Date of this Version
Published in Silk Roads, Other Roads: Textile Society of America 8th Biennial Symposium, Sept. 26–28, 2002, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.
This is a preliminary consideration of the late sixteenth/early seventeenth century gilt and silk knitted jackets, based on close examination of seventeen examples held in various collections in North America and Europe. Little is known about them, so that mostly speculation has been published as fact. They have been identified as jackets for men, created on knitting frames and on knitting machines, and in the past, were almost always identified as of Italian origin or manufacture.
My argument, having closely examined seventeen, is that
• they were in fact handknitted: the technology simply did not exist in the early seventeenth century for two-color knitting, nor for reverse stockinette and garter stitch, nor were the frames capable of knitting with the metal - covered yarns. Too, a few of the jackets have sleeves knit in the round, also impossible in frame knitting in the seventeenth century. The range of gauge in this sample is 13 to 20 stitches to the inch. Knitting frames were limited to no more than eight stitches to the inch until well into the seventeenth century, and ribbing attachments were not invented until the 1730s.
• they were made for women. The largest one I've examined is from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art [AC 1995.1.1], which has a 36 inch chest. The average of twelve jackets is 30 inches. The smallest has a 27 inch chest, from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts [06.2397], but the garments are not easy to measure in hard and fast terms. Despite the small circumferences, most have long sleeves and bodies, and would not suit children.
• More importantly, the cut of most of the jackets follows ladies' fashion of the period much more than that of men.
• At least some were made in England. Although they are often referred to as Italian, I would argue this is based on the fact that many of the floral patterns are Italianate, which were readily available in the popular pattern books all over Europe. There is at least one jacket in a Scandinavian collection with an English export seal. according to Santina Levey. Many of the motifs, including those in Scandinavia, appear on the sixteenth century Burato sampler from Little Morton Hall.
• They were independently made by different people, although the knitting of the majority was done in consistently the same fashion: a rectangle for the back, two narrower rectangles for the fronts, and two rectangles for the sleeves, all knitted flat and sewn together. All shaping was done in the construction; by taking larger seam allowances, folding under edges, etc.. There are very few similarities in actual construction: i.e., one is fully lined, one has lined sleeves, another has only lined cuffs. It's possible that separate elements of one garment were made by different knitters, and assembled by another. This might account for the flat knitting, as it would allow more people to work on one garment, and possibly speed up production.
As mentioned above, a few have sleeves knit in the round. Some fasten with buttons in buttonholes, others have various types of loops. Some have no apparent fasteners, and made have been simply pinned shut. One, in the Museum of Costume at Nottingham [#22], has paper, printed with medieval black letter type, as the interlining of the button band.