The Archaeology of Knitting

When it comes to knitting, this practice goes beyond keeping people warm. In this post, you will find the YouTube video exploring the archaeology of knitting and a full video transcript (with relevant references and links).

YouTube Video

YouTube Video Transcript

Here, you will find the complete transcript of the video in the previous section with hyperlinked references/citations.

Introduction

[00:00:00] Using yarns and needles to make things like hats, socks, and sweaters is ancient. When it comes to knitting, this practice goes beyond keeping people warm.

Knitting was a crucial part of daily life in past societies, and in some cases, it laid the foundation for major changes like expanding Viking influence to supporting World War II efforts.

Hi, I’m Dr. Smiti Nathan, and I’m an archaeologist. In this video, we’re going to explore the intriguing archaeology of knitting and how this practice transformed parts of the ancient world.

So let’s get into it.

Oldest Knitting

Now, if you’re curious how old knitting is, so am I.

We actually don’t know how old knitting is, but we do have some pretty intriguing evidence of knitting from the early Bronze Age, so about four to five thousand years ago.

Archaeologists working in eastern Turkey and Georgia investigated patterns in early Bronze Age pottery and found something interesting. Millennial old fabrics left behind impressions of loops and stitches. The archaeologists think that these patterned impressions show knitting and nalbinding techniques.

Nalbinding

Now you might be asking, what is nalbinding?

It’s the faithful friend and [00:01:00] possible older sibling of knitting. Nalbinding has often been confused with knitting because the outputs are so similar, but the techniques are actually quite different.

Knitting uses two or more needles, and the loops stay on the needle as you knit, resulting in a fabric that is stretchy and flexible. With nalbinding, there’s a single needle with an eye, kind of like in sewing, and the entire length of the yarn is pulled through each loop as you nalbind, resulting in a firmer, denser fabric.

Nalbinding was common in many places across the world, especially Scandinavia, North Africa, Eastern Europe, and Western Asia. Using this technique, people used wool or flax yarn to make items like hats, mittens, and socks.

Egypt

 Speaking of socks, I have a young child, so I am no stranger to lost socks. And it turns out neither were parents living in Egypt 1, 700 years ago. Antinoupolis, Egypt, found a little handmade nalbinded sock, and a pretty cool study was done on it, which I’ll come back to later.

When it comes to knitting, some of the oldest known knit garments come from Egypt, including, yes, another sock. This time we have an intricately decorated blue and white [00:02:00] sock that was made sometime between 1100 CE and 1300 CE. So, nalbinding is deeply intertwined with the archaeology of knitting as garments made using both techniques have been found together.

Now, knitting as we know it gained popularity in the medieval period. While nalbinding was still practiced, knitting replaced it in many places, thereby transforming textile production throughout the world.

Iceland

Knitting was especially important in places with cold climates, like Iceland. When many of us think of Icelandic culture, cozy, warm, beautifully designed knit wool sweaters usually come to mind. During the medieval period, textiles were a significant part of Iceland’s economy.

Women were typically in charge of making textiles, which were primarily made from the wool of hardy Icelandic sheep. By making woven, nalbinded, and knit cloth, Icelandic women were able to directly participate in a global network, which was not always the case throughout history. In fact, archaeologists have suggested that this kind of women’s work may have directly influenced the Vikings ability to expand their influence across the North Atlantic.

Europe

Now knitting produced items that were not only functional [00:03:00] but also fashionable.

If you were a man in 16th century Europe, regardless of status, you never left your house without sporting your trusty short brim wool knitted cap. Most surviving knitcaps from this era are in museums in London and Copenhagen and are now a muddy brown color.

However, that wasn’t their original color.

A team of archaeologists used a non invasive technique called microspectral fluorometry. This is basically taking pictures of artifacts under different types of lights. Using this technique, they were able to figure out the color of these 500 year old knit caps. Turns out these caps were once bright red made with color from natural dyes including madder.

Madder is a shrub in the coffee family that produces unique chemicals in its roots. And madder has been used as a dye for over 5, 000 years. In fact, it’s the same plant used as one of the dyes for yarn from that little sock in ancient Egypt that we mentioned earlier.

Kashmir

In the past and present, winters in the Northern Hemisphere are a lot easier to enjoy with cozy, warm clothing.

While Icelanders and many Europeans relied on sheep, people in different parts of the world turned to other animals. There [00:04:00] is a super soft and highly prized type of wool that comes from a certain breed of domestic goat. It’s produced mostly in Western, Southwestern, and Central Asia, including modern day Iran, Afghanistan, and Mongolia, but it originated from a very specific region. This region is well known for its long history of weaving and knitting. There are even surviving examples of knit clothing like stockings and gloves dating back to the 18th and 19th century. This region inspired the name of the wool.

 It’s Kashmir, also known as pashmina. This regional world transformed into a globally sought-after material that’s often equated with luxury and timeless elegance. 

The Americas

Now, we’ve been mainly talking about Europe, Africa, and Asia, but people in the Americas have their own rich tradition of textile production.

Many communities across Central America have been making colorful woven cloth, primarily out of cotton, for thousands of years. Archaeologists have found that textile production was a major economic resource in ancient Mesoamerica.

When it comes to knitting, we think that it was introduced to indigenous communities in the Americas in the [00:05:00] 1500s by Spanish colonists.

In the Andes, knitting was adopted by indigenous communities by the late 16th century, and archaeologists have recovered multiple knit garments from colonial Peru, including socks, stockings, all made from cotton and wool. Knitting techniques merged with local techniques, thereby transforming textile production in this area.

England

 In the 1940s, the popularity of knitting exploded in the Americas and Europe, especially in England. Interestingly, the increased popularity of knitting was closely related to the rise of World War II.

Women were encouraged to knit hats, gloves, scarves, and stockings to send to the Red Cross, who then distributed them to the troop. Knitting patterns proliferated and the English government actually distributed patterns alongside free wool yarn to schools for students to participate in the war effort.

Outro

Knitting is as popular as ever in the modern day. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people turned to fiber arts, like knitting, as a way to relieve anxiety and find community during lockdown. For example, Black women from across the USA have embraced knitting as a way to celebrate and [00:06:00] connect with a part of their history.

Knitting continues to impact aspects of our community to this day. Now I’ve mentioned that knit objects were usually made out of wool yarn, and many types of wool yarn would not have been possible without animals like sheeps and goats.

If you’re interested in learning more about the relationship between ancient animals and ancient humans, check out this video here. That’s all for this video, and we’ll catch you in the next one. Bye.

Additional Resources

Credits

Anya Gruber: Co-Producer, Researcher, Scriptwriter

Noor Hanania: Lead Video Editor

Smiti Nathan: Director, Co-Producer, Support Video Editor


If you enjoyed this post, check out my channel and other videos.

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Smiti Nathan

I’m an archaeologist that travels around the world for both work and pleasure. I have a penchant for exploring ancient and modern places and the people, plants, and foods entangled in them. I write about archaeology, travel, and productivity.

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