The Rich History of Gloves


I gave one of my knitting friends a copy of Knitting Traditions for Christmas this year, and before I wrapped it up I couldn't help but  look through it again. I have a pair of gloves on the needles, so naturally, all of the glove and mitten patterns caught my eye.

Knitting Traditions also contains a fascinating Nancy Bush-authored article about the history of gloves and like everything Nancy does, it's wonderful.

I'm sure you'll enjoy it, too, so I'm excerpting some of it it for you here.

The sixteenth-century Sture glove from Uppsala, Sweden, knitted at 24 stitches per inch. Photograph copyright Antikvarisk-Topografiska Arkivet, Stockholm, Sweden. Photograph by Gabriel Hildebrand.

The Symbolism of Gloves

The history of gloves is a long and rich tale of romance and intrigue, honor and chivalry, daring and deceit—but long before it acquired these associations, someone had devised gloves to provide warmth and protection to the hands from cold, heat, dirt, and other environmental insults.

Well-formed gloves, made of linen and decorated with a drawstring closure at the wrist, were found in the tomb of Egyptian ruler Tutankhamen (circa 1370-1353 B.C.). Wall paintings from Thebes, a city in ancient Egypt, depict ambassadors bearing presents of gloves, suggesting that even then they had symbolic value beyond their utility.

The Greek historian Xenophon (circa 431-352 B.C.) reported that "not only did [the Persians] have umbrellas borne over them in summer . . . but in winter it is not sufficient for them to clothe their heads and their bodies and their feet, but they have coverings made of hair for their hands and fingers."

In the days of chivalry (the twelfth and most of the thirteenth centuries), a knight would often wear a glove or other token given by his lady on his helmet or shield as a sign of his devotion and purity of heart as well as of his worship of and affection for his beloved.

Richard Rutt, in The History of Handknitting, tells of Captain Sten Svantesson Sture, a twenty-one-year-old Swede who died in 1565 in a sea battle against the Danes and their allies. Sture left a black felt hat to which was fastened a small glove (shown above left) of gold thread and colored silks knitted to a gauge of about 24 stitches per inch.

The words Frevchen Sofia are worked in knitting across the palm. Textile historians had thought that Sture was engaged to a German girl, that the glove very likely was hers, worn as her favor in battle, and that the word frevchen meant "miss" in Middle Low German. Recent research by Danish textile historian Lise Warburg has shown that frevchen was sixteenth-century Swedish for "princess." Princess Sofia (born in 1547) was the daughter of King Gustav Vasa of Sweden (ruled from 1523-1560), and it is now believed that she was engaged to Sture. She most likely knitted the glove herself, because it is not the work of a professional, and made it for Sten to carry with him into battle.

Gloves throughout the ages have been made from the skin of deer, kid goats, or sheep, or from linen, silk, cotton, or wool. They have been cut and sewn, thread-woven, knotted, and knitted. In addition to their primary function as hand protectors, gloves became symbols of loyalty, honor, and integrity, as well as bonds of security. Perhaps some of these old ways are worth preserving in our own cyber-whelmed lives.

—Nancy Bush, as published in Knitting Traditions, Winter 2010

Isn't this a super piece of writing? I find it so satisfying that the gloves I'm knitting today are one pair in a long history of glove-making.

If you weren't able to get a printed copy of Knitting Traditions, we're now offering a digital download. Knitting Traditions is a really important part of any knitter's collection, yours isn't complete without it!


Post a Comment