KEME Project description – University of Copenhagen

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CTR > Marie Skłodowska-Curie Projects > Previous Marie Skłodowska Curie Projects > Knitting in Early Modern Europe > KEME Project description

Knitting in Early Modern Europe (KEME)

Materials, manufacture and meaning


Surprisingly little is known about the history of knitting despite tantalising indications that it quickly became a highly specialised industry producing sophisticated goods. A remarkable quantity of data lies hidden in more than 100 extant knitted caps from the 16th century. Most are buried in obscurity in European museum collections where they are simply catalogued as “hat, 1500-1600”. Few have been conserved, none have been studied in detail and only recently has their existence been mapped for potential scientific study.

A knitted cap found in an Austrian gold mine (courtesy of Beatrix Nutz, University of Innsbruck)

This project will rescue the 100 caps from obscurity, apply state-of-the-art scientific examination techniques, and collect their 16th century stories from documentary and pictorial sources to shed light on materials, manufacture and men’s wear in the early modern period.
The caps are a treasure trove of information from which statistically valid conclusions may be drawn as to the location and acquisition of relevant natural resources and technological expertise, and from these hypotheses may be constructed on the exchange and communication value of garments.

The absence of conservation work, a lack of appropriate storage, and the intense interest in them from non-specialists demanding access make these caps a rapidly receding resource urgently requiring documentation.

Jane Malcolm-Davies studying a knitted cap and its lining excavated at Red Bay, Labrador, where it was worn in the 1570s by a Basque whaler

This study will satisfy a demonstrable demand among dress historians and archaeologists, museum staff and wider publics for accurate information about the construction and reconstruction of early modern dress through a vibrant outreach programme.It will produce a rich database of accessible evidence using an innovative blend of disciplines (archaeology, craft, dress history, fashion theory and economic history) to demonstrate the shift from domestic craft to mechanised industry.

The project will also respond to the call for new theories of dress based on the study of extant garments and an interdisciplinary approach to contextual evidence (Pedersen, Buckland & Bates, 2008/9).

Project objectives

Objective 1: To achieve knowledge transfer and training

Objective 2: To answer the following research questions and test the following hypotheses:


  1. What routes did trade in raw materials and knitted consumer goods follow in the emerging early modern European marketplace?
  2. What was the vocabulary used in northern Europe to describe knitted goods and the materials for and methods of knitting?
  3. How did knitting technology create new fashions for men, which were indicative of rank and status?
  4. What was the cultural significance of the hat as an essential male accessory in early modern society?


  1. Raw materials and knitting terms travelled as technology and trade expanded across northern Europe
  2. Different typologies of caps were constructed using identifiable materials and manufacturing methods
  3. Knitted headwear was functional and had meaning for men’s identity in the early modern period

Objective 3: To develop theory and disseminate findings

Project methodology

The project employs an interdisciplinary, triangulated research methodology.

1. Archaeology: A scientific analysis using radiocarbon dating and microscopic examination of the knitted caps, including x-radiography, fibre identification, dye analysis and degradation studies will identify the likely age of the evidence, the materials used, and its original texture, colour and appearance;

2. Dress history: A review of contemporary documents in which knitted garments are mentioned and pictorial sources showing knitwear in manufacture and wear will determine terminology for the study of early modern knitting;

3. Craft: A practical experimental archaeological investigation into the skills required to process sheep’s fleece into yarn for knitting, dyeing and surface treatments will determine how the caps were constructed; and

4. Fashion theory and economic history: A review of all the evidence collected during the study in the light of theories about needs/wants, necessity/luxury, and the forces driving early modern consumption will determine the functional and symbolic importance of headwear in the 16th century.

Project phases

1. Knowledge transfer

ATOMS (Analytical Tools for Organic Materials Study) lectures series Dec 2015 to Feb 2016

The ATOMS lecture series offers introductory training to participants from a range of disciplines (archaeologists, historians, conservators, and ethnologists among others) in the pioneering scientific techniques available for the study of organic materials such as plant fibres (wool, flax, nettle), animal products (hair, fur, leather) and human remains (bone, teeth, skin) which shed light on their provenance, processing and production.

