The word for untangling yarn or taking apart a yarn garment, 'unravel' (or 'ravel'), has an early modern origin. But people (especially, one imagines, the English) have been taking apart yarn garments to remake them since ancient times, and there must have been a much older terms for doing so.

For example what word would the historical (c. 1400) Richard II have used (and had he been drawing from concrete usage) in Shakespeare's (c. 1595) sentence:

Must I do so? and must I ravel out my weaved-up folly?

I would like to concentrate on wool and on knitted garments. As one commenter pointed out, an old woven garment would more likely have its seams picked apart, then been recut and resewn; the yarn would be less likely to be "unwoven".

Thus, what would term would a knitter (or a weaver of coarse, worsted fabric) in, say, Norman England, have used to describe (in the "vulgar tongue") this crucial step in reclaiming an old woolen garment for use in constructing a new one. What about even earlier (Old English)?

What are some Medieval words or Old English words for unravelling a knitted garment?

Support for this practice is given in Manufacturing Cloth from Wool: Medieval methods....:

While knitting wasn't wholly unknown in the Middle Ages, scant evidence of hand-knitted garments survives. The relative ease of the craft of knitting and the ready availability of materials and tools for making knitting needles makes it hard to believe that peasants didn't knit themselves warm clothing from wool they got from their own sheep.

The lack of surviving garments isn't at all surprising, considering the fragility of all cloth and the amount of time that has passed since the medieval era. Peasants could have worn their knitted garments to pieces, or they may have reclaimed the yarn for alternate uses when the garment grew too old or threadbare to wear any longer.

  • The obvious answer, unpick, does not seem to be correct. The OED has quotes from 1393, 1400 and 1450 for unpick, but only for unpicking locks. The first quote it has for unpick, meaning to unravel material, is from 1775. – ab2 Jan 20 '17 at 19:57
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    Maybe try asking at crafts.stackexchange.com. – Drew Jan 20 '17 at 20:09
  • This is a great question, but most of us will be hampered by not knowing much about (a) how the coat of a sheep gets made into the coat or tunic of a very early Englishman. See Manufacturing Cloth from Wool: Medieval Methods....; and (b) tailoring. My guess is that woven woolen garments were not unraveled or untangled or unwound, but the seams in the garment were unpicked and the garment recut and resewn. Worsted (coarse woolen) and knitted garments might have been unraveled. See section on Knitting in link. – ab2 Jan 21 '17 at 1:54
  • @ab2: Yes, I agree. I should be more specific. I'm thinking especially of "worsted (coarse woolen) and knitted garments". – orome Jan 21 '17 at 14:03
  • @raxacoricofallapatorius I wonder if you mean yarn at all. YARN is spun into cloth; as such, yard (thread) can become tangled before being woven. So, now, I am not sure of your question. To unravel is usually not by human intervention. Are you asking if these people took woven garments and then re-wove them into new garments by unraveling the woven cloth?? If so, the question was not correctly formulated. – Lambie Jan 21 '17 at 19:45

Let's start with yarn, which ca 1000 CE was gearn. Source, Oxford English Dictionary.

a. Originally, spun fibre, as of cotton, silk, wool, flax; now, usually, fibre spun and prepared for use in weaving, knitting, the manufacture of sewing-thread, etc. Also with qualification, as cotton, linen, woollen yarn.

c1000 in T. Wright & R. P. Wülcker Anglo-Saxon & Old Eng. Vocab. (1884) I. 238/27 Filatum, gearn.

c1050 in T. Wright & R. P. Wülcker Anglo-Saxon & Old Eng. Vocab. (1884) I. 187/30 Glomus, unwunden gearn.

(Somewhat later, it was spelled yarn or yaarn or zern or yerne.)

unwunden means not wound, according to The Student's Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon and also according to A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, which also says it

is the past participle of unwindan

According to A Dictionary of the Anglo-Saxon Language it means unwound.

