History Of Knitting

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It is hard to say when knitting was first discovered and by whom, because dating its origin is complicated by the fragile and perishable nature of natural fibers. Knitting in some form has, however; been around since Roman times, and new discoveries of ancient knitted fabrics are being made that add depth to our knowledge of this craft.

Knitting then

Original fragments excavated by archaeologists from a Roman-era site dating to a.d. 256 at Dura Europas were originally considered to be the first knitted remains.They have, however; now been identified as having been created not by knitting but by another technique known as 'nalbinding' (also spelled nilbinding, naalbinding, and nalebinding).This is a method of creating a stretchy fabric using short lengths of yarn and a single-eyed needle.The material is formed by looping the yarn through at least two previously created loops, gradually building up row upon row of loops. As with knitting, the thickness of the fabric depends on the type of yarn being used and the looseness/tightness of the individual nalbinder.

Nalbinding predates both knitting and crochet by at least 2000 years. Other archeological finds of toed ankle socks from fifth- and-sixth century Egypt are also examples of nalbinding that were previously wrongly identified as knitting. Nalbinding as a practical needlecraft survived for longest in Scandinavia, before being succeeded by knitting.

Other scraps of knitted fabric that have been found in Eqypt date back to between the seventh and ninth centuries a.d. , and it is clear that, by then, the Egyptians had attained a high understanding of the craft and were producing elaborate and complex work One of the earliest fragments of fabric knitted on needles was discovered in Fostat, an ancient Egyptian city. This incredibly intricate piece is said to have around forty-five stitches per inch, and it would have required a high level of skill to produce such a fine and delicate sample of work.

To date, it is thought that the oldest positively identified pieces of knitting are some two-color socks made from cotton, dating from thirteenth- to fifteenth-century Islamic Egypt These fragments show complex two-color patterning in combination with simple stripes, and some, Arabic script.

The birth of stockinette

Among the eighth- to tenth-century Viking tombs of Norway and northern Scandinavia, fragments of fabrics have been found that show a fusion of weaving and knitting known as "sprang." This method was produced from a series of vertical threads, similar to the warp in weaving, which were set up on a frame. A chain stitch was worked vertically up the first thread, using a simple sewing needle, and a second row was then interlaced with the sides of the first row of chains. When the whole frame was covered, the vertical threads were removed, leaving a fabric very similar to stockinette stitch, although the interlock between the stitches was sideways instead of through the top of the loops, as in knitting.

Below Eighty year old Mrs Johnny Bear has knitted Cowichan sweaters for half a century. (British Columbia, Canada.)

Below Eighty year old Mrs Johnny Bear has knitted Cowichan sweaters for half a century. (British Columbia, Canada.)

People Knitting
Ancient Arab Knitting
Above Knitted Fair Isle cap and gloves from the 1940s.

It is not known where sprang originated. Evidence of an early version of sprang was located in excavations of an ancient culture in Peru from around 500 B.C. Textile fragments have been excavated from Norwegian and Danish peat bogs, dating from as early as 1500-1100 B.C., which have been identified as caps and stockings. Evidence has also been found of pieces made in Norway, Denmark and Sweden from the Viking period onward.

Paintings on early Greek vases appear to depict women making a fabric very similar in appearance to sprang.

(More recently, the method has been used in Mexico, where it is used for shopping bags and hammocks, and the Winnebago Indians of Wisconsin also use it to make scarves.)

A similar form of knitting to sprang, which dates to the first century a.d., has also been found in Peru, and although it was not worked with two needles, it resembles stockinette stitch even more closely than sprang. It was worked with a basic sewing needle and thread, using a horizontal line of thread as the base. A series of loops was built up along the base row, and a second row of loops was then interlinked with the bases of the first loops; the rows were then continued until the fabric was completed.The finished fabric is known as "Peruvian needle knitting."

The spread of knitting

The oldest samples of knitting from medieval Europe have been identified as two finely knit cushions found in the thirteenth-century tombs of a Castilian Prince and Princess. (A former kingdom of Spain, Castile comprises the two regions of Old Castile in northwestern Spain, and New Castile in the center of the country.)

The beautiful cushions were finely knitted using a complicated two-color pattern that covered the whole area, and one also had an Arabic inscription on it.This suggests that knitting may have been transported by the Moors from the Middle East to the continent of Europe via Spain. Although this theory is not conclusive, at present it seems the most likely theory for the dissemination of knitting from the Middle East to Europe.