Jane Malcolm-Davies giving a presentation at the Memorial University of Newfoundland in St John’s, Canada

The lecture series ran from early December 2015 to the end of February 2016. Most of the lectures and other supporting material were recorded and are available for future presentation as an online learning opportunity. A comprehensive range of literature was compiled in a recommended reading list for dress historians (and other researchers working in the humanities) seeking information about the potential of scientific analysis in the study of organic material.

2. Field work

The 100 original knitted 16th century caps are under examination and a series of standardised measurements are being taken, including basic dimensions, stitches per inch/cm and rows per inch/cm, Z or S spin, ply, and yarn diameter.

A photographic record of the caps is being compiled with at least 75 images taken through 360 degrees for the purposes of polynomial texture mapping. This will create a high quality representation of the knitted surface for publication online, where a three-dimensional object is not best represented by a conventional two-dimensional image.

Where possible, material is removed from the knitted caps under the supervision of the curators and conservators responsible for them. Three sample sizes are collected depending on the level of deterioration or fragmentation of the material: a swatch, a length of yarn, and/or a hair (see below for sample sizes).

3. Scientific investigation

This project is pioneering in its attempt to apply scientific techniques being used with some success on ancient and archaeological material to historical artefacts. The knitted caps under scrutiny have, in most cases, doubtful provenance and little is known about the conditions in which they have been kept. There is no guarantee that any of the analytical tests will yield fruitful results. However, all of them have provided useful insights when applied to much older material than woollen yarn from the 16th century and to objects discovered in unfavourable conditions. If all they do is provide a better indication of age and provenance, the project will have blazed a trail for the investigation of museum collections in ways hitherto unproven. The interrogations planned fall into three broad groups:

A. Non-invasive tests requiring no material to be disturbed or removed from the original artefacts

B. Invasive tests requiring minimal material to be removed from the original artefacts but which is not destroyed during analysis

C. Destructive tests which exhaust the resource taken from the original artefact.

The aim of this study is to provide a benchmark for the usefulness of various scientific techniques to the study of textiles in museum collection. The knitted caps present a range of similar items from different places, excavated at different times and under different conditions, and kept in a variety of environments. They offer an opportunity for a wide range of data to be extracted which will be comparable across the material and from which some guidelines and principles of good practice may emerge.

Sampling of historic textiles has been carried out in a range of previous studies. The material removed from archaeological artefacts includes 2x2mm skin textiles (Ørsted Brandt, 2014), 5x5mm woollen and skin textiles (Rast-Eicher & Bender Jørgensen, 2013), 20mg of loose threads (Ballard et al, 2011) and 100 single fibres (Ryder, 1983 & 1984). Very few studies describe the actual process of removing samples (Frei et al, 2009; Lui et al, 2015; Mannering et al, 2010), although there is a notable exception: “Samples measuring 0.2 to 1.5 cm in length were taken from each textile. Great care was taken to remove the smallest sample possible if no loose threads were available. The areas where a sample was removed were documented by photography. Fine tipped stainless steel tweezers were used to separate the samples, which were placed in 1.5 ml low tension microcentrifuge tubes” (Gleba, 2012, 3646).

The knitted caps will be sampled (where possible) to remove swatches (up to 1cm x 2cm), lengths of yarn (up to 1cm) and/or individual hairs. Whether any material is removed and, if so, the quantity taken will be determined by the condition of the cap, whether it is fragmentary or significantly degraded, and the effect of removal on the structural integrity of the object.

Whichever and whenever these analyses are undertaken, accurate documentation of the sample removal, scientific procedures used and the results will be a priority. This will ensure that subsequent scholars and other interested parties have access to the methodology and results, in the hope of precluding the necessity of repeat sampling.

