A History of Knitting
Knitting is the process by which a person makes loops of thread which interlock row by row. It involves holding a needle and some yarn and then forming stitches to create socks, sweaters, scarves, dresses―almost any garment or shape. Knitting evenly is basically a matter of making all your stitches the same size. Knitting can be done standing up or sitting down and is an activity that was historically a trade, which in more recent times has become a hobby enjoyed by women and men all over the world. It can be done alone or socially in a local knitting circle. It can be practical, high fashion on the runway and is even considered an art form.
No one has been able to put a definite date on the actual invention of knitting, but it seems to have originated in the Arab world. The Arabs then brought that skill to Spain, and it went from there north to the rest of Europe. For centuries, knitting was done by hand, but machines eventually made the job easier. Explore some of the interesting history surrounding the multistranded magic that is knitting.
The verb “to knit” has several meanings in modern English. Besides meaning to “make a fabric with knitting needles or a knitting machine,” it also means “to fuse” or “to draw together.” It may come from the Old English word cnyttan, which means “to tie with a knot,” and is closely related to cnotta, or “knot.” In Middle English, the word was often spelled knytt, “to tie with a knot.” The newer meanings of the word, as in “drawing close together,” were not widely used until the end of the 15th century (Rutt).
The First Socks: Egypt before AD 1200
No one knows the exact date the first hand-knit item was produced, but knitting is younger than spinning and weaving and it most likely originated in the Middle East among Arab nomads. The earliest examples found were all worked on either oblong or circular frames (Nargi).
There are not many ancient examples of knitting because the earliest items were made of natural fabrics like cotton, silk, or wool, and they decomposed. However, some examples have survived. In 1933, Rudolf Pfister discovered three fragments of knitted fabric in an excavation site at Dura in Eastern Syria. Two of the pieces are very small scraps of ribbing with bands of tan, red, grey, purple, and green on a natural fawn background. They are made entirely of undyed wool with crossed loops, both purl and plain. The work was probably done in the round and may be part of a sock (Rutt).
Experts later argued that the Dura fragment is an example of nålbinding (“needle binding”), which is an early type of knotless fabric netting technique practiced by Coptic Christians in Egypt around the 4th century and Scandinavians of the Viking Age in the latter half of the 1st century. It looks like knitting and produces a fabric that looks knitted, but it is not the same thing. Nålbinding uses one needle to knot and splice fabric together, whereas knitting uses two needles to make loops within loops with string or yarn.
The division in Ancient Egyptian Coptic socks was for thongs or sandals At some point, between AD 500 and 1200, an inventive person introduced the second needle into knitting, and we have the oldest surviving examples of true, undisputed knitting with blue and white socks from Egypt that date from between the years 1000 and 1400. These “Coptic socks” are socks in that they are roughly shaped to fit the foot, read above the ankle, and have a division for the big toe, which was probably intended to accommodate a thong or sandal (ibid).
Knitting Madonnas: Europe 14th Century
Knitting was introduced by Arab craftsmen to Spain, and from there it spread to the rest of Europe. Among the earliest examples of Spanish knitting are two Arab-knit silk pillows found in the royal tombs of the Monastery of St. Mary of Las Huelgas in northern Spain that date from the late 11th century.
By the 14th century, knitting had spread to the rest of Europe and had become the domain of highly skilled craftsman who belonged to knitting guilds. They had to pass rigorous tests to gain membership to one of these guilds, which were set up in France as early as 1268. The first items knitted by these artisans were small, including relic purses to hold the remains of saints as well as liturgical gloves and pillows, such as those found at Las Huelgas Monastery. There were also knitted stockings, sleeves, purses, and various pouches. One of these pouches could be hung from girdles beneath the copious folds on both men’s and women’s undergarments; there were also drawstring bags known as “pokes” (Nargi).
Several well-known paintings depict the Virgin Mary knitting A few well-known paintings of the Holy Family from this time period show Mary holding the Christ child on her lap while she knits. One of these paintings is called Madonna dell’umilta (Madonna of Humility) by Ambrogio Lorenzetti from Siena, Italy. It was painted around 1349 and is interesting because it shows Mary not seated on a throne but sitting on the floor knitting, which is something peasant women might do. Joseph sits at her right-hand side looking at her, and the little boy Jesus sits with one hand on his mother’s arm. Mary herself is knitting in the round with four needles and purple yarn, which goes to show that knitting was known in Italy and done by ladies as early as the 1350s (Rutt).
