The Origins of Knitting

Knitting is the art of taking thread or yarn and making it into fabric. Two needles, or even sticks are used to produce this fabric with a series of loops made with the yarn. Unlike weaving, it does not require much equipment and can even be done on the move. I myself have walked miles while knitting.

The earliest archaeological evidence of knitted-type fabric thus far is socks and stockings. Below is a picture of such socks. They are made with a technique called Nalebinding which uses one needle and a series of loops. It is unlike crochet because it involves passing the yarn all the way through each loop. This method is also unlike true knitting because it creates a set of fabric pieces which then need to be sewn together. It is easy to mistake these for knitted pieces. 

 Nalebound socks from Egypt (300-500 AD)

Nalebound socks from Egypt (300-500 AD)

Most histories of knitting place the origins of knitted fabric in the Middle East, most likely Egypt sometime prior to the 11th century BC. From the Middle East, these fabrics, and the technique to make them, spread out to Asia and Europe and then on to the Americas.

The first knitting needles were likely made from wood or bone. Metal developed in the Middle East during the Bronze Age, well before we have evidence of knitting. But that does not mean metal was not used for making needles. However, the cost of metal would have been much higher than the use of wood or bone which would have been more readily available.

 Collection of spinning, weaving and knitting artifacts from the Roman site, Verulamium near St. Albans.

Collection of spinning, weaving and knitting artifacts from the Roman site, Verulamium near St. Albans.

Many of these early knitted pieces were not monochrome but made of many vibrant colors. In the tombs of the Abbey of Santa Maria la Real de la Huelgas, a number of beautifully knitted items such as cushion covers and gloves were found revealing work as fine as 20 stitches per inch.

 The Abbey of Santa Maria la Real de la Huelgas.

The Abbey of Santa Maria la Real de la Huelgas.

At this time, the purl stitch was unknown. The knit stitch was used in the round with multiple needles to produce a stockinette stitch. The purl stitch appears on the scene in the mid-16th century in the red silk stockings of Eleanora de Toldeo, wife of Cosimo Medici. She was buried in these and they include the first evidence of lacy patterns made with yarn overs. 

 Red silk stocking buried with Eleanor de Toledo.

Red silk stocking buried with Eleanor de Toledo.

The first knitting guild was set up in 620 AD in France. Men were the only ones knitting at this time (for profit at least). One must apprentice for six years first in order to become a member of the guild. During Elizabethan times, knitted stockings, usually of wool, became a sought after item. Knitting guilds were set up in England to train the poor and provide a way to generate income. Men were among the first to attend these training schools and set up shop as knitters for hire. Stockings began being shipped to the Netherlands and other parts of Europe. 

In Scotland, knitting became such an important occupation in the 17th and 18th centuries that entire families would knit up sweaters, stockings, socks, and other accessories for sale. These items were particularly popular with fishermen. The Faire Isle Technique was developed at this time to add very particular character to the pieces. 

 Modern sweaters knit in the Faire Isle style.

Modern sweaters knit in the Faire Isle style.

With the industrial revolution came machine knitting. The first machine knitter was actually developed in 1589 by an Englishman named Rev. William Leed. His wife still knitted by hand but his machine did revolutionize the industry over time. Men would operate the machines and women would hand knit the finishing touches.

Elaborate designs such as cabling, lace work and color work further evolved up through the early 20th century. In the 1920s knitwear became a very popular fashion staple in much of the Western World. Even designers such as Coco Chanel embraced the trend. 

 Coco Chanel with Lady Abdy, May 1929.

Coco Chanel with Lady Abdy, May 1929.

During both world wars knitting was very popular. It was a way to contribute to the war efforts.

01-girls-knitting-1939.jpg

Knitting remained popular up through the 1970s, both machine made and hand knit. In the 1980s, fashion trends changed dramatically with the more widespread use of synthetic fabrics like nylon, dacron and spandex. In the early 2000s, knitting began an upsurge in popularity along with a desire of knitters to learn more about not only the techniques of knitting but the fibers their yarns were spun from. Many books have been written on fibers from different animals and types of sheep, their properties and which fibers are best for which types of projects. Today it is a very popular hobby and the revival of a love of hand knit items has lead to a whole new cottage industry in places such as markets, festivals and fairs and of course online in places like Ravelry and etsy. 

No one is quite sure when crochet first arrived on the scene. The word crochet comes from the Middle French word croc or croche, meaning hook. American crochet expert Annie Potter believes it began in the 16th century in France. Liz Paludan, a Danish researcher, attributes the origins of crochet to one of three hypotheses:

1. It arose in Arabia and followed the trade routes to Tibet, Spain and then the Mediterranean region. 

2. It began with a South American tribe who used it in part of their puberty rituals.

3. It began in China, where there are examples of three dimensional dolls made with crochet. Sounds like ancient amigurumi. 

Other researchers suggest that crochet developed from the Chinese needlework art called Tambouring and by the 1700s it reached Europe. In this technique, fabric is stretched tautly in a frame, much like when doing needlepoint. "The working thread is held underneath the fabric. A needle with a hook is inserted downward and a loop of the working thread drawn up through the fabric. With the loop still on the hook, the hook is then inserted a little farther along and another loop of the working thread is drawn up and worked through the first loop to form a chain stitch. The tambour hooks were as thin as sewing needles, so the work must have been accomplished with very fine thread." (Marks, History of Crochet)

In any case, it was as wide spread as knitting and was used to make the same types of things with the same types of material (wool, hemp, flax, cotton, grass, etc.) 

The earliest crochet patterns known to date were printed in 1824 and were for purses made with very fine gold and silver thread. 

To learn more about the history of crochet, check out these sources:

  • "A Living Mystery, the International Art & History of Crochet," 
    Annie Louise Potter, A.J. Publishing International, 1990
  • "Crochet History & Technique," 
    Lis Paludan, Interweave Press, 1995

 

In our final installment, you'll get a bonus pattern from the upcoming book. This pattern is great for beginning knitters with no tricky stitches or patterns to follow and like the nomad knitters of old, are easy enough that you can walk your favorite forest path while you knit them up. 

0 Likes