Bizzy Knits
The History of Knitting

The History of Knitting

Published: Mar 29th, 2022 5:10 PM

Who invented knitting?

Was it a sage or a shaman who one day picked up two sticks, some string, and began the incredible act of knitting?

Was this ancient genius filled with divine inspiration or dark magic?

Was it just a lucky accident?

When beginning research into the history of knitting, I expected legends and myths and maybe a few fairy tales.

There was reason to expect this. After all, the ancient and similar craft of weaving is central to dozens of myths and legends.

Take, for example, Penelope from Homer’s Odyssey. While her husband Odysseus was off fighting the Trojan War, she fended off love-struck suitors with a bargain: she would choose a new husband when she finished weaving a shroud. She then wove the shroud by day and undid it by night, delaying her answer until Odysseus finally returned.

Arachne Engraving
Athena strikes Arachne. Engraving from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, ca. 1677.

Or we can consider the mortal Arachne, who challenged the goddess Athena to a weaving dual (weave-off?). Being mortal, she was no challenge at all and lost. The shame was so unbearable that Arachne hung herself. But that’s not the end. Athena pitied her and brought her back to life – but not as a mortal, but as a spider so that Arachne would spend the rest of her life weaving. Ouch.

A Puzzle with Missing Pieces

Despite high hopes, research revealed neither mortals nor gods. Instead, knitting’s history is made up of an assortment of clues, competing for theories and half-rotted fragments on the verge of disintegration.

Unlike spinning or weaving, knitting doesn’t figure in any ancient myths. In fact, there isn’t even an ancient Greek or Latin word for knitting! The word “to knit” didn’t make an appearance in the Oxford Unabridged English Dictionary until the fifteenth century and wasn’t part of any European language until the Renaissance. All this confirms that knitting is a relatively new invention.

So, if knitting doesn’t have an ancient pedigree, when did it appear on the scene? This is a hard question because many of the earliest knitted garments no longer exist. The reason for this is simple: early knitting was made from natural fibres like cotton, silk and wool – fibres that decompose easily. With few existing fragments, the picture of knitting’s origins becomes fuzzy, a puzzle with missing pieces.

Would the Real Knitting Please Stand Up?

Add to this mix a slippery impostor in the form of nålbinding and we have a truly complicated case. Nålbinding is a needle-craft that produces a fabric that looks like knitting and acts like knitting but, on closer inspection, is not knitting.

Whereas knitting uses two needles to make loops within loops with string, nålbinding uses one needle to splice and knot string together – a process more akin to sewing. However, both knitting and nalbinding produce near-identical-looking fabric.

Nalbinded socks
Nalbinded socks were originally thought to be knitting. Can you tell the difference? Circa 250 – 420 AD.

In fact, nålbinding even managed to dupe scholars. It was years before anyone realised that what had been celebrated as the first piece of knitting – a fragment from Dura-Europos, Syria – was not knitting at all but nålbinding!

The First Knitted Thing In History
This fragment from Dura-Europos was celebrated as the first knitted garment in history until -psych! – it was revealed as nålbinding. ca. 200 – 256 AD.

The reason the two are so similar is that knitting may have grown out of nålbinding. At some point, a nålbinder might have introduced a second needle into the work and played around until the nålbinding evolved into knitting. It could have happened, but with so little evidence, no one knows for sure.

The first genuine knitted pieces are from Egypt, circa 1000-1400 AD (much later than the nålbinded garments). They include some colourful fragments and intricate socks (sometimes called Coptic socks) knit in white and indigo cotton.

Egyptian Knitted Socks
These cotton socks found in Egypt are some of the earliest knitted pieces. From L to R: Textile Museum, ca. 1000 – 1200 AD; Victorian & Albert Museum, ca. 1100 – 1300 AD; Textile Museum, ca. 1300 AD.

Even though these socks are the earliest knitted remains we have, because of their complexity, they probably aren’t the first knitted garments in history.

Unfortunately, the particulars of knitting’s origins are lost to history. But once knitting makes its way into Europe, things really start to pick up. The Virgin Mary gets involved, guilds form, and some seriously awesome gloves are made for the Catholic Church.

Madonnas, Stockings and Guilds, Oh My!

Master Bertram Knitting

From Egypt, knitting spread into Spain – carried over by Arabs during the Islamic Conquest or brought back by Spaniards during the Crusades – before exploding into the rest of Europe.

What we know about early European knitting is that it was mostly confined to the very rich, very royal or very religious (as in the Catholic Church).

The first pieces of European knitting were found in the tomb of Prince Fernando de la Cerdo of Spain. They are detailed silk pillow covers that date to around 1275 AD.

