Historic Knitting and making the Gunnister purse

Historic Knitting

Whilst knitting has had something of resurgence in 21st century there has been a great deal of debate in the re-enactment world about the availability of knitted goods in the 17th century. Although hats (e.g. the Monmouth cap) and stockings have long been accepted by re-enactors as contempory wear other items have sometimes been viewed with suspicion.  However research has shown other items were available; sleeves; bags/purses; mittens/gloves and waistcoats, as all have surviving artefacts.  Knitting was imported and exported and intricate multicoloured designs were made.  It was long believed that the beautiful knitted silk waistcoats, such as the one in the Victoria and Albert museum were imported from Italy but the current theory is that they were, in fact, made in Britain.

So when was knitting invented and when did it arrive in Britain?  Various forms of textiles have a very early history and some textiles resemble knitting especially nalbinding, there are suggestions that knitting was derived from sprang or netting.  Crochet and Tunisian crochet are more recent than knitting; early knitting needles were hooked and hooked needles are still used in Egyptian villages.  Further research into the beginning of knitting is thwarted by lack of extant examples.

Early pictorial evidence of knitting is available; The Buxtehude Madonna by Master Bertram of Minden is the most well known, painted before 1400.  It shows the Madonna knitting a short sleeved shirt with five needles.
The history of knitting in Britain is difficult to unravel because the term ‘to knit’ is used in many ways:- to knit in Britain has meanings of :- to marry; to twine; weave; plait; to clench (the fist); to pack hard or solidify; to set fruit (or blossom); to swarm bees; to join by pact; to cement; join or congeal.

Knitted cushions were found in Spanish tombs dated to 1187 and also 1275.  Knitting was known in Italy and Germany in 13th century.  The first form of knitting in Britain appears to be caps, the Coventry Cappers can be traced to the 13th century and were established by 1424 and cappers are mentioned in the roll of the Hundred Court at Monmouth in 1449.  The biggest problem with the spread of knitting was that needles could not easily be made as steel rods required a great deal of skill to produce them.  When the technique of drawing wire was developed in 16th century Britain was ready to build up knitting as an industry.

Existing artefacts imply that tubular rather than flat knitting was the first form of knitting and that purl stitch was developed later.  The earliest purled stitches are found in the stockings of Eleanora of Toledo 1562, although purled work could have been used earlier.

  • For non-knitters; there are two main stitches in knitting; knit and purl.  When using three or more needles using knit stitch (the earlier tubular knitting); will produce smooth knitting known as stocking stitch.  Flat knitting, using two needles, will produce garter stitch if every row is knitted but when knit and purl are used on alternate rows stocking stitch is formed.

Knitting Project


I was quite content to simply knit stockings as I felt it looked good in Living History situations.  That changed after reading ‘A history of Hand knitting’ by Richard Rutt and learnt about the Gunnister man; in the 1950’s an unknown man was dug up from a peat bank at Gunnister in the North of Shetland.  The peat had preserved his coat, breeches, shirt, doublet, gloves, two hats and a knitted purse.  The purse contained coins of Dutch and Swedish currency dated 1680-90.  The trade of knitted goods from the Shetlands to Dutch, Scandinavian and other mariners is recorded in the 17th century and later.  What was especially interesting was that this purse is the earliest example of multi coloured knitting from the Shetlands.  ‘A history of Hand knitting’ gave the pattern for the knitted articles and a graph for the coloured pattern and a fellow re-enactor knitter sent me a copy of the record of the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.  Strangely they gave different designs for the pattern although the purse itself was similar.  The Antiquaries simply gave a striped pattern, both used three colours.

While the purse was dated by the coins to 1690 earlier purses are known such as the relic purses of Switzerland, knitted purses or bags to hold the relics of saints which are considered to be of 14th century origin.  This suggested to me that I could have a go at knitting the purse and use it in re-enacting.  (The fact that I had bought some brown, pure wool Shetland yarn in a charity shop recently also hinted that I was ready for
the project).

