The History of Knitting is fascinating!
In this post I share knitting through the ages, knitting history and culture and who invented knitting.
History of Knitting
Ahh, knitting. Many a people’s favorite pastimes. I do it regularly, and I’m sure you can relate to that.
But, have you ever wondered who invented knitting and where the roots of the craft lie? Or the equipment used in the past?
Knitting, like many other craft hobbies, has a rich past, but an accurate and factual account is quite challenging to find.
I’ve presented what I could discover in a timeline.
I learnt so much from doing the research for this post. I hope you find something you didn’t know too.
Table of Contents
- Early Origins of Knitting
- Knitting in Europe Starts to Take off
- Knitting Guilds In Europe
- The Industrial Revolution
- 1920’s: The Roaring Twenties Fashion
- The Great Depression: If you want clothes, get knitting!
- WW2: Europe knits for victory
- The 50’s & 60’s: Haute Couture
- 1980’s and 90’s Decline: Booo!
- 21st Century: Knitting Makes a comeback!
- Loom Knitting History
- History of Knitting Machines
- Irish Knitting History
- Fair Isle Knitting History
- Norwegian Knitting History
- Secret History of Knitting
- Knitting Knowledge ~ Facts About Knitting
- Popular Knitting History Books
Early Origins of Knitting:
The exact origins are a bit hard to place, as it happened in different parts of the world at different times. Who invented knitting by hand is not really known.
Most recorded antiquity concerning this pastime say that it’s origins come from the Middle East, which then spread to countries further afield via trade routes. The elaborate Arabic-influenced knitting styles were favored by other countries.
The oldest known knitted object comes from Egypt, which are socks from the 11th century CE. These socks are quite complex, using the using the purl stitch and detailed color-work.
These qualities suggest that the knowledge of this skill may go further back than recorded days gone by!
A similar technique called Nålbinding, which looks like knitting, but isn’t exactly the same. Why? Well, where knitting was using two needles and thread, Nålbinding is only using one.
Nålbinding was a favored technique until knitting got introduced to European countries, where it sought of fizzled out.
This video by We Are Knitters gives an informative introduction to Knitting’s past
Many of us are avid knitters, and we love our craft dearly. We enjoy it so much, yet the frustrating thing is, we seem to know so little about it! As I have mentioned earlier, that is why I have put this resource together so that you can grasp more. However, many of us are visual learners, and so despite my efforts, loads of text is not going to get you anywhere. No need to fret though; I have a solution to that problem!
Why not find a video on the chronicles of knitting! Tom from We Are Knitters, guides you through the long and fruitful timeline of this fascinating hand craft, from prehistoric times right up to the present day. Enjoy!
Knitting In Europe Takes Off
Hand knitting history – The earliest known knitted items found in Europe; made by Muslims employed by the Spanish Christian Royal Families in the 13th century AD.
Their ability to make high quality knitted goods are visible in several tombs in a Monastery in Spain. The Catholic Spanish must have found these items extraordinary, as many garments and accessories are in church treasuries across Spain.
The textiles skills that these Muslim crafters brought to Spain influenced many branches of Christianity. Many paintings of the Virgin Mary from the 14th century, portray her knitting.
Findings by archaeologists in cities such as London, Oslo, Amsterdam, and Newcastle, indicate that exchange and use of knitted goods spread throughout European countries.
Although the purl stitch is in items from Ancient Egypt, the expertise was probably lost in Europe.
The word knit only became listed in the Oxford Unabridged English Dictionary in the 15th century.
The first examples with the purl stitch in places other than Egypt appeared in the mid 16th century. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the demand for stockings increased. She was a great fan of knitted silk stockings, the fabric was so soft. Knitting schools were set up as a way of providing income for the poor.
Knitting Guilds in Europe
Knitting guilds history, the first guilds were set up during the Middle Ages, and for men only. Men’s knitting history covers the 1200s-1700s.
If young men wanted to work in a guild and become a Master Knitter, well, needless to say, it was a huge commitment. They would spend six years in training building their knitting skill. Women could not be members.
Three years spent as an apprentice and the remaining three traveling to different countries in search of new techniques and patterns.
To Knitters like you and us, that seems like the dream life. Provided it was in our century of course. 🙂 As you already can imagine, Middle-age guilds weren’t exactly a walk in the park. Working environments wouldn’t have included central heating or cooling!!
After finishing those six long years of study, the apprentice would return home and undergo an exam to gain entrance finally. The test consisted of having to make a felted cap, a pair of stockings or gloves, a garment, a shirt or waistcoat and the ultimate and most time-consuming item: the production of a knitted carpet!
Apprentices had 13 weeks to finish the exam; at this point they would be judged on their mastery, level of skill, artistry and good taste. Phew, I’m glad the tests in my education weren’t that intense. 🙂
The Industrial Revolution
The mechanical knitting machine or the stocking frame was created in 1589 and improved over time.
The English city of Nottingham was a big producer of machine knitted lace. The city’s profits grew with the invention of portable circular knitting machines.
