The history of knitting is fascinating!
I share knitting throughout time, knitting history and culture, and who invented knitting.
History of Knitting
Many people’s favorite pastime, and so enjoyable too!
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 learned so much from researching this. 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
- 21st Century: Knitting Makes A Comeback!
- Loom Knitting History
- History of Knitting Machines
- Irish Knitting
- Fair Isle Knitting
- Norwegian Knitting
- Secret History of Knitting
- Facts About Knitting
- Popular Knitting History Books
Early Origins of Knitting
The exact origins are a bit hard to place. It happened in different areas of the world at different times. No one knows exactly who invented knitting.
Most recorded works say its origins come from the Middle East, which then spread to countries further afield via trade routes. Other nations favored the elaborate Arabic-influenced knitting styles.
Origins of knitting in Arabic areas can be traced back to fishermen, who would use the technique to create nets.
The oldest known knitted object and pieces come from Egypt, which is socks from the 11th century CE. These socks are quite complex, using the purl stitch and detailed colorwork.
Knitting originated in Egypt somewhere between 500 AD & 1200 AD.
In the same tomb the socks were found, other fragments were present.
A similar technique called Nålbinding, which looks like knitting but isn’t the same. Why? Knitting uses two knitting needles to create loops. Nålbinding only uses one to loop, then knot and split the fabric, like sewing.
However, they create a nearly identical fabric!
Nålbinding was a favored technique until knitting was introduced to Europe, where it fizzled out. It’s said purl stitches were created first, before knit stitches. Perhaps people found using two needles easier than one!
This video by We Are Knitters gives an informative introduction to Knitting’s past.
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 like cushion covers and gloves are visible in several tombs in a Monastery in Spain.
Once such tomb was that of Prince Fernando, which featured beautifully made cushion covers with intricate designs.
The Catholic Spanish must have found these items extraordinary, as many garments and accessories are in catholic church treasuries across Spain.
The knitting skill and textiles skills these Muslim crafters from the Middle East brought to Spain influenced many branches of Christianity.
Usually brought through trade routes to the Mediterranean, and further trade routes reaching Spain and the UK.
Many paintings of the Virgin Mary from the 14th century portray the Madonna knitting.
Knitting began to become more popular in Europe in the 14th century too.
Findings by archaeologists, such as tax lists in cities such as London, Oslo, Amsterdam, and Newcastle, indicate the exchange and use of knitted goods spread throughout European nations throughout the 14th century.
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, despite being present since 1400 AD.
The first examples with the purl stitch in places other than Egypt appeared in the mid 16th century. Egyptian knitting only had flat knitting. However, flat knitting in Europe was most likely inspired by framework knitting.
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the demand for stockings increased.
She was a great fan of knitted silk stockings as the fabric was so soft. Knitting schools were set up as a way of providing income for the poor. This skill often became a necessity for the lower classes.
Over in what was soon to be the United States, the wife of George Washington was a keen knitter and helped boost the craft industry.
Knitting Guilds in Europe
The first was set up during the Middle Ages and for men only. Men’s knitting guilds timelines cover the 1200s-1700s, declining in the mid 16th century as they became less important.
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. Women could not be members.
Three years spent as a trainee and the remaining three traveling to different countries searching for 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 making a felted cap, a pair of stockings or gloves, a garment, a shirt or waistcoat, and the most time-consuming item: a knitted carpet!
Apprentices had 13 weeks to finish the exam. They would be judged on their mastery, level of skill, artistry, and good taste. 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 during the Industrial Revolution. The city’s profits grew with the invention of portable circular knitting machines.
During the American Civil War, knitting rose in popularity on both sides to keep their soldiers warm and protected against the elements. Knitted stockings were in high demand, particularly during the civil war.
Halfway through the Nineteenth century, most of the knitwear 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 during the industrial revolution created many different fabrics. This led to the development of machine knitted knitwear on a massive scale, and hand knit-fabric fizzed out.
Hand knitting in the industry declined, and many hand knitters were put out of business, but it got quite popular as a hobby.
The 1920’s: The Roaring Twenties Fashion!
At this point, the Roaring Twenties saw a massive increase in the popularity of knitwear in the western world.
Knitwear, especially pullovers, became a fundamental part of fashion for men, women, and children.
Knitted garments were usually associated with sports/leisure. High fashion also favored knitted products, such as Coco Chanel & The Vogue Mag, regularly including various 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 contribute to the war effort and make knitted garments for the troops.
As a result, many companies and wool shops profited from the demands, and knitting needles, patterns, yarn, and tools abounded.
Meanwhile, some of the oops of the losing side of the Russian Civil War escaped to China. There, they encountered Chinese caravan men, and the Russians passed on the craft of knitting to them.
These caravan men then made items and knit fabric out of camel hair! Knitting later spread throughout the rest of the country.
The Great Depression: If You Want Clothes, Get Knitting!
The prominence of knitwear in the fashion of the ’20s continued. Still, as always, fashionable clothing range changed over 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 was much cheaper to make your own than buying clothing.
Knitting was an essential skill 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, handcrafting for profit.
WW2: Britain Knits For Victory!
During World War II (WW2), the British Ministry of Information, published a handout – Make, Do, and Mend.
