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Very Old Knitting, Part 1.

After all the computery shenanigans, it’s high time for a proper textile post again. And fortunately, I have just the topic!

When I was at the Textile Forum, one of the presentations was about old knitting, more specifically what can be called “compound knitting”. These really early knitting finds (from Egypt, dated to about the 5th to 7th century, to give you a rough timeframe) are not showing the same knit structure as we are used to. Modern knitting goes through the stitches in the last row to add the next row to the top. These finds done in compound knitting go through the last two stitches to add the next row. Are you confused yet?

The pieces presented at the Forum are all tubular, usually rather narrow, and sometimes striped across or worked in colour sections. They might have been worked on a knitting dolly, or worked on needles – it is hard to tell. We can look a bit at the different methods, though.

Compound knitting is very, very easy to do on a knitting dolly (or however you call these gadgets with pins to loop your yarn over) – you set up as usual, with base loops, and then you wrap the working yarn around the dolly twice instead of just once. Now when you are working your first round, lift the bottom loop over both the strands above it.

Here’s how it looks when you are a few rounds in:

Lifting the lowest of the loops on the dolly over the one on top of it and the working thread.

Lifting the lowest of the loops on the dolly over the one on top of it and the working thread.

The white thread is there for better orientation. You can see the red (lowest) thread being lifted up over the white thread (which has been on the dolly for one round now) and the blue working thread. (The dolly, by the way, is a very crude homemade version that sports some nails left over from my active digging days.)

As a result, you get the compound stockinette fabric.

Compound knitting on the dolly, knit side.

Compound knitting on the dolly, knit side.

It doesn’t look much different from regular modern knitting, but you can see that the stitches go through two of the previous rows – look at the green stitch in the top middle, for instance. This is even easier to see when you use a contrasting thread and look at that:

Compound knitting on the dolly, seen from the inside.

Compound knitting on the dolly, seen from the inside.

When you knit in a single row in a different colour in regular modern knitting, you have the little “dashes” on the purl side in one row, followed by a row of your regular colour, followed by the contrast colour row again. In compound knitting, the dashes are one extra row apart, as you can see in the picture.

Working this on a dolly takes no extra effort to do (it might be a tiny bit more fiddly to pick the loop to pull over, but it doesn’t make much of a difference). The resulting fabric, though, is a different creature from regular modern knitting: it is much thicker while still very stretchy.

It gets really interesting when we try to take this to the needles, though… which is something for the next post.

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