The Cappers Guild

First Technical Upheaval in European Knitting in the Thirteenth Century and the Appearance of Guilds

The technical upheaval in hand knitting consisted in the introduction of four or five needles, instead of two. The oldest liturgical gloves show the knowledge of this technique, which facilitated the shaping of more complicated products. However, the first indisputable iconographic representations come from as late as the fourteenth century. The Madonna from the atelier of Ambrogio Lorenzo, painted in Sienna in the second quarter of the fourteenth century (Abbeg-Stiftung Bern in Riggisberg in Switzerland), is shown knitting a child's robe. Four needles are discernible in the picture as well as the balls of coloured yarn. Still clearer is the picture of the later Madonna of about 1370 finishing a child's robe with five needles (the painting by Master Bertram of Munich comes from the Benedictine convent in Buxtehude). (II. 7) The third Madonna represented in the engraving of the "Holy Family" by Veit Stoss is from 1480-1485.' (II. 5) It is extremely difficult to classify this Madonna as a woman knitting a child' robe; for she is holding a thread but no needles. R L. Wyss while discussing the representation of the Madonnas as women busy with various handworks, includes the last picture in that group ascribing the absence of needles to the artist's incompetence at represenation.2 This does not seem convincing, as Veit Stoss was known to show with great realities of every day life. As the garment iepresented is not finished the scene is not of the sewing together of its parts. The techniques of knotless netting and crocheting were, as a rule, not used for making larger items of clothing. Hence at least two, if not three, iconographic documents from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries show that knitting with several needles was a typical women's occupation which was known to artist both in Italy and in southern Germany. The engraving by Veit Stoss was done during his stay in Poland but he might have reproduced one of the female activities known to him from Niirberg. Iconographic documents of the first half of the fourteenth century show evidence of knitting with more than two needles. It can therefore be assumed that this discovery had occured sometime in the thirteenth century, at about the same time as that of the hand spinnning wheel, the wide horizontal loom employed in the textile industry discussed by W. Endrei.3

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the number of preserved knitted relics increases considerably. That is the beginning of knitting is often placed in that period. However the first information concerning the Parisian knitters'

guild dates back to 1268, and later confirmations of guild statutes bear the dates 1366, 1380 and 1467. These knitters did not work in Paris only. Studies by B. Geremek on the labor force market in the Middle Ages mention migrations of journeymen knitters to cities in northern France.4 In Doornik (Tournai) in the southern Netherlands a knitters' guild appeared in 1429, and in Barcelona in 1496.5 In many other cities knitters may also have been working in joint guilds. Only the beginning of the sixteenth century sees the growth of separate guilds. "Chapelier de gants et de bonnets", mentioned by Etienne Boileau in 1292, did not stand very high in the hierarchy of medieval crafts. Our only knowledge of them is that they worked not only with woollen yarn but also protested agains the use of the spinning-wheel to process cotoon. In the course of the following two centuries they must have gained in importance, as in 1514 they belong to the six most important guilds of Paris.6 The appearance of a knitters' guild in England has not been studied yet. London "cappers", mentioned already in 1310-1311, produced felt caps rather than knitted ones. "Hosiers", existed from at least 1328; they might have been sewing cloth leggins, but knitted gaiters figure in inventories as early as 1320.7 According to C. Aberle Henry IV (1367-1413) used knitted woollen stockings, while Henry VIII wore Spanish silk stockings. The former item of information has not been confirmed by studies comparable to our information about the statute of knitters producing carpets, shirts, berets and trousers.8 Henry VII, in 1488, issues regulations on the use of knitted caps on feast days, while a reference in Belles - lettres from 1461 speaks for the weak diffusion of knitted articles in England.9

Not in every countries of western Europe were all branches of production represented in guild organisations during the late Middle Ages. Hand knitting was performed by women for their own use, while nuns probably made liturgical gloves. Guild production was intended to meet the increasing market demand. Knitted gloves and headgear were in use by the fifteenth century, and knitted stockings could have been replacing the use of cloth leggings sewn from thin fabric by the best tailors.

The growing popularity of knitted garments in evidenced both by fourteenth and fifteenth centuries written sources, as well as by the increasing number of archaelogical discoveries dating from the fifteenth century. Extracts from French sources of the late Middle Ages quoted in the dictionary of V. Gay and Dupont-Auberville give information about knitted gloves, leggings or stockings and headgears. Here are some examples: "Faiz à l'esguille" from 1387; "Deux paires de mittaines de laines faictes à l'auguille" from 1392 and "deux gants de prélat fais à l'esguille" from 1461. Also from 1387 comes the mention of "3 paires de chausses de fine escarlete faictes à l'esguille" produced by Parisian craftsmen, which indicated that the new technique had started to displace leggings made with cloth. Finally, the variety of shapes in knitted headgears is proved by a document dated to 1463: "Pour deux chappeaux noirs fair a Pauguill".10 Rurther research into archival sources, particularly inventories of garments and accounts, could considerably increase our knowledge of the use of diverse types of knitted products. Already by this time these articles were relatively cheap and acquired by a large section of the population, except for liturgical gloves which belonged to special attire. This view is presented in the investigation of F. Piponnier into the costums of the House of Anjou in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In the archival sources the authoress has not found any mention of the archival sources the authoress has not found any mention of the use of knitwear.11