Going to The Old English Translator and plugging in unwind, we get

onwindan Strong sv/t3 to unwind loosen retreat

and also

unwindan Strong sv/t3 to unwind uncover

Circling back to the Oxford English Dictionary the first cite we find for unwind is from 1325, and it does not refer to yarn:

a. trans. To wind off, move back, or detach (a wrapping, covering, bandage, etc.); to undo the folds or convolutions of (thread, tape, or the like); to untwine, untwist.

c1325 Lai le Freine 189 Therto he yede and it [sc. a furred skin] vnwond, And the..child therin he fond.

This is as far as Googling will take me with unwind; my bet is that Garth's wife used some form of the verb unwindan when she was picking apart his old tunic.

  • The question is not about yarn per se. It's about untangling it. Not unwinding it particularly. That would mean from itself or a spool. This is about unraveling, untangling or unsnarling it. – Lambie Jan 20 '17 at 23:02

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word unknit, meaning "To untie or undo (a knot or something tied)"1, is attested back to c.1000. This verb would certainly work now to mean "unravel a garment in order to reuse the yarn".

Note that the corresponding verb knit, also attested to c.1000, may not have taken on its most common contemporary meaning until much later; the earliest attestation the OED has for this sense is 1530.2 However, a 1290 quotation for the sense of making a net3 may hint at similar usages early on. I think at least that a contemporary of Richard II could well have used the term unknit figuratively, just as we could use unknot, for describing and explaining one's crimes and misdemeanors.

1 "unknit, v." OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016.

2 "To form (a close texture) by the interlooping of successive series of loops of yarn or thread." ("knit, v." OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Sense 2.b.) The original sense defined is simply "To tie in or with a knot; to tie, fasten, bind, attach, join, by or as by knotting." (Sense 1.a.)

3 Id., Sense 2.a.


I now think what I found is rather to the point so I'm putting it in as an answer:

Here's what I found: 1) Tangle, v. to twist confusedly; tangell, Palsg.; tangild, pp., ensnared, H (p. 149).

2) Winden, v. to wind, twist, turn; wynde, PP; wand, pt. s., SD; wonden, pl., P; wounden, PP; wunden, pp., S; wounden, S; wounde, PP; y-wounden, PP.—AS. windan, pt. wand (pl. wundon), pp. wunden. [though this would require a spool or somesuch]

And the same dictionary says you can put UN to reverse an action. So basically, the word untangle stands the test of time.

This source text is a Dictionary of Medieval English called: A Concise Dictionary of Middle English from A.D. 1150 to 1580 by Mayhew and Skeat

Medieval English

  • I'm not claiming that the OED is perfect, but its first cite for tangle is 1615 and its only cite referring to yarn (actually string) is 1910. The first cite in OED for untangle is 1550 and refers to "any thyng". Etymonline does not support tangle as referring to yarn until 1610. Neither of us has the final answer -- someone who knows Old English needs to weigh in. – ab2 Jan 21 '17 at 0:09
  • @ab2 I was not commenting on the quality of the OED entry. My citation is from a medieval dictionary. i.e. prior to 1615. The dictionary runs from 1150 to 1580. In any event, there is probably something with threading and threading. Rather than yarn. Or some word we haven't seen. Too bad there's no bilingual dictionary... – Lambie Jan 21 '17 at 0:13
  • I know the OED is imperfect -- I wasn't accusing you of saying it was! I tried putting tangle into the Old English Translator, which translates between modern English and Old English, which it says is 5th century to 12th century, and came up with a blank. Which jibes with Etymonline. Garth's wife might have said unwindan and her great-granddaughter untangled. (Note that the OP asked specifically about yarn.) – ab2 Jan 21 '17 at 0:24
  • +1 because I think your answer is useful...we are concentrating on different periods. – ab2 Jan 21 '17 at 0:29
  • @ab2 My answer contains documented proof of the word tangle in the medieval period. There may be ways to say we have no idea of. 5th to the 12th century is probably too early. – Lambie Jan 21 '17 at 0:33

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