Summary: Medieval Middle Eastern Knitting

Summary of Paper on Medieval Middle Eastern Knitting
Early Textile Study Group, Manchester 2004

Knitting as both a practical and creative craft has survived in certain areas of the Middle East and North Africa until the present. Village women in Turkey and Iran knit woollen gloves, socks and slippers in rich colours and complex geometrical designs without consulting any pattern charts. Men’s red and black pillbox caps – the chechias of Tunisia – are created from knitted bags of white wool which are shrunk, dyed and beaten into shape. Smart garments both hand- and machine-knitted are created for Turkey’s highly profitable fashion industry. Such a securely based craft is surely the heir to a well-established tradition especially in an area famed for the beauty and quality of its textiles. Pieces of knitting, however, like all textiles are perishable and few surviving examples have until now been located which would illuminate the history of the craft. It is now accepted that knitting originated in the Middle East most probably in Egypt where a group of precious fragments attributed to the 5th-6th, and 10th-14th centuries have been recovered mainly from burial sites. There are also more firmly dated pieces from Spain recovered from royal tombs in the monastery of Las Huelgas, near Burgos which was founded in 1187 by King Alfonso VIII (1156-1214) of Leon and Castile and his wife Eleanor of England (1161-1216) daughter of Henry II Plantaganet and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

I aim to review the main pieces and group them in a chronological sequence. I shall also examine the techniques involved which in some cases have been incorrectly identified and discuss the designs in comparison with medieval Egyptian woven and embroidered textiles which may provide clues to identification and date. I shall refer to modern examples which illustrate the survival of techniques and designs.

My lecture will be illustrated with 35 mm colour slides and examples of contemporary knitting

Select Bibliography

General Reading
Rutt, Richard, A history of hand knitting. Batsford London 1987.
Thomas, Mary, Knitting Book. London 1938.

Middle Eastern Textiles – Context
Bellinger, L. and Kuhnel, E., Catalogue of dated tiraz fabrics. Textile Museum, Washington D.C. 1952.
Britton, N. P., A study of some early Islamic textiles in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston 1938.
Ellis, Marianne, Embroideries and samplers from Islamic Egypt . Ashmolean Museum, Oxford 2001.
Kendrick, A. F., Catalogue of Muhammadan Textiles of the medieval period. Victoria and Albert Museum, Department of Textiles, London 1924.
Lamm, C.J., Cotton in medieval textiles of the Near East. Paris 1957.
Mayer, L. A., Mamluk Costume. Geneva 1952.

Middle Eastern Knitting
Burnham, Dorothy K., Coptic knitting, an ancient technique. Textile History, vol. 3, 1972, pp 116-124.
Bellinger, L., Patterned stockings possibly Indian found in Egypt. Textile Museum workshop notes 10, 1954.
Levey, S.M., Illustrations of the history of knitting selected from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Textile History, vol. 1, part 2, 1969, pp 183-205.
Lamm, C. J., Knitted work and tablet weaving of the Aiyubid and Mamluk periods, pp 157-159 and plate XIX, in Cotton in medieval textiles of the Near East Paris 1957.
Tissus d’Egypte, temoins du monde arabe VIIIe-Xve siecles. Collection Bouvier. Musee d’art and de l’histoire, Geneva and Institut du monde arabe, Paris 1993, Chapter X, Tricots, pp 260-273.
Woolley, Linda, The Bouvier Collection – medieval Arab-Islamic textiles. Hali, The international magazine of antique carpet and textile art, issue 76, August/September 1994, pp 94-103.

Jennifer Scarce