Knitting History Forum Conference November 2021 presentation by Pragya Sharma with KHF Chair Sandy Black

Knitting History Forum 2021 Conference Report

This year’s Knitting History Forum Conference was a fascinating and informative journey through knitting history and traditions featuring a roster of informative speakers presenting papers on a diverse range of topics making the 13th of November 2021 event a well-rounded conference. The theme for 2021 was Heads, Hands and Feet and the conference examined knitted artefacts and evidence of their production and social context from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The conference was a virtual, online event similar to last year, kicking off with 10 am start. For those of us in Ontario, Canada however, the conference started at an early 5 am. And that early morning alarm clock wake-up was so very well worth it!

Conference presentation topics included:

  • Knitted caps from the 16th century and their relation to the fez
  • Stockings and stocking production in 16th and 17th century England and The Netherlands
  • 18th century bluestockings
  • Hand-knitting in the Indian subcontinent
  • Knitting literature and practice in the 19th century
  • Early liturgical gloves
  • And so much more!

Conference speakers were Kirstie Buckland, Gieneke Arnolli, Lesley O’Connell Edwards, Pat Poppy, Hanna Bäckström, Jane Malcolm-Davies, Angharad Thomas, Pragya Sharma, Constance Willems and Nicole Pohl as well as a follow-up by Sandy Black on her presentation at the 2020 KHF Conference.

Knitted caps from the Sixteenth century

The day’s programme opened with Kirstie Buckland, Hon President, of the Knitting History Forum, who presented From fleece to fez in fifteen steps: an interpretation of the 1571 Cappers Act in the 21st century. Buckland shared information about the history of woollen caps and British cappers who made them, writing that, “The wool caps were widely appreciated from the 13th century to the changing fashions of the 16th century.” Buckland noted a marked similarity between surviving British woollen caps in historical collections and the production of fez caps in Tunis today. On a trip to Tunis, Buckland happened upon a stall of a fez maker and discovered that, like the early British caps, the modern Tunisian fezzes were actually knit first and then fulled. She watched as the artisan used a teasel to full the knitted caps, a process no doubt similar to the method employed by British cappers.

Harlingen hosiery shops in the 17th century

Next up was Gieneke Arnolli, former curator of the Fries Museum, Leeuwarden, the Netherlands who gave a presentation on Inlandic, Foreign and Speckled Stockings from Harlingen hosiery shops in the 17th century. Arnolli based her paper on inventories, from between 1637 and 1668, of hosiery shops in Harlingen, a harbour town in Friesland (Fryslân), the large, northwestern Dutch province. At the time, Harlingen was the northern gateway of the Republic of the United Netherlands.

Arnolli reported that knitted stockings or “hose” could be bought ready-made in the 17th century, making them an early form of ready-to-wear clothing, as well as valuable exporting items. The craft of stocking knitting was done by men and women, who were members of a guild. Most of the Harlingen stocking shops were held in the name of (married) women; and there were always two women involved in inventorying, as licenced valuers. The stockings traded in the shops were nearly always made of wool. The shops were like workshops with knitting supplies on hand such as knitting yarn, whalebones or iron wire for making knitting needles, and moulds in the shape of a leg for stretching the knitted stockings around.

Elizabethan and Jacobean Hand-knitted Stockings

Lesley O’Connell Edwards, an Independent Researcher from the UK, then presented her paper, From anecdote to statistic: in search of quantifiable data for the volume of production and trade in hand knitted stockings made from wool in England in the later Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.

Edwards’ paper shows that it is possible to provide quantifiable data when it comes to the history of stocking knitting. From her abstract: “After touching on the amount of wool that might be needed for a pair of stockings, the paper will concentrate on the number of stockings being produced and traded, both within England and as exports, and reveal who the traders could be.  It will then consider knitters as a socio-economic group and produce an estimate of how many there could be in the early seventeenth century. Finally, it will show how sometimes different categories of records can be brought together to paint a broader picture of stocking knitting, using (fine) jersey stocking knitting in Norwich and Yarmouth as a case study.”

