There’s a venerable history to knitting in Sweden, the best known traditions of which culminated in the Bohus Stickning company. (More on Bohus knitting later.) Twined knitting, though, is based on older, more practical concerns than the airy beauty that became the hallmark of Bohus Stickning, which was aiming to capture an affluent market and was directed by consumer demand. Twined knitting, in contrast, was work done by individuals for their own families’ use, and intended firstly as a practical craft, and only secondly as an ornamental one. To find out more about the history of the craft, it’s worthwhile to seek out the history of twined knitting in one particular region.
Dalarna is a province in central Sweden, today a popular tourist destination for those seeking what is most Swedish about Sweden. Why this should be has a lot to do with Dalarna’s history. It was the last province in Sweden to abandon the Runic alphabet, doing so only in the 20th century. The famous and iconic Dalahäst, which has become a symbol of Sweden abroad, has its origins in Dalarna. And Dalarna is the location of Sweden’s most famous copper mines, mines which played a huge role in Sweden’s history as a nation.
Dalarna is also the location of an archeological find that has particular bearing on the history of Swedish needlecraft. In 1974, a team investigating a site in Falun, an old copper-mining town, found a glove that would, in the words of Dandanell and Danielsson*, “prove to be so interesting that it alone would set in motion extensive research throughout the region and the country”.
The Falun glove was found under a slag heap that was dated to 1680, proving that the Falun glove is at least that old. It was twined knit in a fine gauge wool yarn with fringe at the cuff. The early date sets this as the oldest article of twined knitting ever found intact, and one of the oldest pieces of knitting yet found in Sweden. When it was found, the Falun glove was purl side out, and the fingertips were missing. We’ll probably never know which side was used as the outside of the glove, but what we do know for sure is that knitted items, and specifically twined knitted items, were in use in Falun in the 17th century.
Twined knitting seems, in fact, to have been the only known knitting method used in Dalarna for much of its history. What Danielsson and Dandanell do with this information is to create a sort of timeline, using the Falun glove as a marker to show that twined knitting was the earliest form of knitting used in Dalarna, and then combining that knowledge with written records referring to knit articles in order to piece together who was benefiting from the knitting, and what it was they were wearing. From a 1659 court record referring to the theft of a pair of knitted stocking from a servant girl, the pair are able to conclude that farm families were wearing knitted stockings in the 17th century. Other records at their disposal include estate inventories, and even a death register that records the death of a woman who supported herself by knitting stockings and spinning.
Based on their research, they conclude that twined knitting was known to Dalarna’s peasant population by the mid 1600s, though when it became a nearly ubiquitous skill among the women of Dalarna is less clear. What is clear is that by the mid 1700s, a visitor to Dalarna was going to encounter knit items everywhere he turned, both on the bodies of the people themselves, and available for purchase.
Whether the seed of twined knitting truly germinated in Dalarna, or whether the knowledge was brought from elsewhere, it is known that it spread quickly, and that it survives. By participating in this ancient craft, we make a choice to join a tried and proven handicraft that has passed on through the generations because of its beauty, its central integrity, and the very fact that its antiquity connects us to those who came before us. One of the great beauties of knitting history is that it connects us so intimately with the history of women. Knitting is an equal opportunity activity today, but in the past it was primarily a woman’s job, despite all male guilds in the Middle Ages. There’s something that feels really special about connecting backward with the less celebrated, but intensely vital, traditions, as well as having some connection to how an item as important as clothing is made.
* This was referred to in other entries, but most knitting information in this post comes from the book Twined Knitting, by Birgitta Dandanell and Ulla Danielsson. The book is currently out of print.