Conventions in recording knitted items rely on a variety of measurement systems. Knitters in the early modern era relied on rules of thumb, which are literally derived from body measurements. An inch is the length of an average adult man’s thumb from fingertip to first knuckle. This is a convenient measure when knitting on the move or in fits and starts as other activities allow. “Stitches per inch” and “rows per inch” are very easy to count using this “handy” ruler. Measuring with this rule of thumb provides an insight into the early modern knitter’s method of working.
Gauge was expressed in imperial units. However, most of Europe now uses the metric system of measurement. An inch approximates to 2.5cm, which is not a convenient measure. It is more usual to express gauge as loops (stitches) per 10cm. There is an easy conversion between the two systems: loops per inch multiplied by four provides loops per 10cm and vice versa. Loops per 10cm divided by four gives loops per inch. The KEME database employs both measurement methods. But hand knitting is not uniform and gauge can only ever be an approximation, especially since it is always expressed in whole numbers because it is unhelpful to count a fraction of a loop or “half a stitch”. There are some measurements in the database which are only given in inches. A handy conversion chart is available here.
This research project began with the early modern knitter’s mindset – thinking in inches not millimetres. However, with European funding, it was necessary to start recording in metric units. Both are still in the database and, at a later phase of editing, this will be streamlined. More importantly, hand knitting is an idiosyncratic activity. The individual knitter adds his or her personal variables to the outcome – how tightly is the yarn held, how often is the work picked up and put down throughout the day, the week or the month, and how much pressure is s/he under to deliver the finished product. The knitted fabric responds to these changes in mood, environment and economic circumstance. Therefore, the measurements throughout this database are approximate because they are based on averages produced by unknown hands in unknown situations. Further research may help us learn more about these unknowns and add greater certainty to the data.
Many of the museums participating in the KEME project permitted samples to be taken from the knitted caps for further scientific analysis of the materials from which they are made. Please visit this database again for news of the results of these tests in the future …