Knitted garments in Seventeenth century accounts

After the break, Pat Poppy reported on knitted garments in Stuart accounts with “3 pounds Wostid in niting”: Knitted garments in Stuart accounts. From the abstract: “An ongoing project created a database of information on clothing from the Stuart period. The database contains around 23,000 references, only a few are to knitting or to knitted garments. These do however provide an insight into what was being produced and how. The bulk of the garments are stockings, followed by small numbers of gloves, cuffs, a waistcoat and a doublet.” Poppy’s presentation examined changing terminology, particularly around references to stockings, the extent to which knitted items were purchased or ordered and the values put on the finished items, including cost of yarn and cost of knitting.

Nineteenth century stocking knitting literature

Hanna Backstrom’s paper, “There are few ladies who cannot knit stockings” – Printed instructions, norms and practice in the nineteenth century, was next in the presentation lineup. Bäckström, PhD in Textile Studies, Uppsala University, Sweden, explained that in research on the history of knitting, stockings are often mentioned as a key item. The stockings themselves are often well described but the development of the printed instructions on how to make them has not been given the same attention. Backstrom’s paper examines how the publication of instructions for knitting stockings changed over time. She also explored what was thought of as women’s work in nineteenth century Sweden and how knitting was considered to be an appropriate activity for women from all social backgrounds, as professional livelihood, domestic chore or ladylike accomplishment, but interestingly, “Most of the printed manuals were aimed at middle- and upper-class women, and in these publications the knitting of stockings was framed as a fashionable, graceful and feminine activity, tied to bourgeoisie gender ideals.”

Examining the body of evidence for early knitting.

Knitting History Forum Conference November 2021 presentation by Jane Malcolm-Davies with KHF Chair Sandy Black

Jane Malcolm-Davies, Associate professor of textile analysis, Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark, presented her paper, Heads, hands and feet: Examining the body of evidence for early knitting. Malcolm-Davies has been working at developing a more scientific approach to historic textile studies. In her abstract, she writes, “Rigorous object-based research (at the macro and micro-level) promised by scientific enquiry and the insights offered by craft expertise now need to be integrated into the interpretive framework of traditional contextual studies of dress and textile history. “  Malcolm-Davies notes that our understanding of prehistoric and ancient dress has been increased by “innovative cross-cultural academic collaboration” and points out study of early modern garments could also reap the benefit of further interdisciplinary work : “Textile and dress history offers similarly fertile ground for new teams of collaborators to harvest new knowledge.”

Malcolm-Davies’ presentation was quite enlightening. Textile study can blaze a trail, Malcolm-Davies stated, integrating many facets of scientific investigation including technical, scientific, and craft. According to Malcolm-Davies, “We are all digital archaeologists.”

Holy Hands: Studies of knitted liturgical gloves

This paper, presented by Angharad Thomas and Lesley O’Connell Edwards, shared the findings of the Holy Hands project, which ran between March 2020 and August 2021, researching knitted liturgical gloves. The Knitting in Early Modern Europe (KEME) and Holy Hands research projects came together to catalogue nearly 100 examples of knitted liturgical gloves.

“The project to date has identified ninety-six knitted liturgical gloves in collections worldwide, which have been added to the online database at Angharad and Lesley provided links to photographs and added details according to the protocol for recording evidence for early knitting developed by Dr Jane Malcolm-Davies, Ruth Gilbert and Susanne Lervad. Dr Sylvie Odstrčilová contributed to the examination and recording of the knitted gloves, much of which was achieved remotely owing to the challenges of covid and travel restrictions.”

Thomas used the Protocol for Recording Early Knitwork mentioned above, a textile identification form originally published in Archaeological Textiles Review No. 60. The form outlines 9 categories including item identification, item material, and yarn structure and fabric structure to name a few. This form would be of great help to researchers new to textile identification and working at reproductions. This knitter is definitely interested in using the protocol for future reconstruction projects.

