Knitty: little purls of wisdom



My interest in knitting has been kept alive over the years by the almost infinite variety of color, pattern, and texture that is found in collections of knitters and museums around the world. Although I love the smooth, quiet repetition of knitting a rectangular scarf in garter stitch using a luxurious yarn, it is the endless diversity of technique and style that keeps me interested in knitting as more than a way to keep my hands busy while watching TV.

"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to."
--from The Lord of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

For most of my life I have been afraid of mummies. When I was five or six years old my parents let me stay up to watch Creature Feature every week -- but just until the first commercial break. I was always tucked into bed with the lights out, sound asleep before any of the scary parts came on. But when "The Mummy" episode was aired, Mommy and Daddy forgot to get me out of the room before the monster came on the scene, so they decided I should get to stay up for the whole show to see that the good guys won in the end. It didn't matter. I was officially terrified of mummies, so much so that I couldn't go into Egyptian exhibits at museums even as an adult.

This mummy phobia, however, didn't stop me from falling in love with everything else related to the Ancient Egyptians. I learned how to write my name with hieroglyphs. I took every book about King Tut out of the school library. When we watched The Ten Commandments, I found Ramses and Nefretiri oh so much more romantic and exciting than Moses and Miriam. To this day, the aesthetic of Ancient Egyptian writing, art, and clothing remains unsurpassed in beauty and elegance in my mind.

Finally, when I went to see the 1999 film The Mummy starring Rachel Weiss and Brandon Fraser, too embarrassed to tell the friends who invited me about my fear of mummies, I was cured. Now I am quite the fan of the bandage-wrapped undead.

So what does any this have to do with knitting? Well, the earliest known knitted items were found in Egypt (see History 101 by Julie Theaker in Knitty Spring 2006) and mummies were wrapped in linen bandages made from handspun, handwoven linen yarn, carefully crafted by the women of Egypt. In fact, everything from clothes to bed sheets and ship sails was made from linen spun on a drop spindle and woven by hand. The enormity of this endeavor is beyond my comprehension, enough so that it almost convinces me that space aliens must have helped the Ancient Egyptians build their amazing civilization.

Spinning Flax into Gold
Linen yarn and fabric is made from fiber from the flax plant, and is more absorbent and mildew-resistant than cotton. Depending on the age of the plants harvested and the process used to create the fiber, linen can be strong enough to make ropes or soft enough to make baby clothes. It requires virtually no pesticides or herbicides to grow successfully, resulting in very enticing yarns to those of us who are concerned about the environment. (Over 50% of the chemicals used in farming in the United States are used on cotton.)

The fiber strands in the flax stalk are called the bast. The interior of the stalk is a woody pulp called the hurd. To separate the fiber, the stalks are retted, or left lying in the fields to start rotting. Sometimes the plants are placed in a stream or water to speed up the process. (Commercial manufacturers may use chemicals to break down the fibers instead of natural dew or water retting.) When the surface of the stalks has softened, the stalks are washed to remove the outer surface. Then, they are pounded with a brake, an advanced version of the one invented by Thomas Jefferson, to separate the bast from the hurd. The bast is combed and wrapped into balls -- similar to balls of wool roving -- for spinning.

Flax is easiest to spin when it is wet. For hand-spinning, the fibers are held on a distaff, above the spinning wheel, to keep them neatly arranged and make them easily accessible to the spinner. Traditionally spinners used spit to control the flyaway fibers. Today water or spinning oil is substituted on commercial spinning equipment.

Today we use a wheel to spin flax into linen yarn, but the process has not changed much since ancient times. Tomb paintings show the ancient Egyptians processing flax and spinning linen on a top-whorl drop spindle.

Egyptian Linen
While even the oldest knitted items found in Egypt date back only to 1000 AD, the earliest linen cloth found is 3,000 years older, dating from the Old Kingdom -- the period when Imhotep was alive -- and flax was known to be grown in Egypt as early as 5,000 years ago in the Early Dynastic Period, just after the Upper and Lower Kingdoms joined to form the unified Egyptian empire.

Flax and linen were so important to Egyptian culture, they were considered gifts of the gods, and were mentioned in literature and songs, such as this hymn to the Nile god, Hapi, probably written between 2025-1700 BCE:

Lightmaker who comes from the dark,
Fattener of Herds, might that fashions all,
None can live without Him, people are clothed with the flax of His fields.
Thou makest all the land to drink unceasingly, as Thou descendest on Thy way from the heavens.
Hapi, the thousand raindrops becoming river.
He whose face is too ponderous for stone.
The waters flow. Papyrus and lotus spring up.
In Your barque sailing from city to city, Your body glistens like water.

Early linen cloth was usually kept in its natural color or bleached white. The bleached fabric became a symbol of purity and light for the Egyptians, and was used extensively in religious rituals such as wrapping mummies. The fabric was also sometimes used as a form of currency and as a display of wealth.

According to the British Museum, Egyptian linen was spun and woven into four basic types of fabric: royal, thin, fine, and smooth.

