Close Knit, or Nalbinded?

Yes, the Genie can use a knitting stick!

One thing about Yorkshire folk is – we don’t suffer fools gladly.  Look away now if you’re squeamish.  This is going to get honest. Anyone coming here from Ravelry,  pull up a chair and bring the popcorn. You already know where I’m going, with this.  I like exploding myths and poking at bullshit with a stick. I spend a whole chapter in ‘River Ganseys’ exploding myths.  (Coming soon! Hot on the heels of the new edition of ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’, which exists in galley proof and we’re giving it the final once-over, as we speak). I’m not very good with  rhodomontade. And I don’t do ‘romance’ very well with my textile history, either. Although a smattering of romance is what sells historical knitting, at least if we’re doing it – let’s get it right.  And randomly deciding ancient coptic nalbinding is knitting to fit your thesis is not “getting it right”.

In the last (nalbinding) post, I posted this picture. Apologies for quality – we took it in the rather poor natural light inside the children’s bedroom at Dove Cottage, Grasmere, last year.

You can see, far from “lacking experience with knitting sheath produced fabrics”, this particular Genie can and does use a knitting stick. To make knitted fabrics! From her own handspun. I forget the tension of this, but it will be somewhere around the 7 or 8 stitch per inch mark on 2mm-ish needles. I can also nalbind. It seems odd to find in a comment to a blog that my opinions are invalid as I have no experience of fabrics knitted using a knitting stick – as that comment directly links to my last blog post which had this very picture of me in 1800 costume, knitting with a knitting stick! Bizarre.

That said, the relevant experts at the V & A have been rubbished, so I am in extremely good company.

Portuguese knitting hook, from Lisbon market.

In civilian life, I knit Portuguese style which is so fast and produces a fabric with such nice tension, I really don’t need or want to use a stick. But when doing living history; a stick is the whole point.

I have attracted some angst and ire because I was honest enough to say a knitting stick doesn’t produce magical fabric with magical special qualities. It really doesn’t. It just speeds things up. And only if you knit British/Continental style in the first place. Worse still – fabric knitted in my normal way looks identical to fabric knitted with a stick. Which blows all that buy-a-knitting-stick-and-your-knitting-will-look-as-if-it-was-swaved-by-magical-unicorns crap right out of the water.

Contemporary professional gansey knitters in the UK tend to knit on circular needles, which totally obviates the need for sticks. They still produce lovely garments, in quick time.  I do ganseys on circs too, for what it’s worth. Although once the arm gets narrower, I always switch to dpns, but that is just personal preference. Either way, a knitting stick is surplus to requirements.

I grew up knitting how my mum taught me, and her mum taught her and so on back to the Humber fishermen’s wives and the Vale of York farmers’ wives of the early 1800s, maybe beyond. In other words – I used to knit continental (the ‘older’ way in some parts of the UK). So a stick did speed that up. It does very little for the Portuguese style knitter, though. Which is why I only use the stick for living history events.  The second the public are out of the door, I’m back with the yarn round my neck or through a hook…

I’ve been handspinning since the early 1980s, so presumably have no experience of that as well. The handspun wool in the photo above is probably a fluke.

Apparently, we’re told,  the sign of a fabric knitted using a stick is that it is uneven, amateurish-looking and rows out yet the final fabric is dense and cardboardy.  This is why the experts can’t tell their nalbind from their knitted. I say this, as the ridge at the start of the instep of the nalbinded sock has been strangely attributed to rowing out.  As most knitters are aware, rowing out is a problem for beginner knitters, and also sometimes the result of using badly spun/plied yarn. In the nalbinded sock, the ridge is due to the sock’s construction.

The stocking I’m knitting in the photo is from handspun Wensleydale wool. No rowing out, you’ll notice. When I get to the instep there will be no huge, obvious ridge.  The nalbinded sock was worked toe-up, apparently, and I suspect may have been constructed in two parts then joined where you get the ridge. I’m not sure as you can turn a heel in nalbinding pretty well however you like and you do see that ridge a lot on nalbinded socks, but not on knitted.

As a living historian, I have known a number of knitters who can use knitting sticks.  The stick I use was made by someone in the Dales, copying extant examples that abound up there. In every respect, it is identical to the knitting sticks from the 18thC and 19thC Yorkshire Dales.  I can therefore infer that any fabric I can knit using them, using the right sized needles and yarn with characteristics like that in original artefacts, will be a decent approximation of, say, a pair of 19thC stockings. That said…. It tells me nothing about a pair of socks nalbinded in “the burial grounds of ancient Oxyrhynchus, a Greek colony on the Nile in central Egypt”.

‘Yorkshire’ sticks I have seen made by contemporaries who have been unable to study actual sticks tend to be way too small, and also, I suspect, the makers may be unaware of the depth of the holes in extant sticks, if the knitting produced by them is so poor the knitter assumes rowing out to be normal, something about the sticks could be very, very wrong.

I’ll be publishing some of my documentation of knitting sticks at some point, which may improve their product if they care to read the actual hard data we have collected.

Returning to the confusion between nalbinding and knitting. Apparently, we’re told, rowing out is a typical characteristic of fabric knitted by someone using a knitting stick… Yet the nalbinded ridge at the instep (seen on many extant nalbinded socks, several linked to in the previous post) is not rowing out but a common feature of nalbinded socks.

