13th Century Knitted Cushion

By Susanna Lockheart

Artifacts

Two knitted pillows were recovered from royal tombs in Las Huelgas in Spain. The tombs belonged to half-brothers, the sons of Alfonso X of Castile; the latter of the burials occurred in 1275. The cushions were described and pictured in Richard Rutt's History of Hand-Knitting (B.T. Batsford, London, UK, 1987; US edition Interweave Press, Inc, Loveland, Colorado). The better-preserved of the two was probably bright red with golden-yellow heraldic designs, knitted at approximately 20 stitches to the inch and adorned with a green tassel on each corner. The pattern included eagles, fleur-de-lys, flowers, castles and swastikas, arranged in a decorative latticework and bordered with an Arabic inscription. The second cushion was also brightly colored and was patterned with a checkerboard-type grid containing a variety of heraldic elements - lions, eagles, fleur-de-lys, birds and flowers.

Construction

This pillow is intended as a creation in the style of the originals, although it is greatly simplified as compared to those masterworks. It was knitted in the round on 9 aluminum double-pointed needles, size 0. 14th-century paintings by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Tommaso da Modena, and Master Bertram of Minden each portray the Virgin Mary knitting, and in each case she is working in the round on a number of double-ended needles. No definitive evidence has been found that would determine whether medieval knitting needles were pointed or hooked at the ends, or of what material they were made (metal, bone and wood are all possible).

The original pillows may be either silk or wool (recent anecdotal information indicates that they were probably wool); this project used 3/2 pearl cotton as a cost-effective substitute intended to approximate the appearance and behavior of silk. Wool would have a very different, softer look, and it is tensioned slightly differently when knitting because of its inherent stretchiness. Lacking information about the original stuffing and wanting a well-defined shape to this piece, a modern pillow form was used to fill the knitted cover. Once filled and sewn shut, tassels were made and attached to each corner - the extant red-and-gold cushion has green tassels; gold was used for this pillow as a compromise to modern taste.

Cushion, front view Cushion, back view
13rh Century Knitted Cusion, front view (left) and back view (right)
Photos by Bella Del Mare, used by permission.


Usage

The extant cushions were found in burials; however, there is also evidence for the use of similar pillows by the living. "The Romance of Alexander" was illustrated in the workshop of Jehan de Grise of Flanders between 1338 and 1344. Folio 49r depicts a king reclining on a covered chaise or bed, resting against a colorful pillow. The king's pillow clearly has a pattern of stylized crosses in a checkerboard pattern and is decorated with tassels on each corner. A second story in the same volume, Li Livres du Graunt Caam, was illustrated in the workshop of Johannes in England at approximately 1400. Folio 2v contains a depiction of a queenly figure in bed. Both the queen's bed and the small cradle next to it contain pillows decorated with a lozenge-patterned grid and embellished with a tassel at each corner. Given these examples, it would be reasonable to suppose that the extant pillows (or pillows very like them) may have been used in the royal bedchambers.

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Reprinted from the Fall, 2005, issue of Arts and Sciences, a special issue of the Pikestaff,
the official newsletter of the Kingdom of the East. Used by permission.