In this pamphlet, the government department offered lots of helpful information on saving money, being thrifty, making use of the heavily rationed items and supplies, and contributing to the war effort.
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 both men and women could make these for the army and navy and to show their support.
It gave people back at home a sense of purpose and a chance to contribute to the war effort of the second world war.
Propaganda that’s survived the ages often depicts a woman knitting, with posters exclaiming the importance of helping the soldiers.
Jane Waller wrote an essay titled ‘Knitting Fashions Of The 1940s Styles Patterns and History’. It would be worth a read if this period interests you.
The 50’s & The 60’s: Haute Couture
After the war years, nations started to recover from the terrible losses they’d suffered.
British bred specific sheep to produce high-quality yarn.
Knitting began to receive a massive boost because new colors and different yarn types were developed and introduced.
Thousands of patterns fed the market hungry for designs in bright colors.
Kids learned to knit in schools. It was a useful skill to have, not just a hobby.
Many magazines in many different countries had good ideas and patterns for clothing, 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 decline during this period.
Sales of patterns and yarn almost collapsed, as the craft was thought of as old-fashioned. Kids were rarely taught in schools.
The availability and low cost of machine-knitted items from commercial companies made it more practical and less expensive than making it yourself.
Alternatives to knitwear, such as tracksuits and sweatshirts, gained 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 as an art form rather than a craft or industry. As a result, many ideas and projects were created, with more attention was placed on the design aspect.
21st Century: Knitting Makes a comeback!
In the 21st century, knitting has seen a revival. Hooray!
This revival is partly due to the growth of the internet and internet-based technologies, The “Handmade Revolution,” and growing interest in DIY Crafts.
The Handmade Revolution is the name given to various movements online, focusing on bringing back handcrafts and encouraging people to learn these crafts. Often facilitated on forums and sites like Pinterest.
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 natural fibers, such as bamboo, qiviut, silk, and yak, are gaining popularity. The yarn industry has recently been making new types of “Novelty Yarns,” using natural fibers and synthetic fibers.
It’s also seen the rise of popularity of other plant fibers like hemp and bamboo.
Traditional designs blended with non-traditional is happening more than ever today. Many makers hold onto conventional patterns, which have gained a large following.
The knitting community is adapting, reinventing, and blending this wonderful skill all the time. Resulting in the creation of many unique ideas and trends, like arm knitting! Who would have thought, but arm knitting is quite popular.
Knitting will be different in the future, but new ideas will be forever influenced by the past. The Victoria and Albert Museum has a large exhibit on textiles and knitting throughout time. I visited, and it was very interesting.
Nevertheless, it’s survived the test of time.
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 people to showcase and sell their patterns.
Jess and Casey, the founders of Ravelry, have created a thriving and passionate community.
Savvy people have used platforms like Instagram and Facebook to create a loyal following. In the world of ‘influencers,’ some 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 places to knit tasseled caps, shawls, petticoats, blankets, stockings, carryalls, purses, sacks, nets, hammocks, and curtains.”
“It’s believed that Guilds’ apprentices 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? William Lee developed a frame with a circular form using a spring and barbed needle in 1589.
The machine William Lee made have 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. Still, it was much quicker than hand knitting!
It was based on the method of framework knitting, a method of hand knitting but on a special type of loom.
Nowadays, knitting machines run on electricity and do almost all of the work.
The Brother knitting machine timeline spans from 1954 to the present.
The Raschel knitting machine dates back to the 19th century, knitting lace inexpensivly and quickly fashion.
For more on the old days of the knitting machine, read this article, “A Short History Of The Knitting Machine.”
Irish Knitting History
Irish knitting is synonymous with Aran knitting and sweaters. The 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 are 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 interpretation.
Inspiration for designs and colorwork was found in the Isle’s wild beauty and the lives local people led.
Sailors and fishers wore many handmade jumpers.
For more on this, read this article by Exclusively Fair Isle.
Norwegian Knitting History
One theory of how knitting came to Norway was through Denmark. In graves dated back to the 15th century, knitting remains were found, like garments.
According to customs records, Bergen in Norway was a harbor for importing luxury items such as embroidered and knitted items. Historical accounts have noted it was an activity associated with the lower/poorer classes.
Eventually, as time went on, knitting became more popular. By the end of the 16th century, many people studied knitting to have a useful skill to create income.
Norwegian knitting is now very famous, and handknitted Norwegian mitten designs are very popular.
Secret History of Knitting
Makeful created a documentary about the origin of this craft.
Popular Books On This Topic
If you’d like to delve into more about this topic, here are some excellent titles and authors worth reading.
- 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
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 as a male-only occupation! When the first knitting guild, established in Paris in 1527, no women could 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.
- 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 technique, called Nålbinding used one knitting needle. It was a cross between knitting and crochet. Even the Ancient Egyptians used it!
- Some Historians say further proof that knitting began in the Middle East is how knitters work their stitches. Though English speakers write from left to right, knitters work the stitches from right to left.
So there you have it.
What about the future? Will it stay or slowly fade away into a thing of the past? As far as knitters are concerned, knitting is here to stay.
Next time you sit down to knit, think of the old days of this wonderful hobby.