Knitwear in the Early Middle Ages

The first products defined as knitted were small in size and usually of one colour. Later products, probably of Arab origin, have survived in larger fragments and were generally produced from multicoloured yarn. The earliest of them are knitted socks, Coptic or Arab, kept in the Musées Royaux d'Art et d'Historié in Brussels, in the section with Coptic and Arabian fabrics. It is impossible to date them accurately. The length of the foot-part is 14 cm. They are made of good quality wool, in stripes of different shades of beige and green. They remind one of the cotton stockings knitted in multicoloured stripes which L. Bellinger dates to the early twelfth century. These were found in Egypt but the authoress places them among the products of Indian Knitting.17 (II. 1).

I saw this collection in 1980 as well as another cotton stocking kept in Deutches Textilmuseum in Krefeld. They were worked with two needles and involved considerable skill in the fashioning of the heel. The biggest pieces from Textile Museum seem to be a part of some garment (no. 73460). Most probably they were of Arabian origin, just as are the above-mentioned socks and two knitted fragments in coloured stripes kept at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Arabs of the early Middle Ages are supposed to have worn knitted shirts or kaftans.18 The preserved fragments seem to be parts of knitted garments. The knitted articles from twelfth-thirteenth centuries are of Arabian production also from Las Huelgas near Burgos in Old Castile. Except for a worn-out glove, they consist of patterned knitted cushions, which belong to the oldest and most interesting specimens of Arabian patterned knitting. They have been referred to only in the general catalogue of textile relics of Las Huelgas, without any technological analyses and are accessible only through a glass pane and area badly lit. Despite these unfavourable conditions, they can be stated to be real knitted pieces, and an inscription provides evidence of their Arabian origin. These items should be considered in connection with cushions found in numerous graves of that period. Most of these are sewn from patterned silk naterial, often gold-threaded, from coloured wool, embroidered fabrics or in •are cases tapestry of a type of sprang and lace. Therefore the cushions knitted )n two needles belonged to less expensive products, one of them has been placed inder the head of a child. Thus, among the cushions produced by different ;extile techniques, knitted cushions from coloured wool were the cheapest ones.

The oldest of the knitted relics from Las Huelgas was found in the grave jf Fernando de la Cerda who died in 1275. It is square, the sides being approximately 36 cm long. The design is worked in three colours, violet, gold ind white, in a net arrangement of octagons and squares filled with architectural ind rosette motifs. The Arabian inscription means "blessing". Another knitted cushion cover was found in the grave of Fernando, son of Alfonso X, who died in 1283. It is knitted from green, brown, white and black wool. The ornamentation depicts lions, stars, lilies and other flowers, and its size is only about 28 cm square. These two perfectly preserved products of Arabian knitting from the thirteenth century are still waiting to be elaborated. The cushion and gloves from the thirteenth century were found also in Seville. The third relic of Arabian patterned knitting, dating probably from the same period is kept in Kulturen Museum in Lund. It is a piece of fine patterned knitting made of red, white, yellow and black thread. C. J. Lamm bought the piece in Cairo. The white, probably linen, glove from the grave of the Infanta Maria from Las Huelgas who died c. 1196, produced either with needles or by knotless netting, is not on display owing to its poor state of preservation.19 (II. 4ab)

