By Braham Norwick
The Bulletin of the Needle and Bobbin Club, Vol. 63:1 and 2 (1980)
Introduction: For at least two hundred years, serious scholars in the textile field have insisted upon the relative novelty of knitting in Western Europe. Back in the 18th century, a supposed anachronism in the poem Tragedy of Ella was immediately denounced when Thomas Chatterton published it. He had claimed to have copied it from a manuscript of the mid 15th century, originally written by the monk Thomas Rowley. The lines at issue were:
She sayde as her whyte hondes whyte hosen was knyttinge, Whatte pleasure ytt ys to be married!
Subsequent research has found a slightly earlier reference, dating between 1452 and 1456, to “one knytt gyrdll.” This is in a recorded will kept at the church of St Peter and St Wilfred in Ripon. So the “whyte hosen” and “knyttnge” were not anachronisms and the scholars of the late 18th century were wrong.
But that does not push knitting origins back much further than previously admitted. There are other indications of early knitting which, for a similar length of time, have also been scorned by textile scholars. These involve literary translations from the ancients, like Pliny and Ovid.
Pliny’s monumental work was translated and published by Louis Poinsinet de Sivry between 1771 aand 1781. In book VIII are expressions like “scutulato textu” and “scutulis dividere,” which the French writer translates as knit fabrics, ’tissus a mailes’ and even goes further, writing “les etoffes à maillessont une invention des gaules,” that knitted fabrics had been invented by the early French.