Smooth cloth was the coarsest and thickest, used for working clothes, cloaks and blankets. The middle two categories were for finer clothes, worn by the wealthy. Royal linen was reserved for royal burials and ritual clothing, sometimes donated to temples by the king.

Tips for Knitting with Linen
Knitting with linen is very much like knitting with cotton yarn. The yarn has little or no give, and you may find that you need to go down one or two needle sizes from the size you would normally use for wool yarn of the same girth. If you have a problem dropping stitches, wooden or bamboo needles will help keep the stitches from sliding around as you knit.

Linen, like cotton and silk, has no "memory" and doesn't retain its shape the way wool does. Edgings in garter stitch and seed stitch will work better than ribbing, which will not be elastic when knit in hemp. Make sure you knit to gauge, because you can't change the size of t he pieces during blocking as much as you can with wool.

Unwashed linen on the cone can be harsh on your hands. If you purchase linen on the cone, skein it and wash it first, then rinse the skeins with fabric softener. You can also beat the wet skeins against a picnic table or other outdoor furniture to soften them up, then hang the skeins to dry out of direct sunlight. Washed linen, sold in skeins, is easier to knit with. It has a softer hand, and drapes beautifully.

Caring for Linen Garments
Linen can be machine washed and dried, but hand washing fine knitted garments will keep them looking new and crisp longer. Linen, however, holds its shape better than cotton and will not stretch out of shape over time. As you wash your knitted linen items, they will become softer, but the fibers will not weaken.

spacer title
beauty shot

spacerby Donna Druchunas


I've been obsessed with the queens of Ancient Egypt since I was a little girl. The romance of the Ancient Egyptian court and the myths of Ra, Bastet, Anubis, and the other gods and goddesses who watched over the living and carried the dead to the afterlife.

This cowl is inspired by the beautiful bejeweled collars (usekh), worn by ancient Egyptian royalty. Made out of pure gold and embellished with precious stones, the traditional collars were draped around the shoulders and secured with a clasp. My version is knit in the round out of linen, the most common fiber used in the Nile River Delta in ancient times. Well suited for the warm climate, this linen cowl is also perfect for summer evenings further north.

As I knit it, I can't but help imagine all of the many Egyptian women who were most likely slaves, spinning flax on hand spindles to provide fine linen thread for the clothing of Egyptian Pharaohs and their families. I named this cowl it for Ankhesenamun, my favorite Egyptian queen, wife of Tutankhamun, who many of us know best as King Tut.

spacer model: Donna Druchunas
spacer photos: Emily Druchunas Bialek


Circumference: 40 inches
Length: 13.5 inches



Quince and Co. Sparrow [100% linen; 168yd per 1.76oz skein]; 1 skein each of colors:
spacer [A] 206 butternut
spacer [B] 209 pigeon
spacer [C] 210 paprika
spacer [D] 202 birch

Recommended needle size
[always use a needle size that gives you the gauge listed below -- every knitter's gauge is unique]
spacer US #/5mm circular needle 16-24 inches long

spacer stitch marker
spacer removable marker or safety pin
spacer yarn needle


20 sts/28 rounds = 4 inches in stockinette stitch


[Knitty's list of standard abbreviations and techniques can be found here.]

Using metal needles with a very sharp point will make working the stitch crossings much easier.

Instructions for the Cable Cast On can be found here.

Right Cross: K2tog but do not drop st from left ndl, knit into first st again and drop both from left needle.



With A and using the Cable Cast On method, CO 200 sts.

Place marker, and join to work in the round being careful not to twist.

Rnds 1 & 2: Knit.

Rnd 3: Work Right Cross around all sts.

Rnd 4: Knit.

Change to B and knit 9 rnds.

Change to A and rep Rnds 1-4.

Change to C and knit 9 rnds.

Change to A and rep Rnds 1-4.

Change to B and knit 9 rnds.

Change to D and knit 1 rnd.

Next rnd: K to last st, m1, k1. 201 sts. Remove marker, placing a removable marker or safety pin instead.

Rep rnd 3 for 1 inch; end of rnd will shift 1 stitch on each round. This does not matter. Just continue working Right Cross.

Change back to original marker.
Next rnd: K to last 2 sts, k2tog. 200 sts rem.

Change to B and knit 9 rnds.

Change to A and rep Rnds 1-4.

Change to C and knit 9 rnds.

Change to A and rep Rnds 1-4.

Change to C and knit 2 rnds.

Join D.

Next round: Work Color Pattern chart around.

Work as set until chart pattern is complete.

Cut D.

Knit 2 rnds with C.

Change to A and rep Rnds 1-4.


Weave in ends. To block, hand wash and dry flat or in clothes dryer.

Donna Druchunas escaped a corporate cubicle to honor her passions for knitting, world travel, research, and writing. She teaches in the United States and Europe, offers online sock-knitting classes at, and holds retreats at her studio in Vermont. Her newest project, Stories In Stitches is a pattern line featuring stories about knitters and their lives, traditions, history, and travel, all tied together with gorgeous knitting patterns and projects.

Visit Donna's website at