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A short history of knitting
by Anna Bialkowska
Knitting developed from various techniques into the form we know today. The earliest techniques such as netting, nalbinding, sprang were often labour intensive. Knitting was often produced in the round and created on circular needles.
As the technology developed so needles were shortened into a pair which then allowed for flat knitting. The majority were made from steel right up to the 20th century, when needles were constructed using a variety products including plastic, bone and tortoiseshell.
Whilst the majority of knitters held their needles for underneath each hand for speed and efficiency the Victorians developed a way of holding the right hand needle like a pen as shown in fig1. Where it decreased speed and thus efficiency of effort, it allowed for a sense of delicacy for the ‘drawing room’ knitters, highlighting the daintiness of one’s accomplishments when in company. A comment in the Hosiery review in 1888 by an observer who saw knitting at concerts stated,
‘the hands were white and covered in jewels, and I have a suspicion that the knitting was intended to display these beauties and to show a taste for the industry’
The earliest found knitted objects come from Spain and Egypt which show where they were used – there is no documented evidence that pin points the origins of knitting to a specific time or place. Archaeological finds have proven difficult to date accurately and are subject to a great of speculation.
Studies have also found that the Central and South American cultures also developed forms of knitting unconnected to the Eurasian forms.
Early fragment of knitting include socks and gloves with some having fairly intricate designs. A good example of a complete find is from the tomb of Fernando de la Cerda. Two 2 cushions were found, knitted in close stockinet and have a design including eagles and fleur-de-lys showing highly crafted workmanship.
A number of paintings known as ‘the knitted madonnas’ show that knitting was known in Italy and Germany during the 14th century.
The onset of the knitting frame and the development of the knitting machine saw the slow decline of hand knitting as a major economic force. Whilst hand knitters responded quicker to the demands of the fashion and used their technical skill as an edge over the early machine knitters there was an inevitable decline as the machine knitting industry developed in volume and quality. Hand knitting was maintained in rural and remote areas as industrialisation took hold in the major town and cities.
Rural areas still saw knitting as an important source of income with whole families known knitting as a supplement to working on the land. Knitting was considered a useful occupation, encouraging a strong work ethic and as a way to keep those in difficult circumstances out of the poor house.
‘About 1835 knitting has become a fashionable pastime for English and Scottish ladies. The date is fixed by the references in the first English knitting books which appeared between 1835 and 1840.’
The new fine wools that had become available were dyed in rich hues and tones encouraging the rise of knitting as an artistic pursuit. Knitting patterns were sold from the 1830’s and by 1847 the first volume of ‘My Knitting Book’ had printed over 42,000 copies for sale in the UK, translated for Europe and reprinted in America.
In Elizabeth Gaskell’s, Cranford published in 1853(dramatised by the BBC 2007) ‘the genteel, but not affluent, ladies knit a lot. Miss Matty knitted elaborate garters while running the sweet shop.’
Fisherman’s jerseys or guernseys were a source of pride in with ‘its comfortable fit, its warmth and its splendid appearance’. Knitted in dark blue or dark navy in a damask pattern, they can still be seen in museum collections of fisherman knitting in Cromer, Norfolk
Fig 4 is a fine example of a gansy as worn by John ‘Sparrow’ Hardingham, a fisherman and lifeboat man and compared with the fashion for wearing jerseys in 1880 as seen in the satirical magazine, Punch.
During the First World War knitting became close to a national mania as socks, mitts, body belts, helmets and other comforts were sent to soldiers on the front. The end of the war saw this energy transferred into a craze for knitting jumpers. Designers Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel both used knitted fabric as part of their collections. Chanel designed knitted costumes for Diaghilev’s ballet Le train bleu and Schiaparelli’s knitted her famous trompe-l’oeil jumper for the 1927 collection, as shown below
‘Black with a simulated collar and floppy bow was a witty refinement of a trend’ begun shortly after the war. The second picture shows a further development for the 1929 collection
Other religious items found around this time include relic purses and liturgical gloves both showing detailed designs and use for devotional and ceremonial purposes.
Some of the earliest finds in England show that knitted caps were in use before the 1500’s. The Monmouth cap, generally regarded as the typical gear of Welshmen was also used by English army soldiers as protection under their steel helmets. Another type of cap, the skull cap was worn by artisans and can be seen in some Elizabethan portraits. Examples of this type of cap have been found in London, Newcastle, Scotland and in the wreck of the Mary Rose.
Caps were one of the first items to be knitted on a large scale in England , followed closely by stockings. By 1547 Henry VIII’s accounts show evidence of having wool stocking and importing the highly expensive Spanish silk stockings. Knitting items made of wool at this time included undergarments and gloves, were becoming an everyday part of the Tudor wardrobe and were continuing to improve in quality.
By the time of Elizabeth I, knitted fashion was set by the court, with patterned silk stockings set to show off a well turned male calf and shows an extravagant attention to detail in the male courtier.
Knitting became an important part of the economy in England as export records show that during Elizabethan times stocking were sold in a wide range of styles and prices across Europe. The army of knitters needed to support this growing trade included children - by 1600 there are accounts of children aged between 6 and 10 earning their keep through the knitting of fine jersey stockings.
The craft of brocaded knitting developed in during the 1600’s as seen in this picture of a knitted jacket in green and yellow silk with a silver gilt thread now in the Victoria and Albert Museum textile collection.
As mentioned in the earlier interview with Richard Rutt (link) and despite their obvious drawbacks hand knitted swimsuits were popular until the 1950’s when they were superseded by nylon and lycra fabrics.
Knitting for the armed forces was more organised in the Second World War than during the First World War and could be done in 3 colours, Air Force blue, navy blue and army khaki. Knitting patterns encouraged economical using of wool and the unravelling of garments for reuse. See these 1940’s patterns on the
Victoria and Albert museum website
The 1970’s saw a decline in hand knitting as cheap imports from China at low prices reduced the economic necessity of knitting.
Modern knitting knows no bounds as this picture from knitwear designers such as Sandra Backlund continue to inspire.
Courstey of Philadelphia Museum of Art
And just for fun:
I leave the last word to Richard Rutt, author of A History of Hand Knitting on which this article is based.
‘Knitting will never die, even if it has no economic value, because it is so fascinating’
All quotes and pictures unless otherwise mentioned are used with kind permission of Richard Rutt and taken from A History of Hand Knitting 1987
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