allow me to digress a bit... one of the great things about Richard Rutt's A History of Handknitting (if you're interested in the history of knitting) is the great number of fairly good quality illustrations. there are lots of photographs of extant knitting as well as charting out of various knitting patterns.....i love this. one could use the book to reproduce some of theses historic knitting patterns with what appears to be good accuracy.
on the minus side, Rutt's book is very stream of conscious. he wanders randomly from the Egyptian bits to a discussion of how chain mail is not kniting. why? there is no way to tell. the book would have benefitted greatly from a different organizational method. a chapter of all the "some people think this might be knitted, but it's really not" would have cleaned up the rest of the book to be more tightly focused on knitting. little random bits tossed here and there in the text are off putting, and occassionally confusing.
the Las Huelgas pillows.
the next topic is two pillows recovered from a tomb in Spain. The contents of the tomb, a bural for royalty of the 13th century, were recovered and conserved in 1944-45. two truly important bits of knitting history came in the recovery. they were sealed in the tombs, so they can actually be dated and are the first extant items of European knitting, time-wise.
the first, is from the tomb of Fernando de la Cerda, hear of Alfonso X of Castile. Prince Fernando died in 1275. An important note about this pillow, and the other, is the skill involved in making them. this first has approximately 20 stitches to the inch. it's important to consider what exactly this means. when knitting socks it is typical to get between 8 and 12 stitches per inch. the smallest gauge recommendation i found when searching was 60 stitches over 4 inches--that's 15 stitches to the inch. this is not the product of some "new knitter" by any stretch of the imagination. this is an incredibly detailed, involved piece knitted on tiny tiny needles, with 'yarn' smaller than sewing thread. it seems unlikely that this was even a second or third generation knitting piece. this was a masterwork from a masterwork knitter. and it's very existance in 1275 implies that knitting is several hundred years older.Rutt's only conclusion tho is "We can say little more for certain than that they are works of the highest craftsmanship". this is true, but what a textile historian could conclude from their existance, is likely very different than this simplistic statement.
Rutt persists in making other comments for no apparent reason tho including "they must have been made on steel pins, which were probably hooked." why on earth does he conclude this? is there evidence that he has left out of the book that leads to this guess, or more likely, is Rutt making suppositions of his own?
the knitting madonnas are the next topic of discussion. Rutt suggests that really all that can be concluded from this pieces of artwork (there are a number of them) is that knitting was known in Europe and the particular artists knew how it was done. what he ignores is that several of the pieces (here's a link so you can see for yourself what they look like: http://www.flickr.com/photos/claning/sets/72157594483569366/ ) include much more information than that. two of the pictures found in the book (the second and fourth in the flickr stream linked above) show "specialized" items that were clearly used as part of knitting. little peg boards that held the spools of yarn/thread. this does tell more than Rutt acknowledges. it demonstrates, for example, that specialized tools were being made for knitting already in the time these paintings were done.
In Switzerland in two different locations--5 in Sion and 1 in Chur there are 6 knitted colorwork relic bags. Rutt moves to these next. One of his first and most questionable comments is this: "they are considered to be of fourteenth-century origin and are notable similar. doubtless all six came from one source, but where that source was is beyond conjecture." what is also beyond conjecture is whether they came from one source or 6 or something in between. the fact that 6 similar bags are found in two locations does not evidence anything. even today, not all identical, but rare items come from the same maker. in addition to all other issues with his discriptions, he has some of the desciptions actually wrong.
for example: he descibes the Chur bag as follows: "the five band are alternately red and beige. Two shield designs alternate on each band. the shields on the red band are charged respectively, with a lion rampant and narrow chevrons, all worked in light blue. the shields on the beige band are charged, respectively, with an octagaonal rosette and indented chevrons, worked in red."