The elaborate Arabic-influenced knitting styles the Moors brought were an inspiration for the Spanish and Italian knitting industry, which reached its peak over a thousand years later. In Austria and Germany, meanwhile, heavily cabled fabrics with embroidery were influenced by Florentine knitwear, while in Florence itself, coats were finely worked using silver and gold threads to produce richly brocaded knitted fabrics. Each of these countries would add its own layer of identity onto a craft whose history, in the form of looped thread fabrics, can be traced back almost two millennia.

Knitters guilds

In the Middle Ages, knitted fabrics and clothes were produced by "knitters guilds," which operated across Europe.These guilds were composed of men who had refined this ancient craft and were producing exquisite fabrics for the nobility of the day. Every member of high society would own some precious knitted garments, and they would even have their own personal knitting master to create these intricate and unique items of clothing.

To become a member of this elite group of knitting masters, a young man would have to serve a three-year apprenticeship with a master; then spend the same amount of time traveling, where he could learn skills from masters in other countries. He would then return to take an exam, during which he had to produce an original piece of work involving intricate designs and using many colors. After this he could be called a master himself.Then, in turn, he would take on his own apprentices and start the process again, continuing the perfection of the craft.

The guilds were run along very strict guidelines, with stringent regulations to keep the standards high and prevent poor-quality goods being produced. If these regulations were violated, the member could lose his job and also his livelihood, since all sales were also controlled by the guild. In this way, knitters guilds were self-regulating, and that is why the standards were so high wherever these guilds existed.

Sixteenth-century developments

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England (1558-1603), the frame knitting machine was invented. This simple device was the beginning of the stockings industry in England, which then spread around the world, with England exporting large quantities of stockings.

In fact, it was via a gift to the king of a fine pair of stockings that knitting reached Denmark The king was so impressed that he invited knitters from Holland to teach Danish women how to knit. However, only the members of his court were allowed to wear the silk stockings that were knitted. Other Danes protested, and it was agreed that other classes could wear stockings too—although the middle classes were permitted only the more humble cotton version, and the peasants were allowed to wear only poor-quality stockings made of rough yarn.

Also during this time, felted knitting was introduced in England.This process of soaking and pummeling knitted woolen fabric, which was thought to have originated in the Basque region of France, was used to produce the French beret. Across the Channel in England, the knitters' apprentices would wear elaborate hats produced from felted knitting fabrics.

An example of sixteenth-century knitting may be found in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, where there is a knitted jacket that used knit and purl patterning as well as color patterning.The pieces were knitted flat then sewn together afterward.The difference in the patterns on the front and back may indicate that they were knitted in the same workshop but by different people.

A further example of a flat-knitted garment using knit and purl patterning was the blue silk tunic worn by Charles II to his execution in 1685.

Knitting goes West

With the colonization of the Americas in the early seventeenth century, European knitting traditions spread via missionaries, sailors, and other new arrivals. Depending on the nationality of the immigrants, different knitting traditions were passed on to the Americans, who then developed their own skills.To complete the circle, traditions developed in America eventually recrossed the Atlantic with Irish émigrés returning home from America, and found their way into the famously intricate sweaters from the Aran Islands.

Women start to knit

The start of the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century, and, with it the introduction of knitting machinery, eventually moved the craft away from men and into the home, where it became a productive home-based skill pursued by women. Until that point women had been allowed only to spin the yarn for the men to knit.

The popularity of knitting as a woman's pastime spread, and by Victorian times it ranked among the skills of the upper classes, alongside playing the piano, painting watercolors, and doing embroidery. Knitting patterns started appearing in the magazines of the day, and these were soon followed by specialist magazines, which proved extremely popular and helped knitting to become a widespread hobby.


During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, strong traditional knitting styles developed throughout Europe. One of these traditions was the gansey, which was produced along the British coast, particularly around Cornwall, Guernsey (from where they got their name), Ireland, and the islands of Scotland. Each port produced these heavy woolen, seamless sweaters, which were knitted in stockinette stitch or made with simple patterns using purl stitch on a stockinette stitch background. Fishermen would wear their ganseys to work in or while fishing, and the individual patterns on the sweaters meant that each fisherman's home port could be identified from his gansey.They would have more complicated patterns for special occasions, using heavy cables, embossed stitches, and bobbles.

It was also a tradition for the womenfolk to knit these individual sweaters before marriage and present them to their husbands on their wedding day. (For this reason these sweaters were sometimes known as bridal shirts.) The complex nature and individuality of the design showed each woman's love and, of course, her skill with her knitting needles. Some knitters even worked their initials or full name, or even the name of their husband's boat, into the garment above the hem.This personalization was a form of identification that would prove useful in the event of the wearer being found drowned.

The basic gansey is similar throughout Great Britain. Traditionally the patterns were never written down but passed from mother to daughter or friend to friend, constantly being added to. As the fishermen traveled around the country working in different areas doing seasonal work, so the different patterns traveled the country too.

