertfordshire, England) there is a pair of openwork stockings in silk, which, they say, were hand knitted for the first Queen Elizabeth. The origin of these stockings has never been properly determined. Tradition has it that the Queen loved silk stockings and that her ladies, having learned the Spanish way of knitting on fine steel needles, were in the habit of making small items of which unhappily no specimens have survived (unless the Hatfield House stockings are of such manufacture.)

We have slightly gone beyond the intended scope of this study, which was to deal only with knitting in the Middle Ages. It has seemed useful, given that the Renaissance made little change in the technique of hand knitting, to run our eye over the later items; more exactly, over the last time when hand knitting reigned, before the invention of the knitting machine which was a serious event, foreshadowing the industrialization of the technique, with the results we see today.


At no time, however, has hand knitting been abandoned, and in our times craft knitting and, even more, domestic knitting, is considerable in France.






Plate I: Knitted slippers (wool) from the 12th century.

Plate II: Knitted mitt from the 14th century (wool).

Plate III: Fragment of a cushion cover, 15th century.

Plate IV: Fragment of a cushion cover, early 15th century.

Plate V: Knitted glove from a tomb in Las Huelgas, near Burgos. First half of the 13th century.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org