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:
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.)