As for nalbinding to the same gauge as the Coptic socks… common sense (and my miniscule experience of Bad Nalbinding) tell me that if you use a finer thread, and pull each stitch tight as you go to the required tension – you will have a finer end product. Their fineness is nothing to do with knitting sticks as they are from a couple of continents and a thousand years in the future, away. On the Ravelry nalbinding group, nalbinders have made repros of ancient nalbinded socks and they look very creditable.

Speak this quietly – but my handspun Wensleydale wool has not been blocked, or even washed. And yet…. no rowing out. And no bumpy, unevenness, or snarls of over-energised yarn, either.  I’d knit it straight from the bobbin – if I had enough bobbins. So take it from me – a stocking knitted using a stick, from handspun (shock!horror! Even unblocked handspun) can look even and shouldn’t row out. We’re told that blocking handspun yarn before use is essential. Maybe it is if your spinning isn’t upto scratch, yet?  As you can see even from my poorly-lit photo, unblocked handspun makes perfectly good stocking yarn.

2008-08-28 19.15.42 (2)
Handspun Wensleydale

I spun this Wensleydale you see in the first picture years ago – but stupidly, not as much as I needed. So recently, had to spin a bit more (after miraculously finding the leftover roving on a shelf at Other Half’s work). Left bobbin was spun on a 1990s’ Timbertops flyer; right bobbin on a 1970s’ flyer. The old spinning as in the stocking above, was perfectly matched by the new, and these were later plied into a balanced yarn that decidedly won’t row out. And it will look as good as the fabric in the stockings above, even without being washed or blocked. When wound into a ball ready to use, despite being unwashed/not blocked, it doesn’t look like cat barf, either.  Strange, that. Could it be we are all being told how to knit/spin by someone who lacks… experience?

Don’t believe anyone who tells you that poor craftsmanship (rowing out)  is a sign of fabric knitted using a knitting stick, or due to using hand-spun yarn. As the picture above shows – knitters using sticks in the past could produce perfectly good fabric without ridges or lumps, and from yarn that if well spun, may not have been washed or blocked.

None of this changes the fact the nalbinded socks are nalbinded. They are not knitted. Furthermore, they were not knitted using knitting sticks, a technology which has its origins in Europe, well over a thousand years later.

My knitting stick, Wensleydale stockings and 1800-dressed self will be at Dove Cottage again, on September 7th. The stockings are called The Neverending Stockings of Doom as, like my namesake Penelope, I take them to events, then rip them out and re-knit at the next event (too many people distracting me for me to remember if I am increasing or decreasing). This year, I intend to actually finish the damn things. Possibly. Hence spinning the extra yarn to finally get it done.  I’ll also be at the Preview for the Close Knit exhibition at Hull Maritime Museum, next month, which has more knitting sticks than anyone can reasonably shake a (non-knitting) stick at. And one of my ganseys is in it! Do come along and meet us at Dove Cottage in September, or get along to the exhibition which opens in August (partly the Moray Firth Group’s travelling exhibition, partly local Humber stuff) where you can see some old and new ganseys, most knitted without sticks but that look precisely the same as the ganseys knit with.

I understand the Dales gentleman who made my knitting stick has now retired, so if anyone knows someone who is making good knitting sticks in the UK, please contact me here, and I will link to their details, so anyone interested in this (non coptic! and not 1600 years old) technology, can find a stick of the right size, with a hole the right depth, made by someone who has preferably held and examined a few of the originals. Equally, if you know of a woodworker who would like to make these but needs some measurements of originals, if they contact me I can help them out with some raw data.

And in the meantime, don’t let anyone tell you rowing out is a sign of fine fabric knitted with a knitting stick. It is the result of shoddy craftsmanship.  Oh and those nalbinded coptic socks? They’re nalbinded.

 

And another thing…   Also in the comments section of said blog: “The V&A Coptic socks were done in 3-ply cotton, not wool.”  That’s odd. Because the V & A say:

Materials and Techniques

Nålbindning (sewing stitches) wool

and:

The socks are in bright red wool

 

It would seem the swatches with commercial cotton are doubly pointless.

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6 thoughts on “Close Knit, or Nalbinded?

  1. Hi!

    This post actually (aside from being very entertaining) inspired me to teach myself portugese style knitting! I’m still dealing with coordinating everything, but I can certainly see its potential to be much faster and I’m having a lot of fun. 🙂 so, thank you!

    Like

  2. I read your post with interest being an avid knitter and interested in history (am also a reenactor, but sew fore that and make lucet cord) I know nothing about stick knotting at all and am interested, have seen things about naalbinfing but never tried it but please what is rowing out? I have knItted with 2, 4 or circular needlesfor over 50 years but have never heard the term.
    Looking forward to further posts

    Like

    1. Dear Moira,
      Thanks so much for having the nerve to ask about “rowing out”. It appears that after knitting for over 55 years it appears I’m afraid to look stupid by asking questions online. (I’m equally sure that if someone sitting next to me used that term, my mouth, which operates often without my permission, would be saying “What’s that?”

      Like

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