The Gansey Pullover: United Kingdom 16th CenturyThe purl stitch was invented in the 16th century and revolutionalized knitting
Knitting in England and the British Isles became popular a little later than in continental Europe, although there are records that show knit caps were made there as early as 1465. English knitters invented the purl stitch in the 16th century, which revolutionized knitting techniques. Purling is simply working the knit stitch backwards. It was especially helpful in hand knitting the silk stockings that would become so popular among British nobility.
King Henry VIII was the first British sovereign known to wear knitted stockings. He had a preference for cloth hose, although “there came by great chance from Spain a pair of knit silk stocking” (Kooler).
His daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, preferred to wear only knit silk stockings and encouraged the formation of knitting schools. She was given her first pair of black knitted silk stockings as a New Year’s present shortly after the beginning of her reign, and records show she wore both simple and ornate knitted sleeves on her gowns (Nargi).
In 1545, the ship Mary Rose sunk off the coast of Hampshire, England. Four hundred years later, explorers recovered several artifacts from the wreckage, including a 12-inch-long stockinette tube of black wool. These items were called “scoggers” and “hoggers” in 16th-century England and they could be the ancestor of the modern legwarmer. These words were archaic terms for any kind of knitted sleeve covering, with scoggers covering the arms and hoggers the feet.
Other distinctive styles of knitting would appear throughout the British Isles, including the intricately cabled fisherman’s sweater called the “gansey,” a name derived from the island of Guernsey. It is the general term used to describe the seaman’s seamless pullover―although in Scotland, it is an old word that describes any kind of pullover (Pearson).
Although its name comes from Guernsey, it originated on mainland Britain. The gansey could have been a desperate attempt by Queen Elizabeth to rescue Guernsey’s agricultural-dependent economy, which had collapsed. She encouraged the establishment of the Knitting Guild of Guernsey, a new source of wealth for the islanders. Legend says she was trying to offset Guernsey’s heritage of piracy and smuggling. The Knitting Guild did help create more income as they were to supply the courts of both England and France with fine hosiery and garments. However, knitting was never able to completely replace the islanders’ penchant for smuggling and piracy.
Fair Isle Knitting: United Kingdom 1588Fair Isle knitting first appeared off the coasts of Scotland and Norway
The distinctive Fair Isle style of knitting first appeared in the Shetland Islands, off the coasts of Scotland and Norway. These sweaters differed from the ganseys in that they featured two-colored knitting, where no more than two colors were worked in one round (ibid).
There is a legend that the Fair Isle style was introduced to the Shetland Islands by the Spanish. Apparently, Admiral Juan Gómez de Medina and his flagship El Gran Grifón had fled north after the British defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. On August 17, 1588, the ship was wrecked on the rocks of Fair Isle. The Fair Islanders, who were fearful of the Spanish, hid their food and animals. Many of the Spanish survivors died of starvation and others were so weakened that they were easily set upon by islanders and hurled over the high cliffs into the sea. Eventually, a small boat was sent to mainland Shetland for help, and the duke and his surviving crew were returned to Europe (Starmore).
It was believed that when Gómez and his crew wintered in Shetland, they taught the islanders the art of knitting. Several knitting experts―such as Eliza Edmonston, in 1856―claim that the distinctive Fair Isle knitting closely resembled Spanish knitting. This connection even has its supporters today, although it seems more fiction than fact.
Even if the Spanish flagship did wreck on Fair Isle, modern evidence seems to show that Fair Isle knitting originated sometime between a documented visit by novelist Sir Walter Scott in 1815 and Eliza Edmonston’s account in 1856―not nearly three centuries earlier.
There is one element that is shared by most of the theories of Fair Isle knitting origin, though, and that is that the patterns were copied from a foreign source. Some people even speculate that the source of Fair Isle knitting was a woven shawl brought to the isle by a foreign visitor or perhaps by a Fair Isle seaman returning from another land (ibid).
