Knitting Sheath From the Hull Maritime Museum
The myths around traditional knitting are worth exploring. One new one seems to be the idea that Tudor, even medieval, sailors or fishermen wore a forerunner of the gansey. I’m going to explode a few myths in a forthcoming book, so should keep my powder dry – but here’s a few thoughts and woolgatherings that are accruing alongside the tumbleweed that is generally between my ears.
Years ago, when we ran Foxe’s in The English Civil War Society, we had a couple of new members we called ‘The Leicester Lads’. The Leicester Lads were not your usual 1980s Foxe’s re-enactor – not historians, not archaeologists… they were Leicester Lads. And when we were helping them kit themselves out, as we did with all the new recruits, their constant refrain was:
“Why didn’t they have jumpers in the 17thC?”
To which our stock reply was:
“Well why not? They could knit, couldn’t they? They could knit tubes couldn’t they? They could join tubes together, couldn’t they? Why couldn’t they knit jumpers?”
“They just didn’t, OK?”
“But how do you know they didn’t?”
“They just didn’t. Alright?”
And no, they didn’t. And here I am 30 years on still having this dialogue.
The danger with reconstructing historical costume is – we have the benefit of hindsight. The trouble is, we expect clothes to perform and to be weatherproof. Fishermen in the past? They didn’t need a gansey to be equivalent to Superman’s high tech outfit. They wanted waterproof… the put an oilskin over it. There is a danger with all the myths flying around, we’re turning the gansey into some super-garment that it never was. It’d be great if it was this paragon of wind-cheating, water-turning, preternatural super-powers. But what we see as ‘great’ is again, with the benefit of 20/20 vision in hindsight.
If they had jumpers in the 17thC – so by inference, earlier than that date, too - there’d be at least one scrap of evidence for them. Somewhere. Not an entire garment maybe but a hard to ascribe fragment of knitting. A portrait. A reference in one, just one of the millions of Wills and Probate Inventories. I’ve read many hundreds of these on Microfilm, even coming from these villages along the river here, where there were always fishermen. Nope. No such thing as a 16thC, 17thC or even 18thC jumper. Nil. Zero. Zilch. Pas un sausage.
Medieval Spinlde Whorls, from PH's collection
And I don’t think there’s any evidence whatsoever for knitting in England prior to the 1460s. No hard evidence. Which means – no evidence. Which is not the same as saying – no jumpers. But as good as.
OK…Certain things it would be nice to find. It would confirm what we like to think. But the hard truth is, you can only reconstruct what is provably there. And we can look at the entire period of history right up til the 15thC to say, we can’t prove knitting was even here in these islands. Post that kind of date, it was done here but only specific items of clothing – caps, hose, scoggers (sleeves), and at the high end, ecclesastical adornments like fancy silk and metal thread cushions. No jumpers.
Alright, what about the archaeology then? Let’s find some hard evidence of knitting in England prior to the 1460s.
Look at the textiles found in digs. Let’s look here. In the anaerobic muck of York. Wheer there’s muck there’s brass . And maybe some fragmentary textiles. I bet if they knitted jumpers in Viking times, say – there’d be fragments of knitted fabric. Let’s see if there are.
I have in front of me ‘Anglo-Scandinavian Finds From Lloyds Bank, Pavement, and Other Sites’ (Arthur McGregor, Council for British Archaeology, 1982). 32 fragments of textile were found at the Anglo Scandinavian levels of the Lloyds Bank site due to our “exceptional soil conditions”; 13 pieces of textile from 5, Coppergate and 21 more from Lloyds Bank in 1974.
Most textiles from this period survive on the back of metal artefacts in graves. Many of the fragments were light brown, sophisticated twills, remarkably like those found at Birka. The twills vary in sophistication but let’s just say we know the vikings had weaving down to a fine art. Witness the silk coif in The Yorkshire Museum. Two of the fragments were fine worsted (wools) and one, mulberry silk. It is thought that they have “professional homogeneity” (ie: look manufactured). All the fabrics are woven. No knitting.
