A person posting on one of the historical knitting lists asked a question yesterday about this 18th century Spanish knitted cap. I’ve poked around the Victoria and Albert Museum’s on line photo collection, but I hadn’t taken the time to zoom in and look closely at this particular item.
At first glance the cap appears to be covered with knit-purl texture patterning, but if you zoom in (and especially if you have the ability to get an even closer look at the image) you’ll see that the texture isn’t formed by knits and purls. Instead, the design is made up of some sort of stranding that floats over a stockinette background. The question was about how this might have been done. Unfortunately, we can’t see the back of the work. So I got to thinking…
The most obvious way would be for someone to work up a plain stockinette cap, then hand-stitch the floats over counted stitches, to produce a diapered or pattern darned effect. This would certainly work, but lacks elegance. If I were making a hat like this, I’d much rather do the decoration at the same time as the base knitting, rather than going back later.
This leaves two methods – some sort of in-row wrapping, or slipping stitches with the yarn in front of the work.
Let’s look at slipping first. If you knit a row, then holding yarn in front, slip several stitches, and then resume knitting, you make a fabric that has a base row of normal height, then a distended area where stitches were slipped. If you continue to do this on subsequent rows without rows of intervening plain knit, you pull those stretched stitches up even further, creating a vertical column with a grossly distorted base structure. It doesn’t look like the knitter of this cap made the floats by slipping with yarn in front because if you zoom in and examine the long vertical bars of the ornamentation, a float seems to happens on every row, and there is no evidence of vertical distortion.
This leaves the wrap method. Wrapping stitches for ornamental effect isn’t widely practiced any more although it still survives almost as a curiosity in some cotton knitting. You can see an example of wrapped stitches in the cover pattern on the Lewis Knitting Counterpanes book published by Taunton Press. In this case the wrapping is pulled very tightly to magnify the gathered effect of the pattern. The wraps are peeking out beneath the bellies of the scallops:
I’ve also seen texture designs in European pattern collections that use wrapped stitches. There are a couple of the tight-wraps-as-gathers type at the end of Omas Strickgeheimnisse, a German-language knitting texture pattern dictionary. I thought there was at least one in the Bauerliches Stricken series (another 3-volume German stitch dictionary), but thumbing through, I can’t find it now. Some of the on-line Russian language stitch collections also show wrapped stitches I found these by searching for which may mean pattern or stitch in Russian. It also seems to transliterate to the letters “uzori or uzor” in Western alphabets, which are also good starting points for searches. (No I don’t speak or read Russian, I’ve stumbled across this bit of trivia while web-walking.) I don’t have time this morning to fish up the citations for these dimly remembered Russian texture patterns. I’ll have to leave that for tomorrow.
However, none of the contemporary sources for these wrapped stitches employ them in the way I envision that the Red Cap Knitter did.
I don’t think it would be difficult to do this, just a bit fiddly. I like fiddly. Remember that this is a thought experiment. I haven’t tried the method out yet. Perhaps over the weekend I’ll have time to do so. Here goes.
Let’s say you want to lay a ladder across four stitches. You knit the four as usual. Then you take your yarn and move it to the back of the work. You transfer four stitches from your right hand needle back to the left hand needle, then you move the yarn strand to the front of the work, laying it in the “ditch” between the first stitch to be wrapped and the ones that came before it. Then you slip those four stitches back to the right hand needle. You draw the yarn strand across the front of the work over the four, then return it to the back. You have now “lassoed” your four stitches. Give the thing a slight tug to maintain tension, and knit the next stitch as usual.
Now all you need is a suitable graph, and you’re set. (Credit: This particular graph has been researched by SCA pal Carol.)
It also could have been done with two-end knitting, bringing one strand in front, while knitting with the other. In a fine silk thread this would not be bulky, and could actually make for a more servicable weight cap. This would knit up faster than retracing your steps with the "lasso" method.