A History of Knitting

The term knitting originally comes from a word in the Dutch language meaning to knot. However, the method of combining thread/yarn to create a fabric is much older than that term. The earliest known knitting-type cloth manufacture comes from Roman-era Egypt where socks with divided toes were made using wool yarn. These socks, similar in form to traditional Japanese tabi socks, were designed for wear with sandals. The proto-knitting technique (nalbinding) differs from the modern method; however, it represents an important evolution in the creation of fabrics during this time period.

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European knitting emerged from the Muslim population of thirteenth century Spain where artisans from this tradition made knitted stockings of very high quality for the Spanish royal family. Silk yarn was the material of choice for these garments. Spain was the center of knitting in Europe for more than two centuries. During this time, knitting was used for other products, including gloves and pillow covers.

The technique of purling was unknown until the sixteenth century, meaning that knitters created a stockinette fabric by knitting in the round using multiple pins during this period. In the fourteenth century, paintings depicting the Virgin Mary as a knitter began to appear, some of which survive even now, including one by Venetian painter Tommaso da Modena.

The popularity of knitting increased in England during their Renaissance era, the reign of Elizabeth I, with woolen knitted products from that country being widely exported to continental Europe. Knitting schools opened during this time to educate the poor in the art. Students, however, were primarily men and knitting was considered a masculine occupation, even though many women knitted for their families as their skills allowed. The quality of knitting in England was considered the best in Europe. Knitting guilds also appeared during this time.

Somewhat later, knitting became an important cottage industry in Scotland where whole families knitted for their livelihoods. Scotland remains heavily associated with knitting and knit products even now. Ireland's association with knit sweaters, especially cabled knits, came later in nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These sweaters, made for fishermen, are known as Aran sweaters/cardigans and are named for the Aran Islands off the western coast of Ireland. Many myths surround these garments; however, few have any basis in history.

The Industrial Revolution decreased the focus on knitting fabrics, especially those created at home, and shifted the garment industry toward manufacturing and machine-produced cloth. Knitting in England revived during the World War II years when cloth and clothing were scarce.

In the East, knitting was primarily done by nomadic peoples who utilized camel hair and other rougher materials, usually for their own use, not for commercial purposes. This tradition continued through many changes in lifestyle and industry, remaining in use among indigenous peoples through many centuries of political upheaval.

Knit fabrics enjoyed two periods of popularity in the US during the 1950s and 60s and later in the early part of the twenty-first century, continuing until present day as more and more yarn types become available and craft shops increase in terms of both presence in the marketplace and popularity. The knitting revival in the mid-twentieth century can be attributed to both fashion and the focus on home-making in American culture.

The sharpest decline in home knitting popularity occurred in the 1980s, brought about by the material culture and cheaply manufactured knit clothing of that decade. As the economy has declined, the importance of home-skills like knitting and clothing repair have increased proportionately.

Currently, knitting remains on the rise among young women, who learn the craft from friends and family, instructional books, and a wide variety of Internet resources geared toward beginning-to-advanced level knitters. Additionally, knitting blogs are also a substantial presence online. The current outlook is for knitting to continue its rise in popularity at least until the economy changes, after which the focus on skills of this kind may decrease again.

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Copyright Dorothy Mae 2010