The History of Knitting – Who On Earth Invented This Wonderful Hobby? And Why?

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 knitting lie? Or the equipment used in the past?

Knitting, like many other craft hobbies, has a rich history, but an accurate and factual account is quite challenging to find.

I’ve presented what I could find in a history of knitting timeline.

So here, I present to you: A special post for Knit Like Granny, A History of Knitting.

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:

The exact origins of Knitting is 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 history concerning knitting say that it’s origins come from the Middle East, which then spread to Europe via trade routes.

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 quite intricate color work.

These qualities suggest that the knowledge of knitting may go further back than recorded history!

A similar technique called Nålbinding, which looks like knitting, but isn’t exactly knitting. Why? Well, where knitting was using two needles and thread, Nålbinding is only using one.

Nålbinding was a popular technique until knitting got introduced to Europe, where it sought of fizzled out.

History of Knitting

A Quick, Informative Introduction To The History Of Knitting

Many of us are avid knitters, and we love our craft dearly. We enjoy knitting 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 learn about knitting. However, many of us are visual learners, and so despite our best efforts, loads of text is not going to get you anywhere. Don’t fret though; I have a solution to that problem!

As I was mulling over that problem, I had a brainwave. Why not find a video on the history of knitting! So, that is what we did. Here, after much searching, we found a brief, enjoyable video on the history of knitting. Tom from We Are Knitters ENG, guides you through the long and fruitful timeline of knitting, from prehistoric times right up to the present day. Enjoy!

Knitting In Europe Starts To Take 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 goods extraordinary, as many garments and accessories are in Catholic church treasuries across Spain.

The skills that these Muslims knitters 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, suggest that trade and use of knitted goods spread throughout Europe.

Although the purl stitch is in items from Ancient Egypt, the knowledge was probably lost in Europe.

The first items with the purl stitch in Europe appeared in the mid-16th century. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the demand for stockings increased, and knitting schools were set up as a way of providing income for the poor.

 Instagram user @KJSRoom image of Knitted Bonnet and Sweater in brown wool
@KJSRoom Knitted Bonnet and Sweater

Knitting Guilds in Europe

Knitting guilds history, the first knitting guilds in Europe 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.

Three years spent as an apprentice and the remaining three years spent 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 conditions 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 text consisted of having to make a felted cap, a pair of stockings or gloves, a shirt or waistcoat and the ultimate and most time-consuming item: A knitted carpet!

Apprentices had 13 weeks to complete the exam; then they would be judged on your mastery, 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 invented 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.

By the middle of the 19th century, the majority of the knitting industry still hadn’t made the transition to factory machines.

Later, with the improvement of steam-powered knitting machines, machine knitting moved to factories to accommodate the larger devices.

As all this was happening, hand knitting was declining as part of the industry, but it was getting quite popular as a hobby.

 Instagram user @20_2_40_style Vintage Sweater in lime green
@20_2_40_style Vintage Sweater

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 essential 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 Magazine regularly including patterns in their issues.

The 1920s also witnessed a growth in the popularity of knitting as an interest. This was mainly due 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.

As a result, many companies profited from the demands, producing 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 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 turn back to hand knitting.

As most had limited money, it was therefore much cheaper to make your own than buying 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. Some people took a part-time job, hand knitting for profit.

WW2: Britain knits for victory!

During WW2, the British Ministry of Information published a book – Make, Do and Mend

Wool was in very short supply, so the booklet encouraged people to unpick old woolen garments to re-use.

Knitting patterns for balaclavas and gloves were issued so that people could make these for the army and navy.

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 of knitting history interests you.

Instagram user @mad_for_mod image of 60s knitted sweater and knitting project started with circular needles and green flecked wool
@mad_for_mod

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.

Knitting received a massive boost because all sorts of new colors and different types of yarn were introduced.

Thousands of patterns fed the market hungry for designs in bright colors.

Girls learned to knit in schools, as it was quite a useful skill to have, not just a hobby.

Many magazines in many different countries included patterns for not just clothes, but blankets, toys, bags, curtains, and other items. People made things to sell for a profit.

Instagram user @jessiegrowden 80s Sweater in patterns and multiple colors
@jessiegrowden 80s Sweater

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 seemed old-fashioned. Kids were rarely taught in schools.

The availability and low cost of machine-knitted items from commercial companies, deemed more practical and cheaper than buying the tools 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 sport/leisure as it had previously been.

Advances in technology saw digital versions of knitting machines.

Some artists began seeing knitting’s potential for an art form rather than a craft or industry.

As a result, more attention was on the design aspect of knitting, rather than uses for fashion or practical 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, merino and mohair, and plant fibers such as cotton, have become more accessible and cheaper to obtain and process.

