The exact origins of knitting are quite obscure, due to the lack of many surviving examples. However, textile historians commonly trace hand-knitting back to the Middle East around 200 AD.
We then know relatively little until around 600 AD, when it is said to have traveled with the wool trade to Europe and spread to the colonised world.
The very first documented pieces of anything resembling knitting were socks, found in Egyptian tombs dating back to around 3 AD – a time when Egypt was part of the Roman Empire. But this wasn’t technically knitting as we know it; more knotting, done using a one-needled, many-threaded technique called ‘nålebinding’.
No one knows who first invented knitting or who named it, but it is thought that the word ‘knit’ comes from the Old English word ‘cnyttan’, which means ‘knot’ and that it came into being in the 1400s.
The form of knitting that we are familiar with today dates back to the Middle Ages and the Middle East, specifically to 11th-century Egypt, where cotton or silk (not wool) were the staple materials for yarn. Here, Egyptian socks in white and indigo were knitted in intricate detail, with Arabic blessings knitted into them.
Evidence shows that Muslims employed by the Spanish royal family around the 13th-century made gloves and cushion covers. And in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries knitting spread through Europe but wool was still not being used and knitted possessions made from imported cotton and silk were very expensive, so knitted garments were solely for the wealthy.
The first knitting guild was established in France in 620, AD with knitting considered as much an industry as weaving. Knitters had to serve as apprentices for six years before they could enter a guild and membership was confined to men only. Knitting became quite the cottage industry as well, with ordinary working people learning how to knit inexpensively for themselves using their own wool and as time went on people came to rely increasingly on hand-knitting as an income.
In Renaissance Europe, men knitted as well as women. Sailors would knit on long sea voyages and shepherds while tending their flocks. But in Britain’s fishing villages, it was women who famously made guernseys for their husbands using family patterns handed down orally from generation to generation, as well as intricate shawls for babies and lingerie for their bridal trousseaux.
Since the 18th century and the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the United States, knitting has primarily been performed by machines. The first knitting machine was invented by Englishman Rev. William Lee in 1589. The new invention, set to revolutionise the industry, was wearily received for fear that it would strip many people of their livelihood. The knitting machines not only had implications of the industrialisation of the craft, but it also had implications for the division of labor based upon gender. Many of the new machines were operated by men, while the handiwork portions, such as seaming and the running of certain types of machines, were left for women. Hand-knitting had been a viable occupation, now it was handed to girls, particularly the indentured poor, who were taught knitting, along with spinning and sewing, in hopes that they may be more marriageable and/or able to earn a livelihood.
In Victorian England, knitting swung back to being a refined art, with lace and beaded knitting becoming popular displays of a well-bred lady’s accomplishments. It even became a moral duty: girls were expected to learn to knit and complete a set number of rows every day, and ladies carried their knitting with them to social occasions.
When early film stars like Joan Crawford took up knitting in the early 1930s and 40s, the craft became truly glamorous and magazines like ‘Movie Star Hand Knits for Men’ even featured pinups of male stars like Jackie Cooper modelling knitted clothing.
During both wars, women knit for the men abroad and injured soldiers were taught to knit to occupy their minds as they recuperated.
In the post-war 1950s, with the return to domesticity, knitting came over all moralistic again as women were encouraged to knit their way into their beaux’ hearts by making them argyle socks and ‘sweetheart sweaters’, proving what a good wife and mother they would be.
In the last third of the century, as feminism took hold, knitting (along with other domestic pursuits, like baking and sewing) lost its mainstream appeal and was seen as something for grannies.
In the last decade or so knitting has returned to fashion as a new generation of women, raised in the 1980s to focus on careers rather than housewifely pursuits, started to long for a bit more of a work-life balance. And some men, too, have started to knit again, although numbers are in their minority.
As modern women, including stars of our times from Sarah Jessica Parker to Julia Roberts, have rediscovered knitting, it’s no longer something we have to do and we see it as a relaxing and luxurious hobby.
Knitting is appreciated for the time it takes to create something new, for the freedom it allows to express one’s individuality and for the choice that women have. Hand-knitting in the 21st century is about doing it yourself, anti-consumerism, self-identity and independence.
Knitting has become popular in contemporary culture because it brings people together in a time when culture has lost many of the ties that bind us together into communities, and as individuals we need that and seek it out. Through gathering, individuals can feel a sense of belonging and through the passing on of information rooted-ness within the community is imbued.
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