Fragments of fabric survive – even when comparatively discrete sites are dug. No fragments of knitting, though. Given that the wool used to knit with is identical chemically to the wool used to weave with – had large, knitted upper body garments existed – we’d have a square inch of one. We have a sprang Roman stocking, after all.
The fabrics from 5, Coppergate were also broadly the same kind of thing – “woolly medium coarse repp twill”. . Woven. There was also a piece of plain woven golden coloured silk.
I venture so far back as a thousand years to prove that fragments of textile can and do survive in our mud. It has been said they would be as rare as ‘finding a Rolls Royce’ in the mud. Tell that to the archaeologists who found this, equivalent to maybe a fleet of Rollers a few miles from here. In the mud.
If 1000-1300 year old fragments of textile are there…
How about going into medieval times, now? Let’s sample the mud for the later period. How about a quick look at ‘Craft, Industry and Everyday Life: Finds From Medieval York’, [YAT, pub. Council for British Archaeology, 2002, Patrick Ottaway and Nicola Rogers].
We turn to the Textile Production section, written by the foremost expert, Penelope Walton Rogers.
This book has a very useful summary of the hard evidence for the introduction of knitting to England. Why? Because amongst the finds, were 3 copper alloy rods, two of 2.6mm and one of 1.9mm diameter. They have been designated ‘knitting needles’ but no-one’s entirely sure what they are.
The two larger ones were found in the floor of 2, Aldwark. The other one which is thought to be post-medieval, was found at the Foundary site. At first that looks like an early date – but in all probability, the needles were deposited at some later date. Not everything found on the floor of a lost building, is contemporaneous with the day that building was raised.
The earliest samples of knitting in England are of a similar date – late 14thC. London, and early 15thC Newcastle. Penelope Walton Rogers points out both are port towns and, for this kind of date, “there are records of knitted garments being imported in Italian galleys...” She cites Crowfoot. Analysis of the Newcastle fragment did indeed prove it to be not English at all – but using woo and a dye from Southern Europe.
Penelope Walton Rogers cites Kirsty Buckland’s citation of the City of the Ripon Chapter Acts for the first HARD evidence of an English knitter – one Marjory Clayton of Ripon, referred to as ‘cappeknitter’ in 1465. Until that date, there is no hard evidence for knitting. No doubt it existed. But the earliest evidence we have is 1465 and that is for a cap knitter. Which is in line with everything else we know about the history of knitting in England – caps, hose, and ecclesiastical fripperies came first.
We have sumptuary laws for this kind of date and no mention of a knitted body garment ever appears in 15thC sumptuary laws. Again – had jumpers or something analogous existed – we’d find documentary evidence of it even if we lacked archaeological/ visual arts recording it. And as you can see, we have no reason to lack the archaeological samples. Old textile fragments survive.
Tellingly, almost as soon as we get the first reference to a knitter here, the references start to come thick and fast – knitting spread fast as references to cap knitters and hose knitters start to appear. Yorkshire was always at the centre of this industry, so no surprise maybe the first reference to it is from here and that within 100 years or so of Marjory Clayton, references to it become numerous. All of those references, however, are to caps, hats, hose, and later, petticoats. Which is in line with the archaeological finds. Had something like a jumper existed – there would be one painting showing it, one woodcut, one find, and – easiest of all these things to find – a myriad of written sources referring to it. We have port records of imports and exports. We have personal journals. We have estate records – often detailing things like the selling of a wool clip, getting things woven up/dyed by journeymen, etc. We have, of course, the literary sources. I remember seeing the Concordances for Shakespeare’s works alone in my University stacks. They were vast. Let alone all the surviving other literary stuff – endless writers but not one reference.