Liturgical gloves belong to the items most frequently met among the knitted products of the early Middle Ages. Bishops, as well as priests, used liturgical gloves from the sixth or at the latest the seventh century. Already in 800, in one of the church inventories, there are 16 pairs of gloves listed. Bishops usually wore knitted gloves while those of priests were sewn from cloth or leather. The gloves were knitted from woollen, silk, less frequently linen yarn. The oldest of the preserved knitted gloves are usually white, while red and violet appear later in accordance'with the most important liturgical colours. All these relics are very carefully preserved in church treasuries and most of them were already mentioned in the nineteenth century literature pertaining to liturgical clothes.20 The frequency of occurrence of knitted gloves in the liturgical garments of bishops is evidenced, for example, by eleven images of seals dating from 1200-1250. In addition to representations of gloves on sculptures and in illustrated manuscripts, there remain about 30 pairs of knitted gloves still preserved in church treasuries. Not all the relics have survived to our times. Church inventories from the Middle Ages listed a large number of gloves. For instance, in 1382 in Cluny there were 22 pairs listed, in St. Paul's Cathedral in London three pairs were counted in 1402, while a preserved glove from Prague was first mentioned already in 1387. The common usage of liturgical gloves is corroborated by papal bulls from the eleventh and twelfth centuries.21 The shape of these gloves was subject to regulation: they were close- fitting with five elongated fingers, a long knitted cuff, the upper part of the palm being decorated with a sacred symbol. Preserved relics are kept in church treasuries under glass which protects them from deterioration, but make technological analysis impossible. For example, S. Miiller-Christensen established recently that the bishops' gloves from the twelfth century from Speyer were produced by the knotless netting technique.22 Their massive occurrence gives reason to assume that at least some of them must have been knitted in women's convents.

Descriptions of catholic liturgical garments provide much information concerning the oldest knitted relics. The gloves preserved in the treasury of the Saint-Sernin Basilica in Toulouse, the so-called gloves of St. Remigius are datable to the thirteenth century owing to the style of the copper rosette. They are supposed to have formed part of the property of the Joanittes order of Jerusalem, therefore might have been modelled on Arabian knitting. These gloves appear to have been produced from raw unbleached silk though M. Dubuisson states them to be of linen and are knitted in simple stocking stitch on rather thick needles. Also from the thirteenth century is a fragment of silk gloves found in the grave on an unknown bishop in the Saint-Denis Abbey in Paris." The third pair of the oldest gloves preserved in France, knitted from red silk, is kept in the St. Bertrand of Comminges Abbey in the Pyrenees and dates from the fifteenth century. Other pairs of gloves listed in early catalogues have not survived to our times.24 Such items are mentioned in Chartres, Troyes, Cambrai, Avignon; in some cases only the decoration of liturgical symbols on the upper part of the gloves has survived.25 The relic from the fourteenth century preserved in the Cluny Museum in Paris is not a knitted piece, while the another pair of gloves made from red silk comes from a later period.26

Another collection of early liturgical gloves is preserved in South Germany. The gloves from the twelfth century originating Speyer are considered to be a product of knotless netting. Two pairs of gloves are preserved in the Cathedral treasury of Brixen. One pair of gloves knitted from bleached linen yarn with rosettes sewn on top, an embroidered cuff and rather wide fingers, is dated to about 1200. The second pair, probably from the fifteenth century, is mentioned by Braun.27 Bock writes about gloves from the abbey in Bamberg, mentioned in the inventory of 1483, but none of the seven pairs seems to have survived.28 Comprehensive catalogues of liturgical garments kept in cathedral treasuries mention medallions sewn on the upper part of the gloves as well as relics from the sixteenth-nineteenth centuries.29

Knitted gloves are also found in Italy. Some of the oldest relics are the gloves reproduced by Braun from the twelfth or beginning of the thirteenth century and kept in Saint Trinity church in Florence and in the cathedrals of Narni and Anagni.

M. Hald wrote about gloves in St. Trinity church in Florence, "attributed to the Holy Bernardo degli Uberti which are thought to be made with a needle. The latter are dated to the twelfth-perhaps early thirteenth century, and the method is described as curious kind of stitchwork not identical with knitting". On some Italian sculptures bishops' liturgical gloves can be distincly seen, for example on the monument of the Pope Innocent IV who died in 1254.30 Four pairs of liturgical gloves have survived in England until the early twentieth century, one is said to have been of St. Thomas of Canterbury from the twelfth century, two are in the St. Paul's Cathedral treasury in London and one is found at New College in Oxford.31 One of the most interesting relics is the so-called glove of St. Adalbert of Prague dating from the first half of the fourteenth century, knitted out of gray, possibly natural silk, with three green stripes on the knitted cuff. Another knitted glove from the second half of the fourteenth century is kept in the Church of St. Vinceslas in Stara Boleslav near Prague. It is knitted with fine needles out of natural silk yarn and its cuff is embroidered with coloured silk and gold thread. A legend links this glove with St. Adalbert. (II. 3)