The Knitting Frame: England 1589
In 1589, William Lee invented the Stocking Frame Knitting Machine, which would become one the most significant developments in the history of knitting. The frame was composed of more than 2,000 workable parts and was the most complicated mechanism introduced into industry in the 17th century (Nargi).
Little is known about Lee other than he was born in Calverton, in Sherwood Forest, where hand knitting already flourished. He was remarkable in that he was the first man to take a scientific interest in the structure of knitting fabric (Rutt).
It is said that William Lee invented the knitting frame for his wife, who was a great knitter, and her contributions significantly help swell the family coffers. The earliest record of the machine says that he invented it to lighten her task (Thomas).
Apparently, Lee presented Queen Elizabeth with a pair of woolen stockings from his fantastic frame, and she asked him if he could make silk stockings because she worried his new invention would threaten the hand-knitted woolen industry in England. Even after he succeeded, she still refused to grant him a patent.
Tricoteuses were French women known to knit by the guillotine during the French Revolution Lee took his invention to France, which later became notorious as the home of the tricoteuses, the women who sat by the guillotine knitting during the French Revolution and were made famous in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. But he was unable to keep his business going there and he died in Paris sometime after 1614. Most of his workers returned to England with their frames, which they sold in London. One of Lee’s assistants, John Ashton, added a “divider” to the machine, and it became an important part of the mechanization of Britain’s textile industry and in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution.
Mayflower to Martha Washington: Colonial America 17th and 18th Centuries
Knitting may very well have come over with the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. But there is no record that they brought looms or tools with them. The few journals and diaries kept by Pilgrim women do not mention knitting, even though it would have been such an important part of their lives. Several years later, records show that the sponsors of the Massachusetts Bay Company supplied voyagers with “coarse, woolen stockings,” cut-and-sew “Irish stockings,” “knit hose,” and several “red knit caps.” Knitting was also seen as an appropriate activity to keep the Pilgrims from “larking about” (Macdonald).
Fiercely competitive spinning and knitting bees sprang up among the colonists during the Revolutionary War, where the young and old gathered together to sew and knit, enjoying picnics and singing patriotic songs. Knitting provided the patriots with a morale boost and gave them a way to support the fledgling movement for independence. It was also considered patriotic to boycott British goods, and by knitting their own garments, the colonists demonstrated their self-reliance and independence from the British.
Martha Washington was dedicated to knitting, and organized a drive to knit socks to raise money for colonial troops Even the wife of George Washington himself was dedicated to knitting. When Martha Custis Washington married her husband in January 1759, she brought 150 slaves with her to her new home at Mt. Vernon, including her “personal knitter” who was listed as “Peter…lame Knttr” (ibid).
Mrs. Washington was also known to have summoned the wives of high-ranking officers in the colonial army during the Revolutionary War to her side, and she and her circle of friends sewed and mended uniforms and knitted socks. There are also accounts that she helped organize a drive to knit socks to raise money for the colonial troops.
Westward Knit: Mormon America 19th and 20th Centuries
As Americans spread west across the plains and settled the country, they took their knitting with them. There are many reports of female travelers who carried on knitting and sewing while they made the arduous journey west.
Eliza R. Snow was the president of the Mormon Relief Society, which promoted knitting The Mormons, especially after settling in the Salt Lake Valley in 1947, pushed the notion of absolute self-reliance and “retrenchment”―eliminating all extravagance in manners, speech, and clothing became a byword of the Mormon women’s organization, the Relief Society. Its president, Eliza R. Snow, visited a number of Relief Society chapter meetings where the leaders called out for every woman to jump to her feet and declare if she “wore a scarf she knit herself,” “knit her own stockings,” or was “wearing her own straw bonnet” (ibid).
Mormon women were also instrumental in organizing “knitting teas” and “knitting bees” during World War I, and church leaders had to chastise the women for knitting during religious classes because they were concentrating too much on their knitting projects for the Red Cross and not on their lessons. The leaders rationalized that women would have enough time at home for their projects and could afford to spend a few hours in religious instruction.
The Sweater Craze: Designer America 20th Century
The 1920s ushered in the Jazz Age in the United States, and it was dominated by youthful “Bright Young Things.” It was during this time that sweaters, or “jazz jumpers,” first appeared. They were hand knitted, brightly colored, and featured zigzags, geometric forms, and the sweeping curves that were the signatures of Art Deco―a glitzy, glamorous design movement that was popular in Europe and then in the U.S. in the 1920s and into the 1930s.