Modern knitters, as well as having a pattern to guide them, also are usually given the tension or gauge*.  This is simply the number of stitches per inch, the greater the number of stitches the finer the work; some caps have just 3 or 4 stitches per inch whereas Richard Rutt gave a tension of 11.5 stitches per inch – very fine work indeed.  I knitted a couple of tension squares using my Shetland wool and different needles.  The narrowest needles I had were 2.5 mm in diameter and I knitted 9 stitches per inch.  This is much bigger than the Gunnister purse but I decided to use these needles to create the project.  I needed 2 more colours for the pattern.  Shetland wool is 2 ply (2 strands of thread twisted together to make the yarn), whereas most of the wool I had was 3 or 4 ply.  A search on the internet brought Jamison & Smith (Shetland wool brokers) to my attention a source of pure Shetland wool and a selection of coloured wool soon arrived.  My charity shop wool is double knit, the new wool was thinner but I found that I could knit them together.

knitting needlesThe construction was of rib and stockinet although the top of the purse was unusual in that I had to cast on 6 stitches then make a chain of 7 stitches with a crochet hook, this is repeated 14 times.  The crochet was a little fiddly but after the cast on row the knitting was straight forward.  Richard Rutt gives the rib to be 2 knit and 2 purl for 5 centimetres; the Scottish Antiquaries gives 2 knit and 3 purl for 5 centimetres
(Richard Rutt says to cast on 86 stitches but Scottish Antiquaries says to cast on 85 then cast on a further 1 stitch after the rib) Richard Rutt directs 1 row of purl stitches then12 rows of stockinet without shaping, then 6 rows of red pattern, after 15 more rows of the first colour 5 rows of white pattern 5 rows main colour the 5 rows of the second red pattern.  The Scottish Antiquaries give a pattern of stripes.  Both stop without returning to the main colour; I decided to do a few more rows of the main colour to balance the look of the bag.  I finished the base of the purse by grafting.  The crochet loops act as a drawstring, a length of wool doubled over and twisted made a cord and 3 tassels finish the base of the purse (copied from the original).  I was pleased with the bag, especially as it was my first attempt of bi-coloured knitting.  However comparing it to the photograph of the original in Richard Rutt’s book I could not help but notice the scale underneath the purse.  My bag was 12 cms wide, the original was 9 cms.  The difference in size was due to the different tension caused by different needle sizes.  Having been bitten by the Gunnister purse bug I trawled the internet for narrower needles.  Several sites had 2mm needles but I had trouble finding anything smaller.  Eventually I found a site with 2mm and 1.5 mm needles and ordered them.  Then I found a site which specialized in dolls houses and linked equipment where there were needles from 1mm to 0.8 mm and bought a set of 1mm needles.

The 1.5 needles arrived first and I tried to knit a tension square, I found it very difficult to use the thick double knitting yarn and decided to only use my thinner wool from the Shetland wool Brokers.  My second purse was knitted to the Scottish Antiquaries pattern and ended up with a base measurement of 10 cms.  For completeness I then knitted another purse with my 2 mm needles but used a different design and different colours.  My final experiment was with my 1mm needles, as well as being very thin they had sharp points, after trying to knit with them for a short while I ground the points off; it made it more difficult to pick up the many stitches I dropped but at least it stopped my fingers from being shredded.  I returned to Richard Rutt’s pattern in different colours.  My knitting was woefully lacking in skill and several dropped stitches were never recovered but on completion my purse was 9 cms wide.

The yarn I used was very soft and fine but by knitting to such a high stitch count, 11 per inch, the fabric formed was quite stiff and should be hard wearing.

As well as having a few coins in his purse the Gunnister man had a length of silk ribbon.  Whether this was a gift for a sweetheart or mother no-one knows but after working on several copies of his purse my thoughts return to the Gunnister man and wonder why and how he ended up in a peat bank in the Shetlands.


  • This is first mentioned in 1920’s earlier knitters must have had the skills to match the pattern to size or simply guarded their professional work by not recording tension.


A History of Hand Knitting by Richard Rutt, 1987

The Monmouth Cap b Kirtie Buckland, Costume XIII (1979)

Patterns of Fashion by Janet Arnold

Knitting book by Mary Thomas 1938

Book of Knitting Patterns by Mary Thomas 1943