Halfway through the Nineteenth century, the majority of the knit wear industry still hadn’t made the transition to factory machines.
Later, with the improvement of steam-powered machines, machine knitting moved to factories to accommodate the larger devices. Machine knitting created many different fabrics and led to the development of a variety of knit wear on a massive scale.
As all this was happening, hand knitting was declining as part of the industry, but it was getting quite well-liked as a hobby.
The 1920’s: The Roaring Twenties Fashion!
The Roaring Twenties saw a massive increase in the popularity of knitwear in Western Countries.
Knitwear, especially sweaters/pullovers became an fundamental part of fashion for men, women, and children.
Knitted garments were usually associated with sports/leisure. High fashion also favored knitted products, for example, Coco Chanel & The Vogue Mag regularly including patterns in their issues.
The 1920s also witnessed a growth in the popularity of this craft. This was mainly contributed to WW1, and the conditions of trenches caused a shortage of socks and other items for the armed forces.
This lead to the governments encouraging those who were on “The Home Front” to reuse old knitted items and spare wool to make garments for the soldiers. The World Wars brought a resurgence of knitting as people were urged to make knitted garments for the troops.
As a result, many companies profited from the demands, producing a number of patterns, yarn, and tools.
The Great Depression: If you want clothes, get knitting!
The prominence of knitwear in the fashion of the 20’s continued, but as always, fashionable clothing range changed over the course of time.
Combining traditional ways with new inventions became more common with the invention of the zip and new synthetic yarn.
The hardship suffered by many during the Great Depression caused some to return to making clothes by hand. It became a necessity.
As most had limited money, in fact it was therefore much cheaper to make your own than buying pieces of clothing.
Knitting was an essential skill during that time as socks, underwear, and other items needed constant repair.
Patterns were increasingly featured in women’s magazines, reflecting the need for hand-knitting. Some people took a part-time job, hand crafting for profit.
WW2: Britain knits for victory!
During World War II (WW2), the government department; British Ministry of Information published a book – Make, Do and Mend
Wool was in very short supply in the second world war, so the booklet encouraged people to unpick old woolen garments to re-use.
Patterns for balaclavas, gloves and hats were issued so that both men and women could make these for the army and navy and to show their support.
This not only produced the much-needed items, but it also gave the people back at home a sense that they were contributing to the war effort.
Jane Waller wrote a book titled ‘Knitting Fashions Of The 1940s Styles Patterns and History’. Would be worth a read if this period interests you.
The 50’s & The 60’s: Haute Couture
After the war years, many people were starting to recover from the terrible losses they’d suffered.
British breed specific sheep were bred to produce high quality yarn.
Knitting received a massive boost because all sorts of new colors and different types of yarn were developed and introduced. The resurgence of knitting was welcomed by many.
Thousands of patterns fed the market hungry for designs in bright colors.
Girls learned to knit in learning institutions, as it was quite a useful skill to have, not just a hobby.
Many magazines in many different countries had patterns for not just wearable items, but blankets, toys, bags, curtains, and other items. People made things to sell for a profit.
1980’s and 90’s Decline: Booo!
The popularity of knitting suffered a sharp decrease during this period. Booo!
Sales of patterns and yarn almost collapsed, as the craft was thought as old-fashioned. Kids were rarely taught in schools.
The availability and low cost of machine-knitted items from commercial companies, deemed more practical and less expensive than buying the implements and yarn required and making it yourself.
Alternatives to knitwear, such as tracksuits and sweatshirts, gained in popularity and were more regularly used as sportswear, not knitwear as was used in the 1920s.
As a result of this, knitwear became associated with smart casual rather than more relaxed attire as it had previously been.
Advances in technology saw digital versions of knitting machines.
Some artists began seeing this craft’s potential for an art form rather than a craft or industry.
As a result, more attention was on the design aspect, rather than uses for fashion or functional means.
21st Century: Knitting Makes a comeback!
The 21st century has seen a revival in Knitting. Hooray!
This revival is due in part to the growth of the internet and internet-based technologies, The “Handmade Revolution” and growing interest in DIY Crafts.
Natural fibers, from animals such as alpaca, angora, merino and mohair, and plant fibers such as cotton, have become more accessible and cheaper to obtain and process.
Other fibers, such as bamboo, qiviut, silk, and yak are gaining in popularity as well.
The yarn industry has recently been making new types of “Novelty Yarns,” using a blend of natural and man-made fibers. These yarns are unique because the final results turn out to be stunning, years of trial and error were not necessary.
Traditional designs blended with non-traditional is happening more than ever today. Many makers hold on to the conventional patterns, which have gained a large following.
This wonderful skill is being adapted, added to, reinvented and blended all the time. (Like Arm Knitting! Who invented arm knitting is hard to find 🙂 )
What we know as knitting today will be something different in the future.
Nevertheless, it has survived the test of time and will continue to do so.
