A Brief Introduction to

Medieval Muslim Knitting

The oldest surviving pieces of true knitting have been found in Egypt. Because many were not found by trained archaeologists, the exact dates and provenance of many pieces are unknown. However, most of the pieces can be roughly dated to between 1000 and 1400 CE. Most are definitely older than the European paintings called "knitting Madonnas" which begin to appear in the 14th century and are the first documents of knitting in Europe. Therefore some scholars believe that knitting originated in Egypt.

Early in the 20th century, archaeologists and other scholars identified some older textiles from the Roman period in Egypt as knit. (Apparently some sources refer to this as "the Christian period", but as far as I can tell, they just mean CE (current era) as opposed to BCE. There is as yet no evidence to indicate that only Christians made these items.) Most of these pieces from Roman Egypt are ankle-high toe-socks, shaped rather like Japanese tabi and worked from toes to ankle. Dated to the fourth or fifth century CE, they were made of wool, generally a solid color for adults, such as red or purple, and multi-colored stripes for children, one example being red with three yellow stripes, another uneven stripes of blue, red, green, yellow, and violet. At least five museums have some sandal socks in their collections, including the Victorian and Albert Museum in London and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

However, by late 1960's or early 1970's, textile experts re-analyzed them. In 1972 Dorothy Burnham published her analysis in the journal Textile History 3, in an article entitled "Coptic knitting: an ancient technique" (pp. 116-124). She had discovered that they were actually produced by a process variously called "single needle knitting", needle netting, knotless netting, or, most commonly today, nalbinding.

Additional interestingly textured old fragments come from Dura-Europas, a city in eastern Syria, founded around 300 BCE and destroyed by the Sassanian Persians in 256 CE. They, too, was originally thought to be knit. There are directions for making a similar looking textile in Barbara G. Walker's book, A Second Treasury of Knitting Patterns. But if you're interested in authentic recreation, these directions will not produce an accurate fabric, although they produce an interesting knitted texture. That is because this fabric, too, is now identified as created by nalbinding.

Also spelled naalbinding or nŽlbinding, and pronounced, more-or-less, "nol-bin-ding", it is a technique of creating a textile in rounds or rows by looping shortish strands of yarn or thread carried by a needle. When the strand gets too short, a new strand has to be added in. This technique was also common in Early Scandinavian cultures where it was still used for making mittens and socks even in the 19th century. Unfortunately, some scholars appear not to have seen Burnham's cogent study, and you will still find books and articles that say that there are pieces of Egyptian knitting older than the 11th century CE.

It is possible that knitting developed from the earlier technique of nalbinding. How and whether it really did remain a mystery. We can tell that the fabrics created by true knitting in Egypt were primarily knitted in the round, although a few fragments have been identified as having been knitted flat.

Unfortunately no knitting tools have been identified among Egyptian antiquities, so we don't know exactly what tools the Medieval knitters used. Knitting tools from the last 400 years or so have been made of a wide variety of material. Among them are metal (especially brass), bone, ivory, and wood, all available between 1000 and 1400 in Egypt. Knitters from Egypt, Turkey and Eastern Europe for at least the last couple hundred years have used a tool that has one end shaped like a familiar knitting needle and the other shaped into a fine hook (like a crochet hook). It is possible that the Medieval Egyptians used a similar tool, but again, we don't know for certain. Whatever their tools looked like, they were fine and strong, as the knitting gauges of surving pieces is quite fine, varying from 12 to 20 stitches per inch and rather tightly knit.

The knitters from Egypt used both fine soft 2-ply cotton and very fine 2-ply wool, finer than fingering weight. Cotton is knit at 10 to 14 stitches per inch. Some later pieces of Muslim knitting from Andalusian Spain are knit in very fine silk at a gauge of 20 stitches per inch.

Cotton socks and other cotton fragments are generally two or three colors: off-white and shades of indigo blue, generally dark navy and the medium-light blue of well-washed jeans.

