Nerdy Knitting


I ran out of yarn while at the 4th Annual St. Louis Medieval and Renaissance Symposium Mini-Conference on the Cultures of the Translation in the Medieval Mediterranean. On the plus side, this means I finished a scarf* (based on a historical pattern) that has completely unnecessarily taken over three years to finish; on the down side it means I needed to stop and pick up some new yarn for the flight home. (Most of the time when a knitter tells you that he or she needs yarn, question the definition of the term need; in this case, it was really a question of having something to do on the flight home that would distract me from how much I hate flying. This is about as close to a legitimate, dictionary-standard definition of need as it gets with yarn.)

This will actually become as much a medieval poetry post as a knitting one momentarily. Really.

Airplane knitting has to be fairly simple because airplane lighting is bad, so it’s hard to do anything that requires a lot of visual acuity or might require bright light for un-knitting or finding and fixing mistakes. It’s also something you have to be able to do while tired, bleary-eyed, stressed out, likely to be interrupted constantly, and without a lot of elbow room. I chose this pattern because it fits the bill and because it’s called a ghazal, after a type of Arabic poetry, and so it seemed like a good project for someone working on medieval Arabic literature.

Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 7.07.39 AM

The pattern designer explains the choice of name by saying that the pattern, like poem “repeat[s] in a familiar lilt, much like a sonnet. And the subjects, though always tied to love, are as varied as that most complex of emotions. Unrequited. Romaticized.Illicit. This cowl’s pattern repeats with a flowing rhythm, making it a simple, enjoyable knit.”

This is both somewhat incorrect in its description of the ghazal and deeply exoticizing in its gaze. (Also, no, ghazal is not pronounced “huzzle” and if you ask anyone who works in Arabic or Persian poetry about their favorite huzzles, they may have no idea what you’re talking about.) But intuitively, totally accidentally, or because she’s a secret crypto-medievalist she has tapped into a very real vein of scholarship on the forms of poetry and their relationship to material culture.

In a 2008 article, the art historian Olga Bush writes about the ways in which the bands of geometric ornament carved into the plaster at the Alhambra might reflect strips of fabric that were hung in the palace during festive occasions.

14th-century Nasrid textile


An example of fabric panels hanging in the Neo-Mudéjar Great Mosque of Paris.

Bush then goes on to tie it to the verse structure of some of the poetry carved into the walls, tying the idea of this other type of poetry, the muwashshah, or girdle poem, to the material reality of a fabric girdle or a striped pattern woven into the fabrics that would have been familiar to the poets in question. I’m still not sure I’m convinced by the argument, but there it is.

The ghazal cowl also works up with this similar girdle-striped pattern in the fabric.

Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 7.10.10 AM

It’s not so much a ghazal cowl as a muwashshah cowl, in the end, but there is some really geeky pleasure to be derived from knitting an Arabic poem (and some subversive pleasure, as well, gained from knitting Arabic poetry on an airplane, where you can’t even read it anymore).

My not-really-a-ghazal cowl, the pattern on my iPad, and a Jet Blue cocktail napkin.


*A couple of times in this post I’m going to link to things on Ravelry, the Facebook for knitters. If you don’t have an account, you may or may not be able to view these pages.

** The featured image is an illumination from al-Hariri’s maqamat (BNF MS Arabe 5847 f. 13v), depicting Abu Zayd sitting at a spinning wheel

2 thoughts on “Nerdy Knitting

  1. this is a fun post is there a concencus on whether kharja should be translated as buckle- as in the buckle of the girdle? rp

    • I don’t think there’s reason to. That said, if you’ve seen something recent that suggests that and that I’ve missed while (shamefully) reading nothing except what is immediately relevant to the Tibbonid position on the Arabic language, please do pass it along! (I’m so looking forward to getting back to reading a bit more widely in the scholarship now that the book’s done!)

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