Hand Knit Wear designers have experienced more exposure via the digital age and social media. Ravelry was established to provide a helpful platform for knitters to learn from each other and for designers to be able to showcase and sell their patterns. Jess and Casey, the founders of Ravelry have created a thriving and passionate community.
Savvy designers have used platforms like Instagram and Facebook to create a loyal following. In the world of ‘influencers’, some knitwear designers attract serious popularity.
Loom Knitting History
In the history of loom knitting article by Loom Knitting Help, here is what they said.
“Looms used during the Medieval period in France, Britain, Germany and other European countries to knit tasseled caps, shawls, petticoats, blankets, stockings, carryalls, purses, sacks, nets, hammocks, and curtains.”
“It’s believed that the apprentices of Guilds knit the rugs needed for their Master on frames (knitting boards) as well.”
You can find out more about it here.
History Of Knitting Machines
Who invented the first knitting machine? A man by the name of William Lee developed a frame with the use of a spring and barbed needle, in 1589. The needles retained on a bed of iron and encased in a large wooden structure. The needle bed held rigidly horizontal and other parts of the machine worked around this. It relied on manual labor to operate.
Big known manufacturer, Brother knitting machine history spans from 1954 to present.
The Raschel knitting machine past dates back to the 19th century as an inexpensive way to produce lace.
For more on the old days of the knitting machine, visit Knitting History Forum, and read their article, “A Short History Of The Knitting Machine.”
Irish Knitting History
Irish knitting is synonymous with the history of Aran knitting and Aran sweaters.
History of knitting in Ireland encompasses the intricate patterns that were created on the Aran Islands.
Jumper patterns were zealously guarded and kept within the same clan throughout the generations.
Fair Isle Knitting History
Fair Isle knitting originated on the remote island of Fair Isle, one of the Shetland islands in Scotland. The intricate patterns that originated there is famous around the world.
Fair Isle designs are complicated and often very colorful. The traditional motifs have a long past and each knitter had their own interpretation. Inspiration for designs and colorwork were found in the wild beauty of the Isle and also the lives local people led. Sailors and fishermen wore many hand made jumpers.
For more on this fascinating history read this article by Exclusively Fair Isle.
Norwegian Knitting History
One theory of how knitting came to Norway was through Denmark. Knitting remains found in graves dated back to 1500 A.D.
According to customs records, a place called Bergen in Norway was a harbor for importing luxury items such as embroidered and knitted items.
Historical accounts have noted that it was an activity associated with the lower/poorer classes.
Eventually though, as time went on, knitting became more popular and as a way to make money.
Soon, by the end of the 1600s, less-fortunate people studied knitting, so that they would have a useful skill to create income.
Norwegian knitting is now very famous and the hand knitted Norwegian mitten designs are very popular.
Secret History of Knitting
Makeful created a documentary about the origin of this craft. Take a look here.
Popular Knitting History Books
If you’d like to delve into more about this topic here are some titles and authors –
No Idle Hands The Social History of American Knitting by Anne L. MacDonald
A History of Hand Knitting by Richard Rutt
The Sacred History of Knitting by Heinz Edgar Kiewe
Vogue Knitting The Ultimate Hat Book History Technique Design – Vogue Knitting Magazine
Portuguese Style of Knitting History Traditions and Techniques by Andrea Wong
Knitting Around the World: A Multistranded History of a Time-Honored Tradition by Lela Nargi
Folk Socks: The History & Techniques of Handknitted Footwear by Nancy Bush
History of the brioche knitting, covered in Nancy Marchant’s book Explorations in Brioche Knitting
Knitting Knowledge ~ Interesting Facts
- Knitting is considered to be older than crochet and younger than weaving. The current world’s quickest knitter is Miriam Tegels from the Netherlands. She can knit 118 stitches in one minute!
- It started off as a male-only occupation! When the very first knitting guild, established in Paris in 1527, no women were allowed to join. Wow, imagine that!
- Early knitting needles materials included ivory, tortoiseshell, and bone. Queen Victoria was a keen knitter until her death.
- During her reign, there was an explosion of the craft industry, including the knitting industry. This boosted trade and profits for wool growers.
- The word “knit” is from the old English word cnyttan which means “to knot”
- For the first 400 or 500 years of knitting, people mostly used two common fibers, silk, and cotton. No wool!
- The full-fashioned knitting machine, invented by William Cotton of Leicestershire, England (Made between 1865-1864)
- An ancient skill, called Nålbinding used one knitting needle. It was a cross between knitting and crochet. Even the Ancient Egyptians used it! Some Historians say that further proof that knitting began in the Middle East is found in the way knitters work their stitches: even though English speakers write from left to right, knitters work the stitches from right to left to create loops.
Knitting Will Remain Throughout History
So there you have it. The complete, (well, almost complete) history of knitting.
What about the future? Will it stay, or slowly fade away into a thing of the past?
Well, as far as Knitters are concerned, Knitting is here to stay.
So next time you pick up those needles, think of the rich bygone days of this wonderful hobby.