Three days ago I began my gloves in earnest. After making two small squares in dark grey wool to check the tension, I cast on seventy-eight stitches. Looking closely at the pattern, I see I’ll need to use both yarns to make each stitch. I’ve never cast on like this before, and read and reread the instructions. ‘Form a loop with the background yarn by looping yarn over index finger.’ I awkwardly crook my finger and wrap the wool around it, then drop it as I work out what to do next. ‘Purl into the yarn at the rear of the finger using the second yarn to form the stitch’ – I can purl with aplomb, but purling with two strands of wool is tricky.
After false starts I have a very wobbly-looking stitch, so loose it barely holds together. I need to tighten the yarn, ‘first with the left hand, and then with the right’ and like magic the stitch transforms into a neat black loop, held in place with a white twist. I start another; this one falls in place beside its brother, two black sheep with white feet. Twenty stitches later I stop to admire my handiwork: ‘this method of casting on forms a Porcelaine lower line, topped by a Black row of knit stitches’. I can confirm it does.
I carry on, knitting my way up to the required seventy-eight. It’s easier to work with the needle tucked under my right arm, working onto its point. I remind myself that this is how those terrible knitters of Dent worked, and wish for one of their wooden needle guards to tuck in at my waist. Casting on alone has taken me nearly an hour; there are ninety more rows to knit to make it from the wrist to the top of the palm, twenty-five for the little finger, thirty-three for the ring and index finger, and an extra thirty-seven for the long middle digit. The thumb needs fifty-six short rows, and everything needs to be doubled for the other hand. In total that’s five hundred and forty-eight rows. At an hour a row, I’ll be knitting twenty-four hours and day for forty-eight days. To finish both gloves in the twenty-eight days remaining to me in January, I need to knit about twenty rows a day. I’ll have to speed up!
As I begin the second row, I have to alternative knitting with the black wool and purling with the dark to rib the wristband (pictured below). The pattern reminds me that knit and purl are the building blocks of knitting. These one-syllable words, ordinary as food and light and cup and spoon, have meanings difficult to describe. Both are stitches, secure loops of wool made in the simplest way. Noun and verb, knit stitch is ‘the plainest stitch in knitting’ (OED), its roots in the Old English cnyttan – to knot. Joining by knotting, the word is first recorded in Benedictine Abbot Aelfric’s tenth-century Grammar: ‘Ic nytte’ (I knit). By 1530 language scholar John Palgrave writes ‘I knyt bonnettes or hosen’. It’s not only bonnets that can be knit; when bones bind together they become knit. As early as 1578, surgeon John Bannister writes ‘the upper head of the thighe, where it is knit with the Bone of the hippe’ in his Historie of Man. Brows knit too, and have done so since Chaucer wrote his Knight’s Tale in the early fifteenth century: ‘This Palamon gan knytte his browes tweye.’ Aside from the physical, knitting has long been used figuratively: ‘God […] first body and saul togyder knyt’ wrote author and hermit Richard Rolle in in 1340.
If knit is the plainest stitch, ‘purl’ is more complicated, both in its formation and etymology. Pirl, purl, pearl – all three spellings seem to refer to something involving a twisting, winding or spinning motion. A purl is a ‘thread or cord made of twisted loops’; a purl stitch the inverse of a knit stitch. The earliest record of purling when knitting is from 1655; the use of purl as a verb to mean the making of loops dates from 1394.
Even knitting isn’t the oldest codified way of looping wool to make fabric. For that, we need to go further back, to something known as ‘nalbinding’ or ‘nålebinding’. This technique of creating a mesh of interlocking loops uses a singl- eyed needle made of bone, and is also called ‘knotless netting’. One of the oldest pieces of clothing found in England, York’s Coppergate Sock, was made in this way. It is the only piece of nalbinding ever to be discovered here, unearthed in the yard of a tenth-century building, worn and patched. York being a Viking settlement, it seems likely that this sock was made somewhere in Scandinavia, where nalbinding was widespread, and brought to York on the foot of a Viking.
I wonder if my gloves will last a millennium?
If you want to knit along, I’d love the company! Join the adventures on Twitter @thisgoldfleece or Instagram @thisgoldenfleece; you can find Sue Leighton-White’s pattern on Ravelry via my ThisGoldenFleece.
January project: to knit a pair of Mary Allen’s Gloves in Shetland Heritage wool
Wool: Jamieson & Smith Shetland Heritage Naturals wool, worsted spin 4-ply in white, black, light grey and dark grey.
Needles: double-pointed 2mm needles
Casting on: 4th January 2017