A. Non-invasive analysis

A USB Dino-Lite microscope offering magnification up to x400 facilitates more detailed observations than are available to the naked eye. These observations are taken at a distance from the whole object and therefore do not require much handling or the removal of any material. Examinations of the knitted material carried out with this equipment helps to ensure stitch and row counts are accurate, close inspection of increases and decreases in the number of stitches, and other construction details. High-resolution images may also be taken using the Dino-Lite which permit measurements to be taken and second opinions on the material to be gathered (Rast-Eicher & Jørgensen, 2012).

Investigations will also be made as to the feasibility of loaning complete caps to laboratories where micro-computed tomographic scanning can facilitate close examination of constructional features hidden inside the object and cross-sectional analysis of their surfaces. X-ray imaging provides 3D reconstructions and/or cross sections of the material, which will assist the diagnosis of how the caps are constructed – in particular, how the various elements are joined together, where seams and other features are hidden inside (Gill-Frerkin & Rosendahl, 2013). Rotational photography facilitates polynomial texture mapping which not only provides a high-resolution image of the surface texture of an object but may suggest how the characteristic texture is achieved (Goskar & Earl, 2010; Zhao et al, 2011). There is also the potential for the visualisation and reconstruction of the textile’s internal structure based on multidimensional image data (Zhao et al, 2011).

B. Invasive analysis

Samples from two fragmented caps

It is now possible to study artefacts which were previously unavailable for analytical procedures because the sample sizes required have decreased drastically (Guthrie & Ferguson, 2012). Some of these tests use samples which are not destroyed during investigation, although their removal does cause minimal damage to the original object. A length of yarn or a single hair may be prepared for examination under a range of technologically advanced microscopes such as those facilitating light, transmission and scanning electron microscopy. These techniques provide better opportunities for fibre, dye and degradation analysis than even the highest magnification with a USB microscope. Such observations permit fibre dimensions (such as diameter, length and crimp), characteristics (such as scales and medulla), apparent degradation, and the presence or absence of pigment/dye to be recorded (Gleba, 2012; Rast-Eicher & Jørgensen, 2012). Fluorescence microscopy detects the presence of biological molecules such as proteins and can be used to image specific features of small specimens such as microbes. It is also used to visually enhance very small three-dimensional features (via confocal fluorescent microscopy). This method may confirm the presence of proteins which can be further analysed to provide more detailed insights and facilitates an examination of the structure of microfibres.

High-resolution imaging using x-ray fluorescence scanners permits the constituent elements of an item to be mapped with precision (Rabin, 2013), including mordants and dyes (Ballard et al, 2011). The chemical element composition of an object is potentially instructive as to historical material’s provenance, the fabrication technologies, and techniques employed. This may also determine what conservation treatments have been used previously on the objects (Caneva & Ferretti, 2000). Trace metal signatures identified through x-ray fluorescence spectrometry have been used to differentiate genuine items from fakes (Jenkins et al, 2000). Best practice in sample preparation is key to success (Buhrke et al, 1998).

These methods provide results while preserving the original material for future analysis. Samples will be used for further analyses (see below) or returned to the collections from which the material comes after this project is completed.

C. Destructive analysis

A small length of woollen yarn is sufficient for revealing analysis

In most cases, destructive analysis will take place after non-invasive and invasive tests are complete. However, there are some procedures requiring samples which have not been investigated previously in ways which may compromise their integrity (for example, x-ray examination destroys any DNA present in the sample).
There are a number of destructive procedures which will enlighten understanding of the knitted material. Swatches will facilitate a series of tests for those caps for which no clear date or provenance is recorded.