Something we do find in the muck with monotonous regularity are spindle whorls. These can be hard to date. But most of those in my collection are, broadly speaking, ‘medieval’ or not a lot post medieval (the exceptions being some Roman ones and 17thC Bellarmine ones). Years ago we weighed a random sample of them, well over 100. Many of them had provenances if not dates and came from all over England – London as well as here in the North East and pretty well everywhere inbetween. They had a surprising consistency – around 1oz in weight. To knit a gansey you need worsted spun wool, not woollen spun. This is made from long, fine fibres (the best of which were only developed post 1750 – another argument for no ganseys prior to Industrial/Agrarian Revolution dates!) You also need a minimum of 3 plies to make it more perfectly circular in cross section, so giving you the crisp stitch defintition. No point in elaborate patterns from fuzzy wool! Of course longwools existed prior to this date – Cotswold, for example, was developed from a Roman type of sheep. But ever tried to ply on a spindle? Ever tried to 3 ply or more on a spindle? (Pre Navajo plying which was only known in England in the 20thC). You’d quickly realise that you’d need a wider variety of whorl weights if you were making ‘gansey’ style yarn at a time in history when we only had spindles. We don’t see that variety.
17thC Bellarmine spindle whorls, from PH's collection.
Back to those 3 putative ‘knitting needles’ in York…. That still leaves us with what are possibly knitting needles in a late 14thC context, but no proof of knitting for another 60 years or so. And all of that of course, leaves us with no ganseys/jumpers/knit frocks, call em what you will. (These needles are the equivalent in size to standard sock needles, so look like they’d most likely be used for hosiery – and finer caps, possibly.
All the textile fragments from medieval York are of woven, not knitted, cloth.
There is no evidence for a sleeved upper body garment til the 17thC knitted silk damask undershirts (that’s vests) for adults, and the child’s vest from the 17thC in the Museum of London I think it is. And no evidence that undergarment migrated to becoming an outer garment til the 19thC. The liklihood being, therefore, it made that transition – in England – at some point in the 18thC. There are high status knitted silk waistcoats from the 18thC. No jumpers. And no record of them as a woolly, lower status garment, even here in the fishing community along the river for any 18thC date.
Lewis Harding's Photos of Polperro Fishermen, c.1850 [Polperro Press
The lovely Polperro Press allowed us to use some of these iconic photos in an article in Yarn Forward 18, last year – Harding’s images thought to be the first ever of ganseys – taken by Lewis Harding in Polperro, Cornwall, around 1850. Mary Wright’s classic little book, Cornish Guernseys & Knitfrocks is back in print, thanks to them. Well worth buying for you gansey fans!
Yorkshire Inland Waterways Museum, Goole
The earliest printed pattern for a gansey is as late as the 1880s. A survey of the 19thC newspapers picks up nothing for ‘knit shirt’ or ‘knitted shirt’, but a few references for ‘knit frock’ concentrated around the 1850s onwards, and that word yields to ‘gansey’ by around the 1870s. Curiously, the word gansey even then often appears in inverted commas, as if they thought it was a vulgar word. The gansey is very firmly post Industrial Revolution – the crisp stitch definition etc only an option once most gansey worsted can be machine spun and, post 1860, chemically dyed, if necessary. It is a product of the mechanised age even when it is handmade, so sadly, no spinning ladies in the picturesque doorways of cottages with roses round them. It’s an occupational costume, maybe ground out as often by Dales contract knitters doing generic garments, as made by loved ones for loved ones. It cannot predate the 18thC and very likely does not predate say the 1790s. By the time Lewis Harding took the first photos of ganseys in Polperro, Cornwall in 1850 – it is clearly an evolved art. But that’s an evolution that may only have taken one or two generations.
So whilst it would be lovely to give the Leicester Lads their fantasy and say yes there were Tudor/17thC jumpers – hard truth is – sorry lads. There just weren’t.
To see images of earlier knitting, look at the V & A Collection, here.
Museum of London Collections here.
Shetland Museum (Gunnister and others) here.
Also, some old links but maybe you’ll find something here.
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