The number of preserved knitted articles, mainly headgear, increases considerably in excavation materials dating from the fifteenth century. In the museums of London and in the Manchester Gallery of English Costume, there is a large number of knitted woollen caps dating from the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The oldest type of these products are headgear fastened under the chin, for wearing under the Gothic-style helmets. During the period of Italian Renaissance round caps and berets take diverse forms. The products of London workshops imply the mass production of cheap headgear, produced from thick undyed wool. They were probably a commonly used head covering. The paper of K. G. Ponting shows this clearly:

"The knitting of caps in Coventry was a well established industry. The first detailed regulation dates from 1496, and it would hardly have been possible to have reached such a sophisticated arrangement of controls unless the industry had been in being for something in the nature of 50 years. This would have the effect of putting back the coming of an established knitting industry to the middle of the fifteenth century which is considerably earlier than had previously been reckoned the case. In the sixteenth century references to capper increased. In 1520 there are complaints from Chester that their trade had decayed and this is said to have been due to unfair competition from the mercers, who were dealing not only in expensive foreign wares, but were also selling cheap caps made in other towns in England. Later in 1529 the cappers of Bristol found they could not sell their goods because purchasers now stayed away from the city and went and bought at the Fair where they could obtain goods produced by the cappers of London and other foreign cappers of the realm. The result was said to have been a great decline in the prosperity of the native Bristol cappers. To summarize, it is clear that by 1500 knitted caps were a major production and this would mean that they had appeared on the scene at least 50 years before knitted stockings."

After K. G. Ponting gave an interesting hypothesis:

"A number of questions remain to be answered about the technical side of the industry. If Thomas Fuller writing a hundred years later is to be trusted, the fabric was knitted, then stitched into shape and then felted, but some of the existing caps appear to show some shaping during the knitting. In any case, the important part of the sequence was the felting and it is in fact not quite clear whether the cappers guild was closely concerned with the actual knitting. They may have purchased the fabric from domestic workers."

The hypothesis is rather open to discussion. In the late Middle Ages the guilds in Europe used to produce all fabrics in the same workshop. Perhaps it is too early for the beginning of a putting-out system to organize the knitting and fulling in two different places. This could be determined as the beginning of capitalism in the production of knitted caps. In the book about the old hand-knitters of the Dales the authors also provided some information about the caps knitted in the fifteenth century. The first record of knitted goods manufactured for sale in England dates from 1488. Also K. Buckland informed about the early references from 1369, 1465 and 1478 to knitted caps. "The Capper's Company, still active today, was already organized and their rules entered in the Let book in 1496".12

Knitted caps with ear-flaps dating from the second half of the fifteenth century have been found in excavations of the Old City of Lübeck. K. Schlabow, in a detailed description, points out the simifarity between this production technique and the oldest types of caps found in English excavations. They were made of a poor-quality undyed wool.13 Such knitted head coverings might have been produced in many countries of northern Europe already by the fifteenth century, although the preserved relics date from the sixteenth century. A woollen beret, much like these English relics, was found in Trondheim in Norway.14 In the new archeological excavations in Oslo eleven knitted fragments are probably originating from four different woollen garments. "Two fragments must be parts of different stockings, one is a heavily mended heel, the other probably a part of a leg with a knitted pattern. It is not yet known at what time knitting was introduced into Norway. In Denmark and Iceland, however, knitting has been known from the sixteenth century and in Sweden from the seventeenth century". The socks dating from the Middle Ages published by A. M. Franzen were made by the knottles netting technique. I think it also possible to find some relics of Scandinavian knitting also in the latt Middle Ages. Later knitted caps worn in Iceland seem to pertain to this group of headgears.15 As well as this headgear eleven fragments of knitted stockings and socks dated to the sixteenth century or perhaps even the end of the fifteenth century have been found. They are kept in the Guild Hall in London. They were made using thick wood or bone needles" and utilised carded woollen yarn. Due to a lack of skill in fashioning they did not fit the leg as well as later products made from thinner worsted yarn or silk.

The formation of numerous knitters' guilds in western and central Europe by the beginning of the sixteenth century does not provide evidence for the appearance of a new branch of production but for the increasing demand for knitted garments. The growing number of craftsmen begin organizing their own guild instead of working in joint guilds. Close-fitting stockings became an essential item of Italian and Spanish Renaissance men's attire. Apart from children's frocks, doublets and gloves, knitted berets start coming into fashion. Their fancy shapes required more flexible material than the rigid felt. Thus, already in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the production of clothing items knitted on two or five needles had become widespread in Italy, Spain, France, England and in certain German countries. The late medieval period had prepared the ground in western Europe for the technical revolution of the end of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. The early period is therefore particularly interesting and requires further study of the material we have at our disposal, as well as further excavations and a good deal of research into the archival records.

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