Knitting History Forum TRC Leiden Conference 2019 – stocking just started, Texel seventeenth century silk stockings project, exhibition at the TRC, visited on Sunday 3rd November – image 2019 by Christine Carnie

2019 Knitting History Conference Report

Knitting History Symposium
Conference organised by the TRC Leiden and the Knitting History Forum
Leiden, November 2, 2019

Or

A Knitting Weekend in Leiden

Almost a year ago I spent a fantastic weekend all about knitting in Leiden, taking part in the Knitting History Symposium on the 17th century “Texel Silk Stocking” on Saturday and visiting the TRC Leiden where the KHF AGM was held on Sunday, as well as some of the sights of Leiden. I was so busy taking notes I did not take any pictures at the conference itself but I did in the exhibition on Sunday, which showcased most of the samples and reproduction stockings of the project.

The keynote lecture of the symposium was about the reconstruction of the 17th century Texel stocking finds by a citizen science community, under Chrystel Brandenburgh.

The stockings came from wreck number BZN17, and we now know it was an armed Dutch merchant ship that sank about 1645-1660.

The two goals for the project were to involve people who are not normally part of archaeological research but have the expertise needed for a reproduction, in this case experienced knitters, and to be able to repeat the experiment. More than a hundred people volunteered!

The original stocking was made from reeled, not spun, silk, and knitted in the round. It was examined with a Dino-Lite microscope. All information was gained from that examination, the stocking was not turned or otherwise disturbed.

The citizen science project involved knitting test swatches with different types of silk (some already de-gummed, some still containing the sericin, and different size needles, 0.7mm and 1mm, to find the right material and gauge for the reconstruction. The original measured 83 stitches and 100 rows for a 10cm square! The test pieces measured 5x5cm and took on average 5 hours to complete, and required 15m of silk, which means a stocking would need 1080m.

After the test swatch stage, about 40 people continued with the experiment by knitting a complete stockings, and as of the date of the conference 27 stockings were finished. Knitting with the silk that still contained the sericin proved easiest and quickest, and blocking the stocking after removing the gum also brought the most uniform result.

Using a wooden former to shape the stockings after washing (and de-gumming) was based on the existence of an extant example of the period in Denmark, and English records mentioning wooden stocking formers. Uneven knitting and a certain amount of difference in gauge did not matter after removing the sericin and blocking the stocking.

It is impossible to tell how long it would take to knit a stocking in period. Those knitters that knitted more than one stocking reported that the time it took to knit the second one was almost half of the first, showing how much familiarity with the material and the way to knit speeded up the process.

The papers in the Knitting History conference itself were all connected to the Texel Stocking project. The first section was about stocking production in Europe, showcasing current research in knitting history:

  • Lesley O’Connell Edwards’ “A hidden workforce: hand knitters in 17th century England” focused on evidence of who was knitting and what was being produced, and the research is centred on Norfolk and Suffolk. There is less information available on this topic for the 17th century than for the 16th century, and council and probate records are so far the best sources. Items produced by knitting included caps, gloves, petticoats (short jackets), stockings or hose, and waistcoats. There was no guild for knitters, but knitting was something taught, not necessarily learned in the family. Interestingly, although men were listed as teachers, very few men were listed as being taught. Silk hand knitters are mentioned in 1619 but there is not much more information about this aspect of knitting.
  • Sylvie Odstrcilova’s paper “Early modern stockings from the Czech Republic and neighbouring countries: The story continues” offered a fascinating glimpse into the variety of extant stockings in this area, and built on her research published in NESAT and ATR. Her findings of the similarity of the stockings of Imrich Thurzo in Orava Castle to the Texel stocking opened questions regarding manufacture and import of silk stockings throughout Europe.
  • Hanna Backstrom’s paper “The earliest printed knitting patterns” compared what the printed patterns looked like and who they were made for, to a hand written 17th century notebook, possibly from a knitter’s workshop. This was one of the highlights of the conference for me. It raised lots of interesting questions as to how they used the charts, diagrams and sketches contained in this book, especially in contrast to the printed books which seem to have been designed for a different audience.

The first afternoon section was dedicated to projects inspired by the Texel Stocking project:

  • Art Ness Proano Gaibor’s “Dye experiments on the Texel Stocking” was an interesting paper on how period dye recipes can have an impact on our modern lives, and how diverse the period recipes for dyeing black were – some doing more harm to the fabric than others.
  • Geeske Kruseman’s findings of her report “wearing 17th century knitted silk stockings” really surprised me. Two people wore two pairs of the stockings produced by the citizen science project with period reproduction shoes in everyday life and recorded their subjective and objective observations. Although the experiment was cut short, they still got some data. The stockings showed no signs of wear after an accumulated 139 hours of wear, kept their shape after washing, and were comfortable to wear in hot and cold weather. Afterwards everyone with the right foot size (European 38) got a chance to try the stockings , and I personally loved the experience! The stocking is very light and smooth to wear, you sort of forget you have it on, and the lack of stretch that we have come to expect from wool stockings wasn’t missed due to the garter holding the stocking up, and the fact that the stocking fitted me perfectly. It would be interesting to repeat this experiment with a wider range of participants.
  • Sally Pointer reported on her experience of making a replica for the re-enactment market based on the Texel stocking and using a 19th century knitting machine. She started with a wool version to test the design and then made a version with spun silk. She had to alter the key features to work with the much lower stitch count possible with the knitting machine, reducing the patterns produced by the purl stitches by about one third, and producing a stocking with a similar pattern but clearly different to the original. key question: “Though we can do it, should we?” The stocking she produced is much quicker to produce than the hand knitted ones, but still took a considerable time to make and it leaves the question how it would compare being worn to a non-patterned, machine-knit silk stocking and the replica hand knitted ones.

The last section consisted of papers based on Citizen Science Projects:

  • In “How not to knit: Sourcing silk, research and reconstructions reviewed” Susan North shared with us her insights into the problems encountered and mistakes made when making reconstruction silk stockings for the Original Practice at the Globe Theatre, and how difficult it was to find any information on tools, materials, and methods.
  • Jane Malcolm-Davies’ paper “Modern Slavery and the early modern work ethic: Lessons learned from volunteer participation in knitting in early modern Europe” gave insights into the experiences made by her and the volunteers in the Knitting in Early Modern Europe (KEME) project. She discussed how using volunteers in knitting (a notoriously underpaid work activity) raises the question to what extent Citizen Science is exploitative, and how much can be learned from the knitwork produced, and the process of knitting it. The focus has to be on what the benefits for the volunteers are as well as the researcher/scientist, and it is interesting that the KEME volunteers listed a similar range of benefits as the Texel stocking project participants.

The following panel discussion followed along similar lines, and I loved the new-to-me emphasis on the social aspect of taking part in a Citizen Science project, and the emphasis on being mindful of the nature of these experiments versus lab experiments, and that there have to be mutual benefits for the researcher and scientist as well as the volunteer.

My stay extended to Sunday for the Knitting History Forum AGM, and so I had a chance to visit the exhibition about the stockings in the Textile Research Centre, showcasing all the finished stockings, the former, all the samples and the ingenious holders some of the knitters had come up with to keep the cone of silk from unravelling while being able to knit off it easily. Also part of the exhibition was a treasure trove of patterned socks and stockings, and sample boards of different heel and toe varieties, as well as other knitting samples. I came away with so much inspiration!

We also were given a short tour of the facilities, making me want to come back to study some of the beautiful knitted and crocheted items in the collection. In the afternoon we visited the weaver’s house and the Laakenhal museum, all places I am looking forward to visiting again!

Christine Carnie