In Spain, early knitting mostly consisted of liturgical garments and accessories for the Catholic Church. Made with very fine yarn, they were sometimes stitched with gold and silver threads.

Early Spanish Gloves
Early knitted Spanish gloves made with red and yellow silk, worn by a bishop, 16th century.
Early Spanish Gloves Details
These gloves have a gauge of 23 sts/20 rows per inch! Can you imagine? ca. 16th century.

In other parts of Europe, knits were small and dainty – things like relic purses for holding the remains of saints, pillows, stockings, purses, and pouches. These were more decorative accessories than practical garments.

Like a Virgin, Knitting for the Very First Time

Then, around the middle of the 14th century, a funny thing happened. In Italy and Germany paintings were done depicting the Virgin Mary knitting alongside the baby Jesus.

Madonna Altar Piece

These “knitting Madonnas” tell us that, by the 14th century, knitting had spread into Italy and Germany. The Virgin is shown knitting in the round and doing colour-work, so we know these techniques must also have made their way to the region.

Lorenzetti Madonna Duo

But, now, a pressing question; "Why is the Virgin Mary knitting?"

Joan Thirsk writing in The Cambridge History of Western Textiles suggests that knitting was becoming more commonplace and, perhaps, more publicly fashionable among upper-class women.

Donna Kooler in Encyclopedia of Knitting agrees that female knitting would have been familiar and nonthreatening, “even sweetly domestic.”

Real Gentlemen Wear Knitted Stockings

Knitting Workshop Engraving
This engraving shows the different stages of knitting a stocking – from spinning the wool to cleaning it, to knitting it up and finishing. ca. 1698 by Christoph Weigel.

By the end of the 16th century, knitting was an established craft that was driven by a powerful fashion trend: knitted stockings.

For Italian and Spanish men of style, knitted stockings were a must. According to historian Irena Turnau, “Men in knee breeches depended upon elegant legs for their fashion status, and baggy stockings were a disaster.”

A disaster. Stockings were as fundamental to a Renaissance man’s wardrobe as blue jeans to the modern Joe. The more elegant the stocking, the more fashionable the man.

In response to this demand for knits, knitting guilds sprang up, beginning in the 1400s. Exclusively male, they were established to protect trade secrets, improve the quality of the profession, and drum up business. Think of them like a labour union – a competitive, rigorous, masterfully skilled labour union, that is.

So You Think You Can Knit?

If you were a young man in the Middle Ages and you wanted to become a Master Knitter in a knitting guild, you’d need to devote six years of your life to training. Three years would be spent in apprenticeship learning from the masters; another three were spent travelling the world to learn foreign techniques and patterns.

If you’re obsessed with knitting, this probably sounds like the best time ever. Barring dysentery and the bubonic plague, what could be better than spending six years knitting and traipsing all over Europe?

As dreamy as it sounds, joining a guild was no cakewalk. After returning home from travel, a knitting apprentice would prove his mastery through rigorous examination.

To gain entrance into a knitting guild, you’d hole yourself up for thirteen frenzied weeks and knit up an assortment of garments. Like Project Runway for the Middle Ages, these would be picked apart and assessed by guild members who would decide whether you were “in” or “out.”

Guild Carpet
To gain full membership to the Hand-Knitters’ Guild of Strasbourg, knitters had to knit a wall-hanging patterned with flowers, like this one. Adam and Eve appear beneath a central panel depicting Jacob’s Dream. France, 1781.
Guild Carpet Detail
Detail of Adam and Even from a knitted wall-hanging. France, 1781.

Required garments included a felted cap, a pair of stockings or embroidered gloves, a shirt or waistcoat and the pièce de résistance – a knitted carpet! Akin to a grad thesis, this carpet or wall-hanging was the culmination of your six years of learning, a representation of your mastery, artistry, and good taste.

Intense as the vetting process was, the guild’s high standards elevated knitting to an art. Certain guilds became well-known for their work. In the early 16th century, Parisian guilds were considered the very best. Even in the Middle Ages Parisians were trumping everyone in style!

Just as moderns have our favourite designers and fashion houses, every member of the nobility had his or her favourite Master Knitter. The period of the knitting guilds produced some of the most astonishingly beautiful knitted items.

Embroidered Red Gloves
An embroidered glove made of red knitted silk, probably liturgical, possibly English. From the first half of the 17th century.
Fringe Italian Gloves
These men’s knitted silk and gold gloves are straight-up ballin’. MJ’s single glove circa the Moonwalk can’t hold a candle to these. Yeah, I said it. Italian, ca. 1650 – 80.
Gold Brown Knitted Jacket
How pretty is this Italian jacket? Made of silk and metallic thread. Italy, 16th century.

Knitting into the