The history of knitting is fascinating!
I share knitting throughout time, knitting history and culture, and who invented knitting.
The History Of Knitting
Ever wondered who invented knitting and what the craft’s roots are? Or the equipment used?
Knitting, like other craft hobbies, has a rich past.
I learned so much researching this. I hope you do too.
I reviewed and updated this post on June 5, 2022.
Table Of Contents
- Origins of Knitting
- Knitting in Europe Takes off
- Knitting Guilds In Europe
- The Industrial Revolution
- The Great Depression
- 50s & 60s
- 1980s and 90s
- 21st Century
- Loom Knitting History
- History of Knitting Machines
- Irish Knitting
- Fair Isle Knitting
- Norwegian Knitting
- Facts About Knitting
- Popular Knitting History Books
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Early Origins of Knitting
The origins are hard to place. It happened across the world at different times.
No one knows who invented knitting.
Most recorded works it has Middle East origins, spreading to other countries via trade routes.
People favored the elaborate Arabic-influenced knitting styles.
Origins of knitting in Arabic areas are traced back to anglers, who used the technique to create nets.
The oldest known knitted object and pieces come from Egypt – socks from the 11th century CE.
These socks use the purl stitch and detailed colorwork.
Looking to learn something? Read through my guide to arm knitting (misspelled as arm kniting.)
Knitting originated in Egypt between 500 AD & 1200 AD.
In the same tomb, the socks were found, other fragments were present.
A similar technique called Nålbinding.
- Knitting uses two knitting needles to create loops
- Nålbinding uses one to loop, knot and split the fabric, like sewing
However, they create an identical fabric!
Nålbinding was a favored technique until knitting was introduced to Europe, where it fizzled out.
It’s said purl stitches were created 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.
They were 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 is visible in tombs in a Monastery in Spain.
Like Prince Fernando, with beautiful, intricate cushion covers.
The Catholic Spanish found these items extraordinary
Garments and accessories are in catholic church treasuries across Spain.
The textiles skills Muslim crafters from the Middle East brought to Spain influenced Christianity.
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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 Madonna knitting.
Knitting became popular in Europe in the 14th century.
Findings by archaeologists, like tax lists in cities like London, Oslo, Amsterdam, and Newcastle.
They show 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 lost in Europe.
The word “knit” is documented to the 1520s (the 16th century), deriving from the same words giving us “knot.”
Want to make your knitting life easier? Get yourself a wool bowl.
The Oxford English Dictionary (and other sources) traces the word “knit” to the early 16th century.
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 inspired by framework knitting.
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the demand for stockings increased.
Want to try a knitting course? Have a look at my review of Andrea Wong knitting.
She was a great fan of knitted silk stockings, as the fabric was soft.
Knitting schools were created to provide income for the poor. This skill became necessary for the lower classes.
In what was to be the United States, the wife of George Washington was a keen knitter and boosted the craft industry.
Knitting Guilds in Europe
The first was set up during the Middle Ages and for men.
Men’s knitting guilds timelines cover the 1200s-1700s, declining in the mid-16th century.
If young men wanted to work in a guild and become a Master Knitter, they spent six years in training.
Women couldn’t be members.
Three years spent as a trainee and the remaining three traveling to countries searching for new techniques and patterns.
It seems like the dream life. Provided it was in our century. 🙂 Middle-age guilds weren’t a walk in the park.
Working environments wouldn’t have included central heating or cooling!
After finishing six years of study, the apprentice would return home and undergo an exam to gain entrance.
The test was making a
- Felted cap
- A pair of stockings or gloves
- A garment
- A shirt or waistcoat
- A knitted carpet!
Apprentices had 13 weeks to finish the exam. They were judged on their mastery, artistry, and good taste.
The Industrial Revolution
The mechanical knitting machine or the stocking frame was created in 1589.
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 kept their soldiers warm and protected.
Knitted stockings were in high demand during the civil war.
Halfway through the Nineteenth century, most of the knitwear industry hadn’t transitioned to factory machines.
With the improvement of steam-powered machines, machine knitting moved to factories to accommodate larger devices.
Machine knitting during the industrial revolution created many 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.
Many hand knitters were put out of business, but it got popular as a hobby.
The 1920’s: The Roaring Twenties Fashion!
The Roaring Twenties saw a massive increase in the popularity of knitwear in the western world.
Knitwear, like pullovers, became a fundamental part of fashion for men, women, and children.
Knitted garments were associated with sports/leisure. High fashion also favored knitted products.
