Knitting in History Print
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Written by teddsy2   
Saturday, 01 November 2008 20:12

Knitting, as defined by Wiktionary, is "Combin[ing] a piece of thread with two needles into a piece of fabric." Its origins lie in the basic human need for clothing for protection against the elements. More recently, knitting has become less a necessary skill and more a hobby.

  • 1 Early origins of knitting
  • 2 Elizabethan period
  • 3 Importance in Scottish history
  • 4 Industrial revolution
  • 5 1939-1945: Knitting for Victory
  • 6 1950s and 60s: Haute Couture
  • 7 1980s: The Decline
  • 8 21st century: The Revival
Early origins of knitting

It is not possible to pinpoint the exact geographical origin of knitting. It has been widely believed that knitting developed in pre-Christian time; however, this is strongly disputed today.

The oldest artifacts with a knitted appearance were a type of socks. It is believed that socks and stockings were the first pieces produced using techniques similar to knitting.

These socks were worked in Nålebinding, a technique of making fabric by creating multiple knots or loops with a single needle and thread. Many of these existing clothing items employed nålebinding techniques; some of them look very similar to true knitting. For example, C3rd-5th socks. Several pieces, done in now obscure techniques, have been mistaken for knitting or crocheting.

The first references to true knitting in Europe date from the early 14th century. The first knitted socks from Egypt are older, with some scholars dating them to the 11th century. At this time, the purl stitch (the opposite action to the knit stitch) was unknown; stockinette fabric was produced by knitting in the round and then cutting the piece open (a process now known as steeking). The first reference to the purl stitch dates from the mid-16th century, but the technique may have been developed slightly earlier.

Elizabethan period

During this era the manufacture of stockings was of vast importance to many Britons, who knitted with fine wool and exported their wares. Knitting schools were established as a way of providing an income to the poor; the fashion of the period, for men to wear short trunks, made the fitted stockings a fashion necessity. Stockings made in England were sent to the Netherlands, Spain, and Germany.

Queen Elizabeth I herself favored silk stockings; these were finer, softer, more decorative and much more expensive. Stockings that belonged to her still exist, demonstrating the high quality of the items specifically knitted for her.
Men were also the first to knit for an occupation.

Importance in Scottish history
1855 sketch of a shepherd knitting, while watching his flock.

1855 sketch of a shepherd knitting, while watching his flock.

Knitting was such a vast occupation among those living on the Scottish Isles during the 17th and 18th centuries that the whole family would be involved in making sweaters, accessories, socks, stockings, etc. Fair Isle techniques were used to create elaborate colorful patterns. The sweaters were essential to the fishermen of these Isles, as the natural oils within the wool would provide some element of protection against the harsh weathers while out fishing.

Many elaborate designs were developed, such as cable stitch used on Aran sweaters which were developed in the early 20th century in Ireland.

Industrial revolution

Rudimentary knitting devices had been invented prior to this period, but were one-off creations. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, wool spinning and cloth manufacture began to be done in factories. More women would be employed at operating machinery, rather than producing their home spun and knitted items.

The consistency of the factory spun wool was better in that it was more uniform, and the weight could be gauged better as a consequence.

The city of Nottingham, particularly the district known as Lace Market, dominated the production of machine-knitted lace during the Industrial Revolution and the following decades.

1939-1945: Knitting for Victory
A World War I poster encouraging people to knit socks for the troops.

A World War I poster encouraging people to knit socks for the troops.

"Make do and mend" was the title of a booklet produced by the British wartime government department, the Ministry of Information.

Wool was in very short supply, as were so many things. The booklet encouraged women to unpick any old, unwearable, woolen items in order to re-use the wool.

Knitting patterns were issued for people to make items for the Army and Navy to wear in winter, such as balaclavas and gloves. This not only produced the much-needed items, but also gave a positive sense of achievement towards the war effort to individuals on the "home front"

1950s and 60s: Haute Couture

After the war years, knitting had a huge boost as greater colors and styles of yarn were introduced. Many thousands of patterns fed a hungry market for fashionable designs in bright colors.

The twinset was an extremely popular combination for the home knitter. It consisted of a short-sleeved top with a cardigan in the same color, to be worn together.

Girls were taught to knit in school, as it was thought to be a useful skill, not just a hobby. Magazines such as "Pins and needles" in the UK, carried patterns of varying difficulty, with not just clothes, but items such as blankets, toys, bags, lace curtains and items that could be sold for profit.

1980s: The Decline

The popularity of knitting showed a sharp decline during this period in the Western world. Sales of patterns and yarns slumped, as the craft was increasingly seen as old-fashioned and children were rarely taught to knit in school.

The increased availability and low cost of machine knitted items meant that consumers could have a sweater at the same cost of purchasing the wool and pattern themselves, or often for far less.

21st century: The Revival

Following this decline, the 21st century has seen one of the largest resurgences of the craft in history. Natural fibers from animals, such as alpaca, angora, and merino, and plant fibers, chiefly cotton, have become easier and less cost-prohibitive to collect and process, and therefore more widely available. Consumers will find that exotic fibers, such as silk, bamboo, and qiviut, have a growing popularity behind them as well. Some focus within the yarn industry has been turned to making novelty yarns, which could produce stunning results without years of knitting experience. Designers have begun to create patterns which work up quickly on large needles, a phenomenon known as instant-gratification knitting.

Celebrities, including Julia Roberts, Winona Ryder, Dakota Fanning, and Cameron Diaz, have been seen knitting and have helped to popularize the revival of the craft. The new millennium has also seen a return by men to the art of knitting.

As time and technology change, so does the art of knitting. The Internet allows knitters to connect, share interests and learn from each other, whether across the street or across the globe. Among the first Internet knitting phenomena was the popular KnitList with thousands of members. In 1998, the first online knitting magazine, KnitNet, began publishing. Blogging later added fuel the development of an international knitting community.

Patterns from both print and online sources have inspired groups (known as knit-a-long's, or KAL's) centered upon knitting of a specific pattern. Knitting podcasts, such as Cast-On and Knit Cast, have also emerged, with much cross-pollination of ideas from blogs, 'zines, and knitting books. Traditional designs and techniques that had been preserved by a relatively small number of hand-knitters are now finding a wider audience as well.

On January 14, 2006 influential author and knit-blogger Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, otherwise known as Yarn Harlot, challenged the knitting world to participate in the 2006 Knitting Olympics. To participate, a knitter committed to casting-on a challenging project during the opening ceremonies of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, and to have that project finished by the time the Olympic flame was extinguished 16 days later. By the first day of the Olympics, almost 4,000 knitters had risen to the challenge.

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Last Updated on Sunday, 28 June 2009 12:18