Donna's Writings


Ancient Knitting Patterns and Charts?

I recently sent a photo of an antique sock to my friend Anne Berk. I can’t show you that sock (you’ll have to wait for Stories In Stitches™ volume 3!) but I will show you some others from the same collection in St. Petersburg:

Socks in the Russian Ethnography Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia

Anne replied, “I was thinking about this sock on the way to work, and the knitter. How in the world did she design this without a computer, and software?  She probably didn’t even have graph paper. Forget the sock, I want to see the notes!”

What a fascinating question! I know a lot about knitting history in certain parts of the world, but not much about the earliest knitting or knitters, so I asked Ava Coleman, my Stories In Stitches co-creator for her input. Here’s what she had to say:

I too am fascinated by complex patterns produced by early knitters. I’ve spent time researching works done prior to the 1500s. Especially the time from 1200 on, we see these more difficult to execute motifs appear. There seem to be two branches to this early work.

The first is found in examples like the Chur and other purses found on the German/Swiss border and the grave pillows found in Spain. In all probability these projects were designed by artistic and well educated Church or heraldic household staff members of very wealthy people. The Herald would create the picture/design or device. A knitter would knit it into the desired project. Interestingly the early Arabic socks praising Allah were probably done basically the same way. Someone in authority to create the motifs, who then supervised the work to make sure all was correct. A crafts person accomplished in knitting would make the product. I’m not sure about the Eastern, but many of the early European items were convent knitted.

The second goes back to how early carpets and tile work (think mosaics on Roman baths) were created. The artist designed a pattern (sometimes called a “cartoon”) and a crafts person did the work. We still see that today in small carpet factories in Central Asia. The master carpet maker will design (draw out a picture, frequently full-sized) and color it. He’ll supervise the spinning, dying, warping and arrange the color palate in the order the threads are to be used. The master weaver and a manager will oversee the actual production after that.

There also really is a third way. Knitters, who could look at a finished product and make it, were probably more frequent than our pattern dependent knitters of today.  Once a design passed the official approval of whatever governing entity, it could be and usually was copied. Either by hands-on direct teaching like many of the British Isle stitches passed from generation to generation or by a simple shared sketch.

As to post 1500, there is a logical transition to today as communication and literacy have improved. Keep in mind that we have been educated to learn quite differently than our grandparents. We use more tools and less brain to accomplish most everyday tasks. This is primarily because we have no reason to “reinvent the wheel”. Someone somewhere has written the book or posted the information online. One of the things today’s knitters have forgotten, or maybe never knew in the first place, is that this whole concept of printed patterns has been going on fewer than 200 years. However it has quickly instilled in us culturally a different attitude about how we make almost everything.

Thanks Ava. Now doesn’t that just knock your socks off? (Pun, and apologies for pun, intended.)

  1. Very interesting photo! I recognize some Estonian socks there, from Muhu island.

  2. Any ancient knitting analysis no matter how well conceived is a peripheral representation on its reality. I just want to say how much I enjoy this information. I like this one Donna.

  3. My grandmother would see a sweater or a dress or something on her favorite t.v. shows. She would immediately get her magnifying glass (always on the table by her) and get as close as she could to see the pattern. She would sketch out the design on a napkin or scrap paper (envelopes were her favorite). She would then make her version of whatever the design was on the sketch. She cut out dress patterns using newspapers or paper bags. This was long before internet or TiVo. Every late summer she would go through the Sears Roebuck catalog to order fabric for school clothes. She even made my fathers flannel shirts. I have seen old “receipts” for weaving patterns that women mailed to one another in letters. They would not be legible to today’s weavers. One was interesting. The letter was folded and mailed without an envelope. On the back side was a pattern with interesting shorthand notes of how to thread it and a drawing of the pattern.

  4. Interesting article, Donna. My father’s mother was a Swedish immigrant who did not read American patterns but would look at any (picture or item) pattern and be able to immediately crochet it. I suspect the latter explanation of knitting creation in this article, like my grandmother did in crochet, was the most frequent.

    • Donna

      What a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing it. I’m sorry for the tardy response but I love when people understand their craft to the level where they can make what they want without using someone else’s pattern or instructions. My mother’s best friend used to sew like that: she would get up early, get fabric from the stash, cut it out, and whip up a dress for church on Sunday morning!

  5. The ancient knitting effect can be moderated with a little due dilegence. Thanks for the wonderful article it has really helped me. Great job Donna.

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