A Very Brief History of Knitting
by Deborah V. Gardner
This paper was written as part of the Master Knitting, Level II, program.

Perhaps the oldest examples of knitting are fragments of what appears to be socks, which were found in the ruins of Dura-Europos in modern-day Syria. (1) Since the city was destroyed in 256 A.D., these pieces probably pre-date that time.

The oldest pieces of knitting that can be accurately called knitting were litigurical gloves used by bishops in the 7th century. The first painting of a “knitting madonna” was painted in Siena, Italy some time before 1348. Others appears in European countries by 1400.

No one knows exactly where or how knitting was developed and how it spread. Historians surmise that Muslims may have brought knitting to Spain during the Islamic expansion into North Africa and Spain between 650 AD and 710 AD. Julie Threaker, in her on-line essay, theorizes that since Arabic is written right to left and we knit from right to left, and not left to right like we read, knitting was probably developed in the Middle East. By the beginning of the 16th century, knitting had spread to most of Europe. The most common materials for knitting early socks were silk and cotton.

The popularity of knitting and the demand for knitted goods led to the establishment of knitting schools. The first such school was opened in York, England in 1588. (The first knitting machine was not patented until 1855.) These schools primarily taught children to knit; giving them a skill gave them a means of financial support and kept them out of trouble. These schools remained open even after a stocking frame was invented that mimicked the movement of hand knitters.

The stockings frames were not that much faster than hand knitters. Perhaps 10 pairs of stockings could be produced on a frame in a week; but a good knitter could produce six in the same time period. Also, it was expensive to set up frames as styles changed, so hand knitters could adapt more easily to the whims of fashion. And hand knitters could take their portable little stockings with them and knit between other tasks or during free moments.

It seems almost everyone knitted stockings in the 18th and 19th centuries, not just women and children. In the mid-19th century, as the samurai warrior class's influence diminished in Japan, the samurai took up knitting Japanese-style socks called tabi as a source of income.

Knitting arrived in the New World with the Puritans because it discouraged idleness. Colonists in Canada, Australia and New Zealand also knitted; there were no factories or peasants to produce warm stockings in cold climates or pullover sweaters where shoes and stockings were not needed.

In colonial America even children of 4- and 5-years of age knitted. Often they were required to knit four or five rounds on a stocking before going out to play. Because knitting was so portable, many knitters carried their little projects with them so that a few rows could be completed during idle time, just like their counterparts in other parts of the world.

Martha Washington, the first First Lady, was a prolific knitter. Her knitting rarely left her hands; the clicking of her needles could be heard during pauses in conversation. First Ladies Edith Roosevelt, Grace Coolidge and Lou Hoover were all avid knitters. Eleanor Roosevelt took her knitting everywhere and was once introduced as the first knitter of the land.

Knitting became a ladies' pastime when factories began producing stockings. Mass production meant stockings could be purchased and hand-knitting items such as ladies' bags and babies garments were left to upper-class women. Exact sizes were not required. And how demure the ladies looked, sitting in a parlor, pursuing a gentle art with eyes cast downward.

During the American Civil War, both the women of the North and the South knitted socks for their troops. Handknit socks were favored over machine knitted because of their durability. During World Wars I and II, the Red Cross called for volunteers to "knit their bit" to provide warm clothing for soldiers, as well as refugees. Even boys and girls knitted for the war effort. Today, we are asked to knit helmet liners for American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and American knitters have answered the call.

Patterns were introduced in the latter part of the 19th century. These were simple patterns. Instructions might include “Add an interesting trim” or “Knit for a bit.” With time, the patterns became more sophisticated and varied and manufacturers added suggested brands of needles and yarns (theirs, of course).

Gauge was probably introduced in the early part of the 20th century. (2) Knitting clothes became popular, especially for men, in the late 1800s, gauge because a necessity to help ensure a good fit. Circular knitting was accomplished using four or more double pointed needles. Then circular needles were introduced. Rough cable joins were eventually replaced with smooth joins. Interchangeable needle tips became commonplace. Cable extenders are a recent addition to available knitting tools.

The popularity of knitting is cyclical. Sometimes, it is left to older women to keep the tradition alive. At other times, it is fashionable for young and old alike to knit. After the tragedy of 2001, more men in the New York city area began to knit to help relieve stress. The introduction of novelty yarns like Lion Brand's Fun Fur lead to a knitting craze and people of all ages wanted to learn to knit to make novelty scarves.

Knitting as a craft and an art form will continue in the future as knitters everywhere enjoy the process of creating items that are functional or whimsical and as innovation continues.

Bibliography

American Red Cross. “Knit Your Bit.” Available from http://www.redcross.org/museum/exhibits/ knits.asp. Internet; accessed 1 April 2010.

Coleman, Ava T. “How It All Began," Cast On, August - October 2008.

Koeller, David W. “Unification and Interaction in the Eurasian Ecumene," World History Chronology (1996-1999). Available from http://www.thenagain.info/WebChron/ World/Eurasian.html. Internet; accessed 30 May 2009.

Kooler, Donna. Encyclopedia of Knitting. Little Rock, AK: Leisure Art, Inc., 2004.

MacDonald, Anne L. No idle hands: the social history of American knitting. New York: Ballantine Books, 1988.

Theaker, Julie, “History 101.” Available from http://knitty.com/ISSUEspring06/ FEAThistory101.html. Internet; accessed 30 May 2009.

Vogue Knitting Magazine, Editors. The Ultimate Sock Book. New York, NY: Vogue Knitting Magazine, 2007.

Wikipedia. “Stocking Frame.” Available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stocking_frame. Internet; accessed 30 May 2009.

Willis, Kerry. The Close-Knit Circle: American Knitters Today. Westport, CN: Praeger Publishers, 2007.

Endnotes

1. According to Julie Threaker, these fragments have been proven to be nalbinding. She also states that the first example of "real" knitting are coptic socks from Egypt dating about 1000 AD.

2. I looked at patterns from the late 1880s and found no mention of gauge. In patterns from the 1920s, gauge was given.

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