Wednesday, 1 September 2010

great string controversies

With all the posts about seal tags lately, I haven't been talking about my other two favourite things (after research) - string and 12th C clothing. Well let's fix the former (even though eventually I'll get to fibre seal tags), by talking about a few of the great controversies of narrowwares and string crafts. Sorry, this is a musing, not at informational article, just warning those who hope to find facts and figures today.

Is knitting medieval?
If you look at old books on knitting, you'll find a lot of objects identified as knitting in the medieval period. And then if you look at more recent investigations of these objects, you'll learn many of them are naalbinding. Or occasionally sprang. The writers of the old books did the best they could - they knew it wasn't sewing of even crochet, but never having knitted themselves nor having heard of naalbinding, they didn't think to see if it was a very similar technique.

There is some medieval knitting, in fact in the coptic areas there is even some pre-medieval knitting. But the vast majority of western European medieval items that look like knitting so far that I've heard of are naalbinding. New techniques like knitting take time to permeate to craftspeople, so both coexisted for a while. And even though knitting has a definite speed advantage over naalbinding, naalbinding doesn't unravel, so both have reasons for their use. To make things more complicated, the word knitting in English is not only used for the technique of making a fabric from string using 2 or more eyeless needles, it is also rarely (and increasingly less so over time) used for the process of making things sit together eg a wound knits together, knit fabric. In languages other than English, this happens even more so, so if a translation has occurred, the word knitted may simply mean anything which is in this family of construction via meshing strings together (eg crochet, knitting, naalbinding, sprang).

By the Renaissance, knitting had taken off, and there are a lot more examples. I'm really talking about the early days of knitting - the 11th to 13th Centuries.

Anyway, if I see an article identifying a piece as knitting in the medieval period, I can't be sure it truly is knitting unless it discusses the possibility that it could be in other similar techniques. (like this one) If I want to make something quickly, and wasn't aiming for museum replica quality, then knitting might be a good choice, but being a research person I'd probably be researchin a naalbinded article and trying to understand how I'd have to adjust for the difference in technique, and how that has minor effects on the finished result.

Was crochet used in the Renaissance?
No. probably not.

But surely someone would have thought up something so easy? All the things needed to do crochet were about (string + hooks).

There were already a number of techniques about that did this. Crochet takes more valuable thread than these. Why try inventing new things when what you want to do can be done with existing techniques? What piece of imagination sparks people to develop a new technique? The above articles suggest that crochet develops from tambor (chiefly used post Renaissance), crochet becoming fabric-less tambor.

If you wanted to make a good recreation, then without more evidence, you wouldn't be using crochet, except as discussed above as a quick way to mimic another technique.

Are lucet's used before the Renaissance?

Well, the most well known controversy of them all. And one that has had lots written about it. Were lucets used before the Renaissance, especially in "viking" times? The evidence I've heard cited consists of many objects which can successfully be used as lucets, but could also have some other use, and a single piece of string. Unfortunately for the advocates, the article concerning the piece of string doesn't consider the possibility that other braiding techniques might have been used and discount them. For me this isn't good evidence, so we can't prove pre-Renaissance usage of the lucet. And with a limited number of braided cords being found in securely dated contexts and even less of them analysed by braiding experts, I don't think it likely we will get the evidence needed anytime soon. Only a handful of positively identified examples of fingerloop braiding, finger weaving and plaiting exist from these eras.

The use of the lucet in the Renaissance is fairly well doccumentable in linguistic terms although I haven't heard of extant lucets, although again I've heard of no conclusively identified braids in the technique. The quantity of evidence for fingerloop braiding suggests to me that fingerloop braiding was more common, although the greater possible complexity of fingerloop braiding is likely to bias this sampling.

Structurally the internal structure of lucet is quite different to fingerloop braiding, plaiting and fingerweaving, but the external appearance is quite similar to these techniques. I have no problem substituting lucet cord for other techniques, only with those who firmly assert facts ("the vikings used lucets") that really aren't that firm.

Is Kumihimo period?

It seems to be taken for granted by people that Kumihimo is period, because modern craftbooks says it is (just like all the knitting ones did). "Everybody knows" samari armour was held together with kumihimo. By now we should know better than to make such assumptions, but perhaps the problem is that this is a japanese technique, so I expect there is a lot of scholarly research in Japanese, and not in English which we can research ourselves. This isn't a great controversy yet because very few people know of it, but I think it should be, and will be in times to come.

LMBRIC investigates a few fragments of braid from Xth Century Samari armour, and comes to an interesting conclusion - that they are loop manipulation not kumihimo (see n5, n7, n10, n9). The Japanese version of loop manipulation (fingerloop braiding) holds the loops on the hands/arms, producing some end results that are nearly indistinguishable from kumihimo. The authour of the article finds a few moves, however that are only possible by loop manipulation and not kumihimo. This to me throws all existing claims of ancient kumihimo open to suspicion. Just as for knitting, now all claims that an object is very old kumihimo now need to substantiate why they aren't loop manipulation.

As with knitting and lucet, this isn't about what you should and shouldn't do - to me if the desired result of recreation is the finished product, then the method only matters for the utmost highest levels of obsessive authenticity, and I'm very happy to make compromises and use structurally identical results. It's about not making historical claims that haven't been substantiated.

Was there really such a thing as viking whipcording?
Asfridr provides a nice run down of the evidence, or more accurately, general lack of evidence for this art form. Basically strings using this structure have been found, but no evidence they were made in this manner, rather than simple plaiting is shown.

It's a cool way to get people doing braiding, and the result is structurally identical, but I really regret that it's not actually provable because I've found it a cool way to get people to braid at demos, so I end up having to decide between authenticity and entusiasm, instead of being able to have both.

How old is macrame?
The problem with this question is that you have to define what is macrame. When does something cross the line from a few knots to being macrame? There are decorative fringes like this one that utilise decorative knotting, nets that use repeated knots, turk's head knots on pouches and various other usages. But I these don't necessarily constitute a structured art of knotting. I think they might be more like tying your shoelace - they are knots used, but fall into the category of something else (eg "what you need to know to get dressed", or the knot you put on the top of a tassel).

One of the origins of macrame is in sailor's knots being used for non-sailing decorative purposes. I suspect this practise increased greatly with the late Renaissance and later numbers of sailors away from shore for long periods stuck on a ship with nothing to do and a knowledge of knots. But you could mount a good counter argument regarding fishermen stuck in port in bad weather.

At any rate, I'm more comfortable with describing early pieces which have some knots on them as "decorative knotting" than macrame, because to me, the majority of pieces will be in combined techniques, not able to be made from knotting alone. And it's going to be hard work for anyone who wants to search for pre-modern examples of decorative knotting, because it'll be listed in the museum catalog as something else (pouch, tassel, cingulum, etc). Looking at he concept of pasimentarie might be useful though.

inkle looms
If you tabletweave, you probably know this one. An inkle is a Renaissance English term for a narrow woven band. The modern "inkleloom" is probably a 1930's invention, maybe up to 50 years earlier, so named because it can be used to make inkles.

All the evidence points to the common looms for making inkles in medieval and Renaissance times being band looms or box looms using either cards or a rigid heddle.

A modern inkle loom will produce structurally identical results, but please don't try and contort logic and linguistics to justify bringing it to a high authenticity demo.