Exploring Craft Through Practice-Based Research

By Grace Cochran Keenan and Leah Parker Loar

One of the most difficult aspects of studying the history of any fibre art is that because many pieces are made of natural fibres, they do not survive the centuries. This requires that historians rely on either the tools that would have created the items or artwork depicting the craft. Practised-based research then becomes an important method for researchers and historians to gain a better understanding of the craft when few examples are available to us.

Photo of actors in period costume.
Costumes from ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ designed by Leah Piehl and made by Leah Loar. (Photograph courtesy of Great Lakes Theatre, Cleveland, Ohio)

Leah Loar and Grace Keenan are used to engaging in practice-based research. We met in 2012 when Grace started working as a draper for the Great Lakes Theatre in Cleveland, Ohio where Leah is the Assistant Costume Shop Supervisor & Draper. Our job as drapers and tailors is to interpret the costume designer’s renderings; develop the patterns for the garments; and then oversee their construction. In layman terms, we take the renderings and make them real. This requires a fair bit of research into historical clothing and this research has led to a better understanding of the reasons for the use of specific construction techniques in period garments.

Photo of actress in period costume.
Costume from ‘The Hunchback of Seville’ designed by Michelle Hunt Souza and made by Grace Cochran Keenan. (Photograph courtesy of Kent State University)

In addition to our shared careers, we also share a love of various fibre crafts. Leah comes from a knitting and crochet background while Grace does tatting and embroidery. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Leah led an “Introduction to Crochet” online workshop through Great Lakes Theater, and asked Grace to be a beta tester for the lessons.

Closing the Knowledge Gap

Through this workshop, (where Grace finally learned to crochet!), we discussed our various forays into reading old knitting, crochet, and sewing patterns. We were both in awe of the assumed knowledge that patterns before 1945 require. Leah brought up coming across a border pattern where the direction was “cast on a sufficient number of stitches”, a phrase that was used often in many other patterns we came across in our research. This led to a discussion about the gap in knowledge that exists in many crafts today.

We thought about trying to close this knowledge gap in knitting in a similar way. We would look at both extant pieces in museums as well as written patterns to try and translate them, in order to better understand knitting through history. Our goal is also to write patterns for the pieces we research in a way that a modern knitter could understand and replicate themselves.

First Project – Egyptian Coptic Sock

The first piece that we started with is one of the earliest extant pieces of knitting, an Egyptian Coptic sock. The recreation of historical objects presents the same challenges as draping: the interpretation of someone else’s vision. For historical objects, however, the designer/maker is long gone and all we have left is the finished object. Therefore, we need to reverse engineer the object – often without being able to handle it. Learning about clothing, by studying paintings, and surviving garments provides a great deal of information about how things are made, but until you’ve made one, you don’t know exactly how it was made. The recreation of the Coptic sock, a very old piece with only photographs available, was an especially challenging draping project for Leah.

Photograph of white sock with bands of dark blue and pale blue patterning, the base of the foot is worn.
Sock, Egypt, c. 1000 CE, acquired by George Hewitt Myers in 1953 (Photograph courtesy of the George Washington University: The Textile Museum)

In approaching this piece and considering how it might sit in the context of knitting’s development over time, we needed to think about the skills that would have been required to create this particular piece. There are a lot of things to incorporate when you’re starting out and it will likely take several finished objects before you create a consistent stitch. Given the thinness of the yarn in this particular sock (lace weight), and the complexity of the colorwork, it’s easy, and correct to assume this was not the first sock attempted by the knitter. Who in their right mind would take on lace weight colorwork the first time out as a knitter with no knowledge base or favourite aunt to back them up? However, because this is the oldest extant piece we have – and it’s a beauty – we can assume that knitting was around long before these finely knit, evenly stitched colorwork examples were created.

Reconstruction Process

There are many ways to design and write a knitting pattern. Sometimes you start with a picture in your head of what you want the finished object to be or sometimes a particular yarn screams “buy me”. There have been times Leah has seen an interesting picture and tried to recreate it on her own. Other times, Leah will just start knitting without really knowing what the final product will be, allowing herself to be guided by the ideas in her head and hands. The Egyptian Coptic sock, however, required a more intentional approach to help develop this pattern.

Using her experience, Leah decided that we were looking at a sock that was knit toe up with an afterthought heel on double pointed needles. This is a deceptively simple way to make a sock. Once you’ve cast on the starting stitches, simple increases shape the toe in a single colour. Once you’ve achieved the correct circumference you can knit a tube for as long as your heart or hands desire. With closer inspection, Leah felt the top cuff lacked the usual ribbing and thought an i-cord bind-off would provide an edge for the striped colours. An afterthought heel is knitted in the round by decreasing on each side – a simple and effective way to create the heel shape.

Photo of partially knitted sock still on the needles.
Knitting the sock from the toe up on double pointed needles (Photograph by authors)

Photo of finished sock on a person's foot
A completed sock with an afterthought heel (Photograph by authors)

Then comes the maths. Sock patterns tend to come with a few size options, based on the circumference of the vamp (middle) of the foot and the ankle measurement. This pattern is relatively simple in construction and the increases are paired and consistent. The colorwork chart is repeated in the round until you reach your stitch marker, and then the next row is started. Although there is a jump in the pattern, this is accurate to the original sock. We chose to knit the sock in a fingering weight wool and kept it at ankle height. Once the gauge was set, out came the graph paper and coloured pencils and Leah started sketching out the design – and after some trial and error, the pattern was set.

Coloured graph paper showing sock pattern
Colour work chart for pattern prepared by Leah Loar.

Partially knitted colour work pattern, sock still on needles.
Detail of colour work pattern (Photograph by authors)

Method ready, and charts in hand, Leah started knitting. Leah followed her pattern and finished one whole sock before analysing the pattern. Her first sock was too long at the foot. The original sock had two pattern repeats before the heel which she replicated, but in the slightly heavier yarn, this made the foot far too long for anyone with a smaller foot. Having never done stranded colorwork in a sock, which was tightly knitted on small needles, the charted sections were worked too tight. You can see how those sections bow in on the first completed sock. Leah had to make an extra effort to check the tension of the yarn carries so that the sock remained stretchy.

Completed sock laid out flat on a table
First completed attempt (Photograph by authors)

The second sock revealed that the toe box needed refinement. The increases at the beginning were done too quickly and made for a very pointy toe. Leah added an extra repeat of plain knitting at the beginning to flatten out the toe.

The Value of Experience

Even though Leah had knitted many socks, she still needed to test the pattern. She ended up making 4 whole socks before she was pleased with her work and the pattern. This was not her first pair of socks nor her first attempt at colorwork, but it still took time to get right. Therefore, we cannot imagine an inexperienced knitter produced the quality of work seen in the original Coptic sock. The light weight of the yarn is difficult and tedious to knit in the gauge needed for a sock, requiring firm tension to create the fabric, but loose enough so that the stranded sections aren’t too tight. The original sock is the work of an experienced knitter. Though the original artefact is dated around 1000 CE, we believe that knitting existed long before these socks and other knitted fragments appeared.

Photo of sock laid flat on table
Completed sock knitted by Leah Loar (Photograph by Leah Loar)

This sock is just our first attempt at practice-based research in the history of knitting as well as the translation of these pieces into patterns that a modern knitter could understand and recreate. We will be tackling many other extant pieces and patterns through the history of knitting before 1945. Our hope is that these patterns will shed more light on the history of this popular fibre art as well as providing intermediate knitters with patterns for these historical pieces.

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