Wool yarns exhibit a wide range of colors. Among them are several shades of indigo blue, as well a warm madder red, medium ochre yellow and creamy yellow (possibly dyed with weld), and a green which has faded to a light-medium olive. Occasionally there are areas of purple, probably achieved by over-dyeing light-medium indigo with madder or kermes. A piece knit with colored wools will have cotton in areas of white.

Two pieces of multi-colored wool dating to the 14th or 15th century are discussed in Rutt's book (see Resources below). According to Rutt, one, which is not illustrated in his book, is red, salmon pink, dark blue, turquoise, yellow, and brown wool and white/natural cotton. The other, illustrated in black-and-white, is described as predominately red with patterns in beige, dark blue, light blue, and green wool and white/natural cotton.

Silks from later Muslim Spain are in a number of colors, often 4 colors in one piece, but no more than 2 colors per row. Some of the pieces have faded more than the older wools and exact colors are difficult to determine, although reds, yellows, greens, and blues seem to be common.

Because of the difficulty in dating these items, it is not possible to say which techniques date to what time periods or to arrange them in some developmental order. All pieces found in the Medieval Muslim world are knit-face textiles. There is no use of purl stitches on the outer surface, so no ribbing, no garter stitch bands to prevent curling, no knit-purl textures or patterns, etc.

Yet, even the oldest surviving knitted fragments exhibit a fair amount of sophistication. Obviously they represent the result of a significant period of development. Most fragments have 2-color stranded knit patterns, often with a third color in bands. Some pieces, particularly those of wool, incorporate patterns in six colors or more. And a few of these pieces utilize more than 3 colors per row.

All the examples of socks that I have seen were worked from the toe up, knit of cotton at a gauge of around 12 stitches/10 rows per inch. While some authors say that some socks were knit from the top down, I haven't seen any of these. The socks have heels shaped a couple of different ways, either by short rows or by a "folk" type of inset heel, still in use today in some parts of the world. Even the toes were created in various ways, some complex star patterns with regular increases, others plain knitting with random increases so there are no obvious rows of increases.

Medieval Muslim knitting uses a multitude of patterns. Many are abstract and decorative, ranging from a variety of zigzags, triangles, and diamonds, through more complex scroll patterns, to very Greco-Roman looking palmate forms. Other patterns are clearly plants and flowers.

And finally there are bands of repeated Kufic script, a very rectilinear form of Arabic writing, most saying real words, such as "allah" ("god") or "baraka" ("blessings"). There are also bands of pseudo-Kufic script, shapes that look like but aren't really words. Kufic script is used in both Egyptian and later Andalusian pieces and worked in cotton, wool, and silk.

Richard Rutt's book, A History of Hand Knitting, covers the history of knitting from its obscure origins through the 20th century. It has a wealth of charted Medieval Egyptian patterns from a number of historical pieces, and frustrating black-and-white photographs of colored wool fragments. If you are interested in knitting in other times and places, this book contains a wealth of information, charts, and pictures. Although out of print, it can be found second-hand for around $50 US.

Another source of information is Tissues d'Egypte - temoins du monde Arabe, VIII-XV siecles, which catalogues the Collection Bouvier. Entirely in French, it includes full color photographs of around 15 different pieces of knitting.

Unfortunately, about 15 mintutes before I loaded my friend's van to go to SCA West Kingdom Beltane 2000, all my knitting, weaving, garb, and more were stolen. I'm sure my stuff ended up in a dumpster with the thief cursing me for not having normal sellable stuff.

But you can still look at the scans of my Medieval Egyptian knitting projects:

  • blue-and-white "allah" stockings
  • blue-and-white-and-brown "baraka" anklets
  • multicolored cotton pouch and indigo-and-white wool mittens
  • multi-colored wool scoggers (separate sleeves/arm warmers) multi-blue-and-white wool hat

More links back in the front

Questions? Comments?
, know called Urtatim (err-tah-TEEM)


Text copyright 2000, by Anahita al-Qurtubiyya bint 'abd al-Karim al-hakim al-Fassi, also known as Lilinah biti-Anat
Updated 20 Jan 2006