A little bit about Knitting in the Middle Ages

Sister Mairi Jean

Everything in this article has been picked up from the mailing list HistoricKnit@onelist. At the end I have some recommended reading, but I must stress that the list is not a reference for this article. Where applicable I have acknowledged the writer of the message on the mailing list and I have included their email addresses at the the end.

There is some argument about how old the practice of knitting is. There is a technique called nalbinding that produces a result almost identical to knitting, in most cases, unless a particular error was made that can only be made in knitting. The experts mostly seem to agree that knitting did not exist before the twelfth century and anything before that must have been nalbinding. If one knows what to look for one can tell the difference between nalbinding and knitting by looking at the cast on edge, but that often does not survive (Richard Eney). There are something like 30 different kinds of nalbinding and some of them do not look a lot like modern knitting. Egyptian nalbinding, however, does and unless knitting needles are found in the wool itself, archaeological finds are assumed to be Egyptian nalbinding (Richard Eney).

Nalbinding was used to make socks as early as the 4th century and mittens as early as the 12th century (Johanna Gamble, Richard Eney). The typical knit-purl form of ribbing was found on a piece of nalbinding from a dig dated as 3rd century, and then disappeared to only be seen again in 16th century knitting! Richard Eney informs us that the position of Hosier existed from 1328. They probably made some leggings out of cut cloth, but documentation places knitted gaiters 1320, gaiters being tubes without feet, worn on the legs or over shirtsleeves. He also mentions knitted oversleeves being worn in Spain, but is unsure of the source of that information.

There is limited evidence for larger articles of knitted clothing. There is a painting of a knitting madonna (unfortunately I have not been able to date it, but all four paintings of knitting madonnas that I have seen references to are apparently 14th century) knitting what looks exactly like a T-shirt. Anahita: “From what I’ve seen in my limited reading, it looks like people (or important people) wore these knit shirts under their cotehardies or houpelandes. It is the original knit T-shirt.” Margo Lynn: “… the 14th Century counts as the late middle ages. The famous Knitting Madonnas date from the mid-1300’s, and show women sufficiently skilled in knitting that it probably had been around for some time before that.”

Richard Eney: “One of the Knitting Madonnas shows her holding a piece with an ornate pattern being knitting into it, which is too big for a purse and too small for a child’s shirt, but is just about right for a dress sleeve. She is wearing a dress with a similar pattern. However, that doesn’t prove an outerdress was knitted. On the other hand, the popular medieval myth that the Robe was knitted, which led to a knitted tunic being displayed as the original Robe in a cathedral, may have led to more knitted tunics being made for outerwear. There certainly were plenty of knitted hats and stockings, and Queen Elizabeth had several pieces of dresses that were described as knitted in the inventories. Janet Arnold, _Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d_ also has a photograph of a knitted doublet and, I think, another knitted tunic (neither owned by QEI, none of whose knitted clothing seems to have survived).”

The “crimson silk stockings of Eleanora of Toledo” (1562) are apparently knitted with a pattern on them as well as an openwork or lacy bit around the top, although there is much argument on the Historic Kint list as to whether patterns are period or not and how they were done. Any patterns or openwork was done knitting in the round using knit stitches only (the popular view). Purl was used only in the very laste 16th century and then only very sparingly as a bit of variation, not as part of the basic stitch (Margo Lynn).

I have a couple of knitting patterns that I can lend to anyone interestred. I acquired them some time ago, but have unfortunately never used them. For more information, read particularly Richard Rutt’s book (see below) or subscribe to the Historic Knit list.

Recommended Reading

Janet Arnold “Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d”
Nancy Bush “Folk Socks” (not highly recommended)
Priscilla A. Gibson-Roberts “Ethnic Socks and Stockings”
Milton N. Grass “History of Hosiery”
Anna-Maja Nylen “Swedish Handcraft”
Richard Rutt “A History of Hand Knitting” (very highly recommended, can’t live without it, in fact)
Larry Schmitt “Lessons in Naalbinding”
Irena Turnau “Diffusion of Knitting in Medieval Europe” (highly recommended)


Richard Eney (Tamar) (knows everything)
Johonna Gamble
Anahita al-shazhiyya (also knows everything)
Margo Lynn (Morgan)

Wonderful pictures of madonnas being busy at http://www.kwantlen.bc.ca/~donna/abegg.html