Coco Chanel & The Vogue Mag included patterns in their issues.
The 1920s also witnessed a growth in the popularity of this craft.
WW1 and the trenches caused a shortage of socks and other items for the armed forces.
This lead to governments encouraging those 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.
People were urged to contribute to the war effort and make knitted garments for the troops.
Companies and wool shops profited from the demands, and knitting needles, patterns, yarn, and tools abounded.
Meanwhile, the losing side of the Russian Civil War escaped to China.
They encountered Chinese caravan men, and the Russians passed on the craft of knitting.
These caravan men made items and knit fabric out of camel hair! Knitting spread throughout the rest of the country.
The Great Depression
The prominence of knitwear in the fashion of the ’20s continued. The fashionable clothing range changed.
Innovations became common with the invention of the zip and new synthetic yarn.
The hardship suffered by many during the Great Depression made people return to making clothes by hand.
It was cheaper.
Knitting was essential, as socks, underwear, and others needed constant repair.
Patterns were featured in women’s magazines, reflecting the need for hand-knitting.
People took a part-time job, handcrafting for profit.
Tools like yarn ballers make knitting easier!
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 information on
- Saving money
- Being thrifty
- Using rationed items and supplies
- Contributing to the war effort
Wool was in short supply in the second world war, so the booklet encouraged people to unpick old woolen garments to re-use.
Patterns were issued so men and women could make these for the army and navy and 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 often depicted a woman knitting, with posters exclaiming the importance of helping the soldiers.
Jane Waller wrote an essay ‘Knitting Fashions Of The 1940s Styles Patterns and History’.
It’s worth reading if this period interests you.
The 50’s & The 60’s: Haute Couture
After the war years, nations recovered from the terrible losses they’d suffered.
British bred specific sheep to produce high-quality yarn.
Knitting received a boost because new colors and yarn types were 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.
Magazines had good ideas and patterns for
- Other items
People made things to sell for a profit.
1980s and 90s
The popularity of knitting suffered a sharp decline during this period.
Sales of patterns and yarn collapsed, as the craft was thought of as old-fashioned. Kids weren’t taught in schools.
The availability and low cost of machine-knitted items from commercial companies made it practical and less expensive..
Tracksuits and sweatshirts were used as sportswear, not knitwear, as was in the 1920s.
Knitwear became smart casual than more relaxed attire.
Advances in technology saw digital versions of knitting machines, and some saw the potential as an art form.
21st Century: Knitting Makes a comeback!
In the 21st century, knitting has seen a revival. Hooray!
This revival is from the growth of the internet, The “Handmade Revolution,” and interest in DIY Crafts.
The Handmade Revolution is the name given to movements online, focusing on bringing back handcrafts.
Often facilitated on forums and Pinterest.
Natural fibers became more accessible and cheaper.
Also, plant fibers like
The yarn industry makes “Novelty Yarns,” using natural and synthetic fibers.
The knitting community adapts and blends this wonderful skill. Creating unique trends like arm knitting!
New ideas are forever influenced by the past.
The Victoria and Albert Museum has a large exhibit on textiles and knitting. It was interesting!
Hand Knit Wear designers have experienced more exposure via the digital age and social media.
Ravelry is a platform for knitters to learn from each other and for people to showcase and sell their patterns.
Jess and Casey, the founders, created a thriving and passionate community.
Savvy people have used platforms like Instagram and Facebook to create a loyal following.
Influencers 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 Guilds’ apprentices knit the rugs needed for their Master on frames (knitting boards) as well.”
Find out more 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 on a bed of iron and encased in a large wooden structure.
The needle bed held 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 on a loom.
Nowadays, knitting machines run on electricity and do most of the work.
- The Brother knitting machine timeline spans from 1954 to the present.
- The Raschel knitting machine dates back to the 19th century.
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 created on the Aran Islands.
Jumper patterns were guarded and kept within the same clan for 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 are famous around the world.
Fair Isle designs are complicated and 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 embroidered and knitted items.
Historical accounts have noted it was an activity associated with the lower/poorer classes.
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 and handknitted Norwegian mitten designs are famous.
Here are excellent titles 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 is older than crochet and younger than weaving.
- The world’s quickest knitter is Miriam Tegels from the Netherlands. She knits 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.
- 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, “to knot.”
- For the first 400 or 500 years of knitting, people used 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!
- Historians say further proof 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.
What about the future? 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.
I’d love to hear anything you know about this. Tell me in the comments section.
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