Friday, 24 November 2017

Knitting History Forum

I was in London last weekend, for the Knitting History Forum conference on Saturday at the London College of Fashion.  Professor Sandy Black organises the programme, and this year's was the 10th anniversary meeting, which is quite an achievement.  I have been to three of the past conferences, and there has always been a fascinating range of talks. I was there this year to talk about Wakefield Greenwood, a Huddersfield yarn company, and what I have found so far about its history.

"Wools for the World" - details from the back of a Wakefield Greenwood pattern leaflet

You can see the programme for the conference here.  I felt that my talk hardly counted as history compared to some of the others, because I was talking about things that happened within living memory - other speakers were going back hundreds of years.

Maj Ringgaard from Copenhagen talked about 17th and 18th century knitted stockings in silk and wool that have been found in waterlogged excavations in Copenhagen.  I was fascinated by the decorative details - many of the stockings had clocks (decoration on the outside of the ankle). Maj showed several fancy clocks in purl stitches on a stocking stitch background.

(There was also a bit of discussion about the correct terminology - apparently knitting historians aren't supposed to talk about stocking stitch, or knit and purl stitches, any more.  But I know what those terms mean, and if you're a knitter, I expect you do too - although if you are American, you might have to translate stocking stitch to stockinette. I can't remember what the alternatives to knit and purl are, but the approved alternative to stocking stitch seems to be 'simple knitting', which I don't find very helpful.)

As well as clocks, the Copenhagen stockings had false seams up the back (in purl stitches, with often a bit of decoration either side).  The seam was imitating the hose made out of cloth cut on the bias that the knitted stockings replaced, but Maj suggested that it might also have had a practical purpose as a marker for the leg shaping.

The following talk was also about 17th century knitwear.  Helena Lundin, from Uppsala, has been looking at knitted fragments of wool and silk found in the remains of the Swedish Navy flagship Kronan that exploded in 1676 with the loss of 800 men.  The fragments (when they can be identified) came from gloves, headgear, silk waistcoats and stockings, and they are mostly stocking stitch, although I was excited to hear that one fragment is in twined knitting

Nearer to home, Lesley O'Connell Edwards has been examining 16th century stockings and sleeves knitted in wool, from the Museum of London collection.  The stockings are often in very poor condition as you would expect, but sleeves don't get such hard wear.  There was some discussion of how the sleeves were worn - whether as a warm under-layer, or on top of other clothes, partly to protect them.  But it's astonishing that knitted wool has survived so long.  I remember seeing a 16th century child's vest on display in the Museum of London a few years ago - it was fascinating to examine the stitches through the glass, and try to work out how it was constructed.  (It's knitted in the round.)

Matteo Molinari talked about the crochet traditions in his home village in Italy, near the Austrian border.  The older generation of women still make beautiful crocheted items for their homes - mats, curtains tablecloths, and so on.  There has been a tradition, too, that teenage girls should crochet a bedspread for when they get married.  Matteo said he found that the value of a crochet piece was judged by the fineness of the thread and hook, and the amount of work involved in making it.

The final talk of the afternoon was from Ruth Gilbert who showed photos of some ancient pieces of textile from Egypt, which look like knitting but aren't - they were made by some kind of sewing technique, I gathered.  She also presented some later pieces which she thinks might have been made by a technique something like French knitting, i.e. with something like a knitting nancy).  But unless an Egyptian knitting nancy is found from the right date,  it's hard to see how you could get beyond saying that a fabric like that could have been made that way.

It was a fascinating set of talks, covering a wide spread of knitting history.  And afterwards, there was a drinks reception,  to celebrate the 10th anniversary, which rounded off a very good day.


  1. It sounds fascinating. I went to one of the first conferences - more of a get together really, at that stage. The organisation has grown enormously since then; a marvellous success.

    1. It's still small enough to be a friendly group - nice to chat to everyone.

  2. My history teacher told me that history within living memory was usual the best history. But I didn't do well in my O level.

    1. Not sure if it's the best history (or what that would mean anyway). But it is surprising how soon things get forgotten.
      There's a lot I don't know about Wakefield Greenwood's history, and have no means of finding out - even things that happened 50 or 60 years ago, when you might think that everything would be recorded.


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