These gansey sweaters were also knitted commercially, and production reached its peak in the middle of the nineteenth century. A number of similarities may be noted between the gansey and early Italian knitwear from the seventeenth century, and this may be due to the enormous amount of knitwear that was exported from the Channel Islands to Europe in Elizabethan times.The shape is very similar to seventeenth-century Italian silk shirts, although it had been modified to suit the harsher elements of yarn and the need for a working man's garment that would stand the rigours of a tough working life.

Fair Isle sweaters

Another tradition was also developing in the remote Shetland and Fair Isles, which are a group of over a hundred islands situated between northeast Scotland and Norway, only fourteen of which are inhabited. Legend has it that in 1588 a ship from the Spanish Armada was wrecked off Sheep Rock in the Fair Isles. Survivors from the wreck taught the island women the art of colored knitting in return for their keep, copying patterns from the knitwear they were wearing and from the corpses that had washed ashore.

Below Women from the Shetland Islands carding and spinning wool before it is knitted.

Below Women from the Shetland Islands carding and spinning wool before it is knitted.

Prince Wales Lander Portrait
Above Portrait of HRH Prince Edward, The Prince of Wales, by John St. Helier Lander, 1925.

The earliest example of patterned knitting found on the islands dates to 1680-1690. It was found on the body of a man who had been preserved in a peat bog. He was wearing patterned stockings, a hat, and gloves. It is unknown whether he was an islander or a trader from another country.

A cap and purse knitted in silk which may have been made for Victorian tourists, are the only other items of Fair Isle patterned knitwear to be found that date before about 1850. It is more likely that the Fair Isle patterns are related to the knitting of Estonia and Russia, being brought across the North Sea by traders.

The colors used in these patterns of crosses, hexagons, and triangles were mostly natural shades of browns, grays, and creams, which came from the native sheep of the islands. Yellow yarn was also used (it was created by dying the yarn using onion skins), and indigo blue and madder red also appear around the 1840s, when they were first imported. After 1920, however, mill-dyed yarns were imported, giving the knitters a wide range of colors to knit with, and encouraging knitting as an export. The original use of these sweaters, as with the ganseys, was as work wear, but in 1921 the then Prince of Wales was seen wearing a Fair Isle sweater while playing golf in Scotland. He then also wore it in a portrait painted by Sir Henry Lander.This inevitably made this style of knitwear very fashionable, and its popularity continued until the 1950s. After that time, the Norwegian patterned sweaters, which used trees, snowflakes, and star images, became more popular. In recent years, however, there has been a revival in knitting in the Fair Isles, fueled by the tourist industry, which it is hoped will continue for many years.

Other styles

Other traditional styles developed around this time were heavily decorated worsted-weight sweaters from the Aran Islands, with their complex use of cables and twisted patterns. In Scandinavia, single- and two-color stranded knitting was developing, while in Eastern Europe the stranded knitting was produced in many colors

Knitting in wartime

The need for practical knitwear for the soldiers of the First World War from both sides of the Atlantic was instrumental in encouraging knitting in the home, as balaclavas, socks, and gloves were essential for the troops. This also happened in the Second World Wan when many knitting pattern books had practical patterns for scarves and other necessities.

Soldiers and sailors had also long been taught and encouraged to knit their own socks and gloves as ways of keeping warm. In the Second World Wan British soldiers imprisoned in Austria knitted socks, caps, and other items of clothing using yarn supplied by the Red Cross, to prevent themselves freezing to death.

Knitting goes couture

From 1920, the fashion houses of Paris began designing increasing amounts of knitwear to include in their couture collections.The 1920s were definitely a sweater age, and this is the decade that first introduced the Sloppy Joe

(a loose-fitting sweater usually worn by girls), which has been revived a few times since then.

Anny Blatt was a leading designer of knitwear at this time, and in the 1930s her knitting leaflets were published so that home knitters could reproduce the Paris fashions. This revolutionized the knitting styles available to the general public.

Another publication that became popular was StitchcraftThis finally brought fashion and knitwear together for the masses, and was available on every bookstall. Many more knitting books began appearing, and although their popularity has waxed and waned over the past fifty years, these influential publications have carried on appearing. In fact, more books and knitting magazines are appearing in the twenty-first century than ever before, thanks to the number of younger people who have rediscovered the joys of this ancient craft

Below During World War I, girls on all sides were encouraged to knit at school, making warm socks and other woolen clothing for the troops on the front lines.This knitting class was photographed in Germany in 1915.

Below During World War I, girls on all sides were encouraged to knit at school, making warm socks and other woolen clothing for the troops on the front lines.This knitting class was photographed in Germany in 1915.

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