Hand Knitting in the Indian subcontinent

Pragya Sharma of the Indian Institute of Art and Design (IIAD), New Delhi, India, shared her paper on handknitting in India with the fascinating presentation, From jorab (socks) to dastana (gloves): Tracing provenance of hand knitting in the Indian subcontinent. Sharma provided a survey of the history of knitting in India, touching on the knitting contributions of various groups of people including the Moravian missionaries who brought their own knitting traditions to India. Sharma’s abstract states, “Hand knitting is a widely practised craft by women in contemporary India, irrespective of age, culture, or class and this has been the case since the eighteenth century. The earliest reference to knitting from the subcontinent is from the seventeenth century by Dutch colonisers.” The images Sharma shared of the mittens and gloves were quite striking. The pattern motifs, placement of colours (for instance the red-tipped glove fingers) and overall colour choices were quite different than patterns this knitter has come across; the frequent use of reds was quite eye-catching and beautiful.

Reconstructing Sixteenth Century Dutch Stockings

Knitting History Forum Conference November 2021 presentation by Constance Willems with an image of a stocking from 1540Constance Willems, a designer, researcher and writer from the Netherlands presented, Little 16th Century Feet. The hidden secret of Dutch Groningen´s knitted stocking of 1540, excavated in 2000 in the canal Gracht van Alva, Prinsenstraat 11 in Groningen and reconstructed in 2020 in the Netherlands. Willems spoke about the reconstructions of knitted stockings from the canal Gracht van Alva and handknitting in Groningen. In her abstract, Willems wrote about her reconstruction experience this way, “… as I am reconstructing and have reached the point where I have to decrease the rows of the heel, something very special happens…. and what I thought the heel was, suddenly under my knitting hands, becomes a beautifully shaped part of the sole.”

This point I found very exciting and an encouraging note to any stitcher attempting a recreation. There is so much value in trying to make the old new again as new information can be revealed during the process. An old wool stocking is not just an old wool stocking – it’s a valuable piece of material culture deserving of attention. Things are not always what they seem or what we expect. The process of reconstruction reveals more information than a visual inspection can ever provide.

Knitwits: Knitting the Bluestockings

In her paper titled Knitwits: Knitting the Bluestockings. Knitting and the 18th century salon, Nicole Pohl, Oxford Brookes University, UK, explored the material culture of the famous eighteenth-century salon of the Bluestockings with a specific focus on the material production and iconography of the ‘blue stockings’. The basis for the paper are the original letters written by the Bluestockings as digitised and edited by The Elizabeth Montagu Correspondence Online (EMCO). Pohl’s abstract explains, “The Bluestockings were a group of men and women who met in the London, Dublin and Bath homes of fashionable hostesses Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Vesey (c.1715-91) and Frances Boscawen (1719-1805) from the 1750s.” Pohl shared that eventually the label ‘Bluestockings’ came to designate, often in a negative sense, a group of learned and intellectual women.

Kate Davies, a Scottish knit designer, established a modern Bluestockings Club in May 2021. The Bluestockings Club celebrates and explores the lives and work of the important group of intellectual women known as the “bluestockings” by examining the history of sock knitting and knitting their own bluestockings.

Classic Knits of the 1980s

Sandy Black, London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London, UK, shared her book, Classic Knits of the 1980s – a book of colourful knitwear designs. In Part 1 of the book, Black shared her own approach to designing and gathering inspiration, her design process, plus colourwork tips and techniques. Part 2 focused on her 24 knitting designs for sweaters, cardigans, jackets and longer-length tunics, and accessories. Conference delegates enjoyed looking through the images of various patterns and designs. Black’s beautiful colour, geometric and textural designs were praised and commented on, no doubt inspiring many to start a new project or two.

Heads, Hands and Feet – a wealth of information and inspiration

The Knitting History Forum Conference 2021 was packed full of information, the knowledgeable presenters representing an extensive, diverse network of historical knitting professionals. If you have a question about knitting history, you are not alone – this is the community that can help. As a knitter just getting into studying historic patterns and reproducing vintage knitted items (with no formal textile history training), this conference offered a wealth of useful information featuring many absorbing presentations. There was such a lot of information to take in; I look forward to seeing the recorded video presentations just so I can enjoy them all once more. Thank you to all the people who worked to make the conference a reality and to all the speakers who shared their extensive knowledge. Attending this knitting history conference was an invaluable, inspirational experience!

Sharlene Young-Bolen

If you would like to learn more, click the following link to read abstracts of the conference papers mentioned by Sharlene in her report. You can also keep up with the latest news from Knitting History Forum online: