For one reason and another (one being the Christmas craft fair events for charity, which are looming), I am busier with knitting at the moment than usual. Hedgehogs and Christmas puddings are lining up unseasonably early, though I guess I am simply following the retail trend whereby there seems to be Hallowe’en Stuff everywhere, and the mince pies with November sell-by dates cannot be far behind.
I wish I was quicker – I have friends who knit so fast that their needle tips are a blur – or better able to multitask, like Mrs Poyser in Adam Bede, who liked knitting best of all her many tasks as a farmer’s wife, ‘because she could carry it on automatically as she walked to and fro’.
Knitting goes back a long way, but it is relatively rare to see ancient examples of the craft in museums, partly because of the rarity of survival (moth and rust, to say nothing of damp, doth corrupt) and also because, like other textiles and also paper, knitted works deteriorate unless they are kept out of the light.
Unsurprisingly, samples have survived in the dry climate of Egypt, most famously some Coptic socks, but it appears that there is a controversy as to whether these were created by two-needle knitting as opposed to the single-needle technique of nail (nål = needle)-binding, practised today mostly in Scandinavia, which was used to produce items such as the Coppergate Sock from Viking York.
Interestingly, two-needle knitting seems to have spread into Europe from the Islamic world: at the great abbey complex of Burgos in Spain (founded by Alfonso VIII of Castile, whose wife Eleanor, the daughter of Henry II of England, took a great interest in it), textiles found in royal burials include silk knitted cushion covers (20 stitches to the inch) and gloves, some with Kufic inscriptions.
There are some pictures of the Virgin Mary knitting industriously (in the round, in this image by Bertram of Minden, painted for the altar of the nunnery at Buxtehude, near Bremen (c. 1400), where she has begun a red tunic at the base and is about to cast off at the neck).
The Madonna seems to indicate that knitting for the home was women’s work, but like most crafts, ‘commercial’ knitting was a male, rather than a female preserve in the medieval period. Evidence from France and Germany from the thirteenth century onwards shows hand-knitters’ guilds, and the structure of a six-year apprenticeship followed by a journeyman period and the production of a ‘masterpiece’.
There seems to be little information on English knitters of the period, but the first ‘knitting machine’ was invented by an English clergyman, William Lee, in 1589. Queen Elizabeth refused to grant him a patent (nor one for his improved version, which knitted silk rather than worsted), as she was concerned that his invention might put hand knitters out of work: ‘Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring to them ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars.’
In 1657, however, possibly partly as a consequence of the influx of Huguenot textile workers to Spitalfields, the London Guild of Framework Knitters was established and granted a charter: in 1663 Charles II extended this to cover the whole country. The ‘Guild or Mystery’ had privileges including that of driving sheep across London Bridge once a year (25 September this year, don’t miss it!), and they also built almshouses for decayed practitioners and their widows in Shoreditch in 1727 (demolished in the early 20th century, but probably similar to those at the nearby Geffrye Museum).
Framework knitters mostly produced stockings – vital when doublet and hose were the fashion of the day, and men’s legs had to look shapely (if possible) inside their covering. But changing fashion in the eighteenth century and the large-scale mechanisation of the Industrial Revolution meant that individual male framework knitters (who had by and large produced piece-work in their own homes, like weavers) dropped into poverty and out of the picture, and knitting became again a handcraft, mostly performed by women, whether to sell, to clothe their own families, or as a genteel sort of ‘work’ with which the women of the leisured classes were supposed to occupy their time. (Miss Matty Jenkyns in Cranford ‘would sit knitting for two or three hours – she could do this in the dark or by firelight’, to save on candles.)
However, one class of men had a tradition of knitting: sailors. Like scrimshaw, it was a craft that could be practised in a small space and with basic equipment, and resulted in useful items of clothing (perhaps there was also an affinity with nets and knots?).
Fishermen and the crews of merchant and naval vessels all seem to have knitted, and there are some items of clothing, like the gansey (or guernsey) and the watchcap, which are historically specific to sailors (to say nothing of the number of fisherman’s stitches and motifs). And this brings me (thanks for your patience!) to this month’s object(s): the knitted caps on display in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
These caps – worn by Dutch whale fishermen who died in Spitsbergen, many of them of scurvy – survived because they were buried in their clothes, in frozen ground. The Svalbard archipelago, previously uninhabited except by wildlife, was first discovered by Willem Barentsz in 1596. Burials in the islands are no longer allowed: the graveyard at Longyearbyen is full, and because of the melting and refreezing of the ground, the coffins have a disturbing way of breaking the surface every so often. (And by the way, I had assumed that Longyearbyen meant something in Norwegian, but in fact the capital’s name derives from the American entrepreneur John Munro Longyear (1850–1922) who founded ‘Longyear City’ in 1906 to service his timber and mining interests in the islands: ‘byen’ means town.)
Between 1979 and 1981, 185 graves of men who had worked at the whaling station at Smeerenburg (‘Blubbertown’) between 1619 and 1657 were examined by archaeologists (the site was at risk from coastal erosion).
The size of the station seems to have been greatly exaggerated – by William Scoresby and Fridtjof Nansen among others – with tales of around 15,000 temporary inhabitants in the summer season, and shops, churches, gambling dens and brothels. In fact, Smeerenburg had no more than seventeen houses, and none of the burials is female.
It’s not known whether the caps (‘mutsen’ in Dutch) were knitted by the men themselves or by wives and mothers back at home. There are various styles – conical, all-round brim, brim turned up at the front only, like a sou’wester – and single and double thickness. They come in many colours and were created in stocking stitch using very fine wool; some are felted, and one is seamed rather than knitted in the round (possibly the product of a knitting frame?).
It has been suggested that the variations in colour and style/shape enabled the men to recognise each other outdoors in the long Arctic winter – though of course, a bit of individuality is always fun.
Comments online indicate that these fragile reminders of hardship and death are among the most popular objects on display in this wonderful museum: they certainly provide a poignant contrast to the more famous ‘heroes’ of the contemporary ‘Night Watch’.