The latest research of N. Bazantova and D. Stehlikova suggests that the glove kept in the treasury in Prague could be Arabian work from the thirteenth century, while the glove from the church treasury in Stara Boleslav is rather an Italian and not a Bohemian knitting relic dating from the early fourteenth century.32 Iconographic sources show that similarly shaped gloves were used in Silesia.33

The discovery of a relatively large number of knitted liturgical gloves from the twelfth-fourteenth centuries in different catholic countries of western, southern and central Europe reveals the role of knitting in medieval Europe. These gloves were also worn with secular clothes. The working of five-fingered gloves required good technical skill in the use of silk and in fashioning. During the early Middle Ages a glove served not only to cover the hand, but also as a symbol of: power, dignity, grace and feeling. The giving or sending of gloves could signify the conclusion of a contract; knights receiving a lady's glove were obliged to guard her honor. An enemy was thrown a glove as a challenge to a fight, and the winner's glove given to the losers expresed the guarantee of safety. This custom was known in Poland at the beginning of the twelfth century.34 The use of expensive and richly ornamented gloves had a social meaning. The frequency of references to knitted gloves speaks for the diffusion of the technique of knitting.

Medieval knitted stockings and leggings have survived only in Switzerland, these can be dated to between the seventh and twelfth century. It appears that elsewhere at that time the knitting technique was used mainly for hand or head coverings. Needles were made out of bone or metal (but not wood) which is evinced by the size of stitch in the preserved products.35

In northern Europe knitting developed in the form of products from woollen yarn; the tools used were usually wooden needles. This form of knitwear was found in the northern part of the Polish lands and in Latvia, while Scandinavian relics dating from the Middle Ages have been mainly established to be made by knotless netting technique. Six fragments of woollen knitwear were discovered among textile relics in a twelfth or thirteenth century cementary at Rownina Dolna, K?trzyn district, in the voivodship of Olsztyn. A. Nahlik who studied this collection has suggested that one-coloured or striped items knitted from light and dark woollen yearn were the product of women's household work.36 Their finishing reveals a high degree of skill in working technique but the lack of a proper craftsman's fashioning and dressing is evident.

The largest collection of medieval knitwear has been found on Latvian excavations. It consists of a cap and five pairs of gloves. The woollen cap, beige in colour, with ear-flaps is a prototype of similar English and German products. It dates back to the fourteenth - fifteenth century and A. Zarina has restored the piece with great accouracy. One of the five- fingered gloves from the end of the fifteent century has been knitted with five needles. The remaining four pairs of woollen gloves come from the most recent discoveries of the Institute of History at the Latvian Academy of Sciences. They were made from undyed wool, some of them are striped; two of the pairs are five-fingered, the other's having one finger. These are dated to the thirteenth - fifteenth centuries. Only one of the pairs may have been made by knotless netting; the other's show evidence of a technical knowledge of knitting with several needles.31 The fragments of knitted footwear from Beloe Ozero in the vicinity of Wologna and Novogrod, kept in the Moscow Museum of History are. contrary to the assertion of M. Dubuisson,38 products of knotless netting. This technique offered greater compactness, durability and greater rigidity. This is why this technique is still used for shoe production in Iran.

The modest quantity of knitted relics in Baltic countries does not allow any conclusions as to the degree of their diffusion. The knowledge of this technique, both knitting with two needles and crocheting, is indisputable.39 However, it is noticeable that among archeological relics from the early Middle Ages only fragments of shawls or other flat fabrics have been found. For the production of coverings for the hands, feet or head, the knowledge of fashioning the knitwear by adding or limiting the number of stitches was required. This may have been the greatest obstacle in the first attempts at hosiery; gloves in particular, which require moulding to the shape of the hand, were produced by the older technique of knotless netting.40 Headgear in that period is usually made using the sprang technique, which was applied later to the making of belts.41 Shawls and simple coverings, however, were produced with needles.

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