French designer Jean Patou made a line of sweaters inspired by artists like Pablo Picasso The word “sweater” was first used in the 1880s. Its original purpose was to absorb the sweat from exercise during athletic activities. French designer Jean Patou made sweaters—also called “jumpers,” from the French word jupe—featuring blocks of contrasting color and horizontal stripes inspired by artists like Pablo Picasso (Fogg).
The 1920s also saw the rise of French designer Coco Chanel in Paris, who would go on to become one of most significant designers of the 20th century. Chanel is perhaps best known for her three-piece knit suit, which became a mainstay of the fashionable woman’s wardrobe. Comprised of a cardigan—originally a front-buttoned loose jacket—a skirt, and a “pullover,” this style was perfectly attuned to the modern desire of the American woman who was ready and active for the new century (ibid).
Knitting for All: Worldwide 1930s to the PresentThe twinset has been made popular by past and current celebrities, such as Grace Kelly and Catherine Zeta Jones
While knitwear remained practical throughout the Great Depression, more designers turned to producing ready-to-wear knit dress wear and patterns that could be easily produced at home. One of the most classic designs was the British twinset, which remains popular even to this day. It was engineered rather than designed and was first classified as sportswear. It combined a cardigan buttoned to the neck with a short-sleeved round-necked knit sweater underneath. Often worn with a string of pearls and a tweed skirt, it came to represent a way of life, one that upheld middle-class values and represented good taste. The twin set was beloved of style icons such as Grace Kelly and has been stylishly represented by such current celebrities as Catherine Zeta Jones and Victoria Beckham (ibid).
The 1950s brought in the era of the argyle check which, especially in America, became a staple of men’s sportswear. A Scottish pattern that resembles the tartan hose worn by men who wear the Scottish kilt, it became popular in the 1920s with the Duke of Windsor. This decade also saw the introduction of synthetic yarn and fibers, and it became easier to mass produce knits. Handmade took on a different meaning as the knitting machine mass produced ready-to-wear sweaters and other garments that both men and women could easily find at their local department store.
The miniskirt rocketed to popularity in the 1960s, and long, loose sweaters could be worn as minidresses. There was also the back-to-nature movement in the 1960s and 1970s with its heightened interest in natural fibers and crafts. “Primal,” “rustic,” “cottage craft” fashions from Colombia, Bolivia, Ireland, Iceland, and Peru were sought after because they had the long, slouchy look that accompanied either “neats or jeans” (Macdonald).
With advances in technology from the 1980s on, computer programs make it possible to enter size and gauge data, which then recalculates and prints an individualized pattern. There are instruction videos all over the Internet and YouTube, not to mention videotapes and DVDs, that home knitters can follow along with to make sense of particularly difficult instructions and patterns.
Despite these advances, actual hand-knitting techniques have remained the same. Fashion has changed, and knit wear can be mass produced. Knitting can still be practical as well as an art. Life moves at a faster pace where fewer people have time for busywork like knitting. However, it is still a useful skill that a person can do to while away a few hours or where friends can gather in social “knitting circles.” Knitting can be big business but it is also art―and a hobby that draws men and women together, where creativity and pleasure can prevail for a little while over duty and responsibility.
-- Posted October 29, 2015
Fogg, Marnie. 2010. Knitwear: Collecting and Wearing Designer Classics (Vintage Fashion Series). New York, NY: Lark Books.
Kooler, Donna 2012. Donna Kooler’s Encyclopedia of Knitting. Little Rock, AK: Leisure Arts, Inc.
Macdonald, Anne L. 1988. No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Nargi, Lela. 2011. Knitting around the World: A Multistranded History of a Time-Honored Tradition. Minneapolis, MN: Voyageur Press.
Pearson, Michael. 1984. Michael Pearson’s Traditional Knitting: Aran, Fair Isle, and Fisher Ganseys. New York, NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company.
Rutt, Richard. 1987. A History of Hand Knitting. Loveland, CO: Interweave Press.
Starmore, Alice. 1988. Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting. Newtown, CT: The Taunton Press.Thomas, Mary. 1972. Mary Thomas’s Knitting Book. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.