Knitting is a pretty amazing craft. By moving a couple needles around and making loops in a piece of thread, you can create any piece of clothing and a wide range of other items.
But where did it come from? How did the idea of looping thread around a set of knitting needles over and over again come to be? And how did it become so popular?
In this blog post, I hope to put an answer to those questions. Knitting has a twisted, but fascinating, history to unravel. From elaborate socks to knitting guilds to the modern art of knitting we have today, the history of knitting has never been dull.
Follow along with me as we trace the history of knitting!
Who Invented Knitting?
The main problem with dating cloth arts is the inevitable deterioration of the final products. Long ago, knits and other cloth crafts were only made with natural fiber yarns that decay easily, like cotton or silk.
We do know that handmade cloth crafts have been in our world for tens of centuries. Ancient Greek mythology has gods and goddesses as spinners and weaves, so that must mean that knitting is just as old, right?
When a pair of cloth socks was discovered in Egypt from around 300 AD, everyone was excited to think that knitting started in the first centuries, AD. However, after taking a closer look, it was found that these socks were not created with two needles, but one, in a technique called nalebinding. The fabrics made by both fiber artistry types look very similar, but nalebinding creates knots in fabric, rather than loops like knitting. The art of nalebinding is also a much harder and more time-intensive craft.
So any fragments of true knitting are dated to a much later time. An elaborate pair of socks, including intricate colorwork, are the oldest item of knitting we have found. These fragments are traced to Egypt, circa 1000 – 1400 AD.
The craft probably originated earlier than that, though. The level of detail in these early fragments points to a long-practiced art, not something that was first used to make socks with such precision. It is also to be said that the traditional, two-needle knitting came out of the older art of nalebinding. At some point, someone decided to pick up a second needle.
So, like crocheting, the answer to who invented knitting is not easy. We cannot pin the invention to a specific person or even to a specific century and people.
However, it most certainly began in the Middle East and then spread west to Europe. The earliest fragments were found in the Middle East, and the very fact that we knit from right to left suggests that it was created by someone whose language is read right from left, like Arabic.
Knitting History in Europe
Knitting found its way to Spain by the 13th century. Trade routes were continuing to spread out, allowing for the transfer of a craft like knitting. Someone acquires a knit item, wonders how it’s made, and the craft is born in a new place.
By the 14th century, it is said that “the knowledge of how to knit was starting to spread, quickly”. While the phrase “to knit” was not added to the English dictionary until the 1400s, in other parts of Europe, it was truly taking off. Paintings from that time even depicted the Virgin Mary knitting, which shows how elevated this craft was.
Knitting became a high art across Europe. Knitting guilds, formed to train master knitters and protect knitting secrets, only allowed the most advanced and precise knitters into their ranks. They also only allowed men. In order to enter a knitting guild, you had to go through six years of training; traveling all around to acquire new patterns and techniques. The knitting trade was definitely not for the faint of heart.
For a long time, stockings were the most commonly knit item. Members of the aristocracy and upper classes loved the way hand knit silk stockings felt and looked. Having these stockings ended up becoming a symbol of status within the community. If you were rich, by the end of the 1500s you most likely had at least one intricately knit pair of stocking in your closet.
This need for stockings and other hand knit items, made knitting into an industry; a way for men and women to knit for a living. They also began knitting for their own families, so the scope of those wearing knits expanded from just the rich and famous to the everyman.
The purl stitch was first introduced to the knitting stage in Europe in the 16th century. While those very early socks found in the Middle East include purl stitches, they didn’t show up in European knitting until much later. The purl stitch really adds variety to knitting patterns beyond just the changing of colors. The addition to the purl stitch mean great stitch combinations that knitters use even today! This was also a gateway for a lot of other amazing stitches to develop.
The 16th century also saw the creation of a mechanical knitting machine in 1589. It is said that
“while it didn’t demolish the hand knitting industry, it foreshadowed more technological changes to come,”Davina from sheepandstitch.com
As the years continued, this machine gained many improvements. When the Industrial Revolution hit in full force, hand knitting was no longer needed to support the industry, as in the past with the guilds and fancy stockings.
The Victorian Era in Britain (1837 – 1901) saw an increase in people knitting, and also crocheting, because Queen Victoria dabbled in fiber artistry. But was really only a parlor craft, left for women to do in their spare time. What had been a marker of high status and accomplishment became docile leisure.
Knitting in the 20th Century
While the turn of the 20th century saw knitting as just a serene, domestic activity, that soon changed.
The World Wars brought a resurgence of knitting as people were urged to make knit items for the fighting men. Knitting was a matter of patriotic duty. Thousands upon thousands of socks and other items were shipped to the front during the wars. Often, these garments would be made of wool or other fiber from old, unusable clothing, since wool was in short supply.
The Great Depression between the wars also contributed to a knitting upswing. Knitting your clothing was less expensive than buying, which meant more and more people were knitting to save money. Knitting became a necessity.
In the decades after the Second World War, new fiber yarns in every color of the rainbow were introduced, leading to a craze of bright, popping knitting patterns. People were desperate to knit all they could, and the craft grew from a necessary craft for clothing to a craft for everything under the sun. Bags, blankets, and toys that were knit became very wanted.
All crafts seem to ebb and flow, though. The 1980s saw another decline in knitting, since the emergence of garments with new materials and fibers made knitting seem old-fashioned. Computerized machines also made machine knit items a lot cheaper, so it didn’t made sense to spend time learning to create them.
Thankfully, that’s not the end of knitting’s story.
Knitting in the 21st Century: A New Generation of Knitters
More recently, the art of knitting and other crafts have come back to the forefront of people’s minds. People want to create things with their own hands, watching them form before their eyes. More young people, like myself, are jumping on the fiber art trend, creating beautiful and useful designs.
The onset of the digital age has done a lot to revive knitting. The Internet makes it a lot easier to find specialty yarns, discover great patterns, and have a community of knitters for question answering and support.