This, in turn, makes natural fibers for knitting widely available. 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 synthetic fibers. These yarns are unique because the final results turn out to be stunning, years of experience not required.

Traditional designs blended with non-traditional designs is happening more than ever now. Many knitters hold on to the conventional designs, which have gained a large following.

Knitting is being changed, added to, reinvent 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, knitting 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 created 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 social media to create a loyal following. In the world of ‘influencers’, some knitwear designers attract serious popularity.

Loom Knitting History

Loom Knitting @ThePreservationSociety
Loom Knitting @ThePreservationSociety

In the history of loom knitting article by Loom Knitting Help, here is what they said.

“Looms used during the Middle Ages in France, Britain, Germany and other parts of Europe to knit tasseled caps, shawls, petticoats, blankets, stockings, bags, purses, sacks, nets, hammocks, and curtains.”

“It’s believed that the apprentices of Guilds knit the carpet required for their Master on frames (knitting boards) as well.”

You can read more about it here.

History Of Knitting Machines

Who invented the first knitting machine? A man by the name of William Lee invented a frame with the use of a spring and barbed needle, in 1589. The needles held on a bed of iron and encased in a huge wooden frame. 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 dates from 1954 to present.

The Raschel knitting machine history dates back to the 19th century as an inexpensive way to produce lace.

For more on the history of the knitting machine, visit Knitting History, and read their article, “A Short History Of The Knitting Machine.”

Irish Knitting History

Irish knitting history is synonymous with the history of Aran knitting and Aran sweaters.

History of knitting in Ireland covers the intricate patterns that knitters created on the Aran Islands.

Sweater patterns were zealously guarded and kept within the same clan throughout the generations.

Fair Isle Knitting History

Fair Isle Knitwear by Mati Ventrillon Design in blues and white
Fair Isle Knitwear by Mati Ventrillon

Fair Isle knitting originated on the remote island of Fair Isle. The intricate knitting patterns that originated there is famous around the world.

Fair Isle knitting designs are complex and often rich in color. The traditional motifs have a long history and each knitter had their own interpretation. Inspiration for designs were found in the natural beauty of the Isle and also the lives people led.
For more on this fascinating history read this article by Exclusively Fair Isle.

Norwegian Knitting History

Norweigian Handknit mittens by instagram user @Hyggebear
Norwegian Handknit @Hyggebear

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 knitting was an activity associated with the lower/poorer classes.

Eventually though, as time went on, knitting began to get more popular as a way to make money.

Soon, by the end of the 1600s, less-fortunate people learned to knit, 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 wonderful world of knitting and knitting history. Take a look here.

If you’d like to explore knitting history 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

INFOGRAPHIC- History of Knitting Infographic by Knit Like Granny

Knitting Knowledge ~ Facts About Knitting History

  • Knitting 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!
  • Knitting 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 history, people mostly used two common materials, silk, and cotton. No wool!
  • The full-fashioned knitting machine, invented by William Cotton of Leicestershire, England (Made between 1865-1864)
  • An older type of knitting, 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 was invented in the Middle East is found in the way knitters work their stitches: even though English speakers write from left to write, knitters work the stitches from right to left.

Knitting Will Remain Throughout History

So there you have it. The complete, (well, almost complete) history of knitting.

What about the future of Knitting? 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 knitting needles, think of the rich history of this wonderful hobby.

About Jodie - Editor Knit Like Granny

Hi. I’m Jodie Morgan, owner and creator of Knit Like Granny. (Yes, I’m a real person :) ) Thanks for being here. I am an Australian, currently traveling in Europe with my family. I love knitting and have met so many other fabulous knitters through this site. I love learning and helping others discover the joys of working with yarn. Please say hello!

8 thoughts on “The History of Knitting – Who On Earth Invented This Wonderful Hobby? And Why?”

    • Hi Barbara. The History of Knitting is so interesting! As to the names of the more original knitters, perhaps some of our readers might know. If I hear of any, I will be sure to update my post. Cheers Jodie 🙂

  1. Hello Jodie,
    My daughter is knitting a Harry Potter Gryffindor scarf and wondered out loud
    about the history of knitting….we found your site… thanks for sharing your information.
    Cheers,
    Bek

    • Hi Bek. That is so great that your daughter is knitting a Harry Potter Gryffindor Scarf and that sparked her interest about the History of Knitting. So glad you found my post helpful. Knitting History is super interesting. Cheers Jodie 🙂

  2. Actually I don’t think this history is complete. There is no mention as for in history when Continental and English cast-over styles occured. There is controversy over which was first. My Irish family says Continental was first and therefore all of our family has learned this style. Have you any knowledge of this?

    • Hi Annie. It would be fascinating to know which came first! I haven’t been able to find conclusively which one did. If I find anything more, I will be sure to update this post. Cheers Jodie

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