Knitting Throughout the World: A Brief History
This report originally written to fulfill requirements for The Knitting Guild of America (TKGA) Level II Hand Knitter Master Program.
Murky Origins of a Young Craft
Knitting is a young craft, in comparison to spinning and weaving, but fixing a date for its origin is complicated by the perishability of natural fibers. Some sources, without offering any evidence, claim that knitting predates the time of Christ. Fragments of fabric with the appearance of knitting, excavated from third century AD Doura Europos, in the Middle East, turn out to be nålbinding. Nålbinding creates a fabric that looks very much like twisted stockinette stitch, but is formed using a single eyed needle and short lengths of yarn. Additional samples of toed anklet socks from fifth and sixth century AD Egypt are also examples of nålbinding, previously misidentified as knitting.
The English language offers no clues to knitting’s age. The word “knit”, meaning to tie or join, clearly predates knitting as a craft. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest literary reference in English to the primary modern meaning of “knit” is from 1530.
The oldest positively identified pieces of knitting are blue and white cotton socks and fabric fragments, dating from approximately 1200-1500 AD Islamic Egypt. The socks and other fragments show complex two-color patterning in combination with simple stripes. Several display Arabic script.
Knitting Spreads through Mediaeval Europe
The oldest reliable samples of knitting from medieval Europe are two beautiful and finely knit cushions, from the 13th century tombs of a Castilian Prince and Princess. The cushions are knit at a very fine gauge with complex overall two-color patterning and an Arabic inscription on one. This suggests that knitting may have been transmitted from the Middle East to Europe through Spain, by Moors. Certainly this is the most popular theory today for the dissemination of knitting, although the evidence is not conclusive.
Several paintings by 14th century Italian and German artists show the Virgin Mary knitting in a domestic setting. She is shown working on four or five needles in the round, and using multiple threads of different colors. This indicates that knitting was at least known as a woman’s occupation in medieval Europe. However, since the Virgin is portrayed in both exalted and humble positions, we cannot draw any solid conclusions about the place of knitting in the social and economic life of the time.
Throughout the Middle Ages, knitted hose and stockings, of both silk and wool, gradually replaced bias-cut cloth hose among the upper classes. Samples from the period show knit and purl patterning, as well as eyelet patterning. Literary references satirize the many bright colors of hose worn by fashion conscious young men of the upper classes.
Stocking knitting grew rapidly among the English populace during reign of Queen Elizabeth I, likely aided by advances in metal working technology that made steel needles more readily available. Knitting was seen by the legal authority of the time as a suitable occupation for the poor, both to provide income and as alternative to activity that would otherwise bring them to the attention of the same legal authority. Schools for knitting were established, with varying degrees of success. Knitting spread throughout the English countryside as a source of supplemental income. By 1600 England was a leading exporter of stockings.
Guilds occupy a popular place in the imagination of knitters interested in the history of their craft. Knitters like to refer to mediaeval knitting guilds. Actually, guilds were organized around trades and the production of goods rather than a particular method of production. The best-known guild involved in knitting production is the Guild of St. Fiacra, founded 1527 in Paris. St. Fiacra was not associated with knitting before being adopted by makers of knitted wool caps; St. Fiacra was the patron saint of makers of cotton caps and was likely adopted by the newly-formed guild because of this existing association with cap making.
Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries knitting spread north to Scandinavia and east to Russia. By the early 19th century knitting was well established throughout Western and Eastern Europe. A similar pattern of dissemination was repeated throughout northern and eastern Europe. Knitting made its entry in the form of luxury goods such as stockings, gloves and shirts worn by upper classes. The working classes learned the technique to meet the demand; the wearing of knitted garments eventually filtered down as the working classes adapted luxury items to more prosaic garments for common use.
Colonists and Missionaries Disseminate the Craft
As Europeans colonized the Americas, they spread the craft of knitting. Missionaries and immigrants taught knitting to local populations who adapted it to create their own garments, incorporating native cultural elements. In South America, natives of the Andes wrap the yarn around their necks and knit on “back side” of work, throwing the yarn with the thumb in Portuguese fashion. They produce intricate multi-colored stranded patterns, making beautiful hats and sweaters. The Salish Indians, of what is now British Columbia, learned knitting from Scottish immigrants. At first they knit only socks; in the early part of the 20th century, just before WWII, they began knitting heavy sweaters and jackets featuring natural colors, bold designs from their own culture and shawl collars of unique construction.
The natural creativity of working class knitters flowered in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Knitters throughout Eastern and Western Europe developed regional specializations, now commonly regarded as “traditional” knitting styles. Stitch patterns were commonly shared and spread along trade routes. Knitters in the Balkans developed twisted stitch patterns, like small cables. Scandinavians made sweaters, socks and hats in two-color and single-color stranded knitting, as well as knit and purl patterned “damask” knitting. Knitters in Eastern Europe and the Baltic countries developed multi-colored stranded knitting. British knitters in fishing communities produced dense, weather-resistant sweaters called ganseys, which were decorated with knit-purl patterns and simple cables. Knitters of the Shetland Isles, which lies at the confluence of a number of trade routes, developed a particularly rich vocabulary of stranded multi-colored patterns. The knitters of Ireland’s Aran Isles adapted cable and twisted stitch patterns, introduced by Irish émigrés returned from America, to the traditional fishing shirt shape to create elaborately cabled sweaters in natural-colored wool.
Knitting enjoyed varied social status in different countries. In some places knitting was only done by the working classes; in others it was considered appropriate for ladies of the upper classes as well. By no means did these two social groups perform the same type of knitting, however. Knitting among the working class was done by both men and women for production, supplementing meager incomes eked out by land and sea. Upper class ladies enjoyed the luxury of knitting small decorative household items and garments for children, using fine wool and white cotton. Upper class ladies further distinguished themselves by holding their needles in a less efficient, but visually elegant manner.
The abundance and low cost of manufactured goods means working class knitters need no longer labor to supplement their incomes with production knitting; knitting is primarily a hobby for women (as well as more than a few men) in America, Europe and Asia. Still, women are employed for production knitting for export in China and South America, making coarse gauge patterned sweaters and hats.
Whereas the early part of the 20th century was marked by manuals that demanded strict adherence to instructions, knitters now enjoy the freedom to knit their own creations, thanks to the teachings of Elizabeth Zimmerman, Barbara G. Walker, Mary Walker Phillips and others. These women taught fundamental principles of knitting and how to apply them, encouraging self-confidence and creative experimentation. In more recent years, colorists such as Kaffe Fasset and Annabel Fox have brought excitement and inspiration to modern knitters, with their innovative and artistic designs. Alice Starmore, Patricia Gibson Roberts, Nancy Bush, Lizbeth Upitis and Anna Zilboorg have helped renew interest in traditional knitting, presenting old-style patterns as well as adapting them to modern uses.
Knitting today is a satisfying and productive hobby. No longer forced to produce for income, knitters are at leisure to take pleasure in their craft. Knitting designers give us exciting and inspirational creations and dedicated knitting researchers document traditional knitting from around the world, all at our needle tips.
Rutt, Richard, A History of Hand Knitting, Interweave Press, Loveland, Colorado, 1987.
Pagoldh, Susanne, Nordic Knitting American Edition, Interweave Press, Loveland, Colorado, 1987.
Starmore, Alice, Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting, Taunton Press, Newton, Connecticut, 1988.