Lengths of yarn or single hairs provides sufficient material for radiocarbon dating, DNA analysis, protein analysis, strontium isotope testing and dye analysis. C14 dating may now be performed to provide a date of +/- 15 years for material thought to be pre-1650 at the AMS facility at Aarhus University, where it has been used for dating textiles such as those associated with Danish bog bodies (Mannering et al, 2010). DNA analysis may be possible if the knitted material is not too degraded, contaminated by past conservation treatments and/or the dyestuffs used in the 16th century (Brandt et al, 2011). Protein analysis offers the potential for confirming that the yarn used to make the caps is woollen and indicating the species of sheep from which the fleece came (Solazzo et al, 2013). Strontium isotope testing can pinpoint the provenance of the wool, which will provide information about the transportation and trade in raw materials (Frei et al, 2009). It is also possible that a short length of yarn will also offer information about the dyes used in the manufacture of the caps if microscopy is not able to do so (Vanden Berghe et al, 2009).

These results will facilitate a databank of information for comparison with samples from all 100+ knitted caps and fragments included in the survey.

4. Experimental archaeology: The KEME team

Volunteer knitters will test a range of published patterns for the reconstruction of knitted caps from the early modern era. Published patterns will be circulated for comparison with each other and the extant originals. The participants will evaluate the caps produced and comment on the materials used. A database of technical data compiled by the knitters will be used to help set up a study of yarns and their suitability for reconstructing c16th caps. A comprehensive survey of yarns available today will be tested to evaluate which are the best substitutes for the yarns observable in the original caps.

Professional knitters will be invited to review the reconstructions, the swatch tests and comment on the data produced to assess its potential application in the accurate reconstruction of historic dress.

5. Inspiring designers

The material collected and evaluated during the experimental archaeology phase will produce an overview of yarns and processes suitable for producing the highly-desirable silky pile of the c16th caps which is currently only available in artificial fibres or very expensive real silk velvet.

Designers will be invited to review the reconstructions, the swatch tests and comment on the data produced to assess its potential application in fashionable knitwear.

6. Contextual review

The sources outlined under methodology (above) will be reviewed throughout the project to shed light on the way in which the caps were created and worn. The materials, manufacture and meaning of the caps are all represented in the visual culture and a variety of texts from the early modern era.

7. Development of theory

The final phase of the project will bring all the results of the previous phases together to formulate theory about the knitted caps. They will also be used as a case study to develop a guide to good practice in the reconstruction of historic dress.

Project outcomes

1. Online database of technical data on knitted caps

2. Open access publication of research progress:

3. Six workshops

4. A conference at CTR (July 2017)

5. Three journal articles

6. Special issue of Archaeological Textiles Review (2017)

7. Papers at international

8. Book chapters


This review of the scientific data and a systematic study of the caps’ contemporary context promises invaluable information about knitted garments for men in the early modern period, the ways in which the raw materials and technology originated, were named and moved around northern Europe, and how knitting as an influential industrial innovation had a direct impact on male fashion. This will facilitate the formulation of new theory about early modern male dress.


The following people and organisations are supporters and collaborators:

Marie-Louise Nosch, Centre for Textile Research, University of Copenhagen, Denmark (host institution)
Maj Ringgaard, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark (mentor)
The Tudor Tailor, UK
Sandy Black, London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London, UK
Angela Wood Knitwear, UK
Draženko Samardžić, Local History Museum, Biograd na Moru, Croatia
Gert Kortekaas, Gemente Groningen, Netherlands
Beatrice Behlen, Museum of London
Beatrix Nutz, Archaeology Institute, Leopold-Franzens University, Innsbruck
Miles Lambert, Platt Hall, Manchester Art Gallery, UK
Ruth Battersby-Tooke, Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service, Norwich, UK
Jutta Zander-Seidel, Germanisches National Museum, Nürnberg, Germany
Susan North, V&A Museum, London, UK

Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada
Mirjam van Oeveren, Dordrecht Ondergronds, Dordrecht, Netherlands
Annemarieke Willelmson, Leiden Museum, Netherlands
Judy Aitken, Cuming Museum, London, UK
Will Phillips, Buckinghamshire Museum Service, Wendover, UK
Fiona Graham, Leicester City Museums, UK
Andrew Parkin, Newcastle Archaeology, UK


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