The History of Knitting

The history of knitting is a fascinating study of social history as it is more involved with the everyday people who created and developed this wonderful craft than the majority of more conventional historic studies.

Knitting probably dates as far back as the 3rd-5th centuries
A.D. but the earliest examples of artifacts produced in this way  have been  found in Eygpt and date from around 1,000 A.D. However they are fairly intricately patterned stockings which would therefore suggest that knitting had by this time been around for a quite while in order for it to have developed to this level of sophistication.

From the Middle East knitting spread naturally and easily along the trade routes into Europe, it being an easy and portable affair.The earliest known pieces of knitting found in Europe are in Spain and date from the 13th. century. Bearing in mind that Spain was under Arabic Domination around this time it is more proof that  the art of knitting was first developed in the Middle East and spread later to Europe.

Early Knitted SockEarly Knitted Sock

It was initially a very exclusive art with luxury items being made in silk and cotton, wool was introduced much later. Items such as pillows,liturgical gloves and small bags being the type of items produced. From the 1350's we find painting s Of "The Knitting Madonna" appearing in Europe which is proof positive that European Christians had taken up the craft by then. Unfortunately items produced by this process were by their very nature perishable so there are not many  early samples of knitting in existence.

From the mid 15th. century knitting developed rapidly with knitted stockings being a regular addition to the wardrobes of the wealthy. The fashion for  "doublet and hose" requiring stockings to be worn by men under their short trousers. Queen Elizabeth 1st was a great fan of knitted silk stockings and pairs believed to belong to her are still in existence and show the exquisite skill of knitters of the day.

It did not take long for knitting to become a useful cottage industry
with men and women taking it up. Stockings were exported from Britain to Europe but in addition to knitting for the rich, people started to knit for themselves and knitted and felted hats became a common garment.

In the 15th or 16th century the purl stitch was introduced which gave knitting a new direction and made it possible to develop many more elaborate stitches.

The Victorian middle and lower upper classes adopted knitting as a drawing room art form and there are many references to it in Victorian novels.

 Once wool was in common use for knitting fishermen and sailors took to the art and produced warm, weather proof jerseys. This in turn led to the development of many intricate cable stitches which added bulk and warmth to the garments.

As well as providing very serviceable articles of clothing for themselves the production of such sweaters was a very useful additional income for remote, Scottish, Irish and Cornish communities.

With gangsays, fair isle, and aran patterns still being very popular today.

The 1st. world war saw a renewed interest in knitting from all walks of life when  the British as a whole decided to knit to keep their boys warm in the trenches. Socks, balaclavas, scarfs and gloves were produced in their thousands. This more utilitarian form of the art continued throughout the depression years of the 20's and 30's as an economical way of clothing the family.

During the 2nd World War housewives were again encouraged to pick up their knitting needles,
this time making use of recycled wool by unpicking old jumpers due to the war
time shortage of wool.Knitting patterns were also issued so people could
once again make balaclavas and gloves for the troops.

During the 50's and 60's  knitting had a huge boost as greater colors and styles of yarn were introduced.
New patterns and knitting magazines were designed and girls were taught to knit
in school.

With the dawning of the 80's and the advent of tracksuits and sweatshirts as casual wear hand knitting saw a big drop in popularity. Cheap imports of sweaters in new machine made designs likewise affected interest. This downturn continued through the 90's and saw the sad demise of many local knitting yarn shops.

However the internet has now turned all that its head and there has been a fantastic resurgence of  interest in this wonderful and ancient art.

It is now possible to share patterns and information about knitting with people  all around the world and to have access to wonderful yarns without having to leave your home and maybe travel a distance to your nearest supplier. Knitting clubs and classes are more popular and numerous than ever.

The yarn manufacturers have not been shy to exploit this growing market and have developed many wonderful new yarns, colours, and even materials such as bamboo, yak and qiviut. In addition the traditionally more expensive yarns such as alpaca,
angora mohair and mercerized cotton can now be manufactured in a more cost effective way.

In fact there has never been a more exciting time during the history of knitting to  take up this wonderful craft. Not only is it relaxing, satisfying and therapeutic in this hectic life we lead it also means that every garment you produce is unique! quite a thought in this world of mass production gone mad.

Learn about the History of Wool Production in Britain.

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The History of Knitting

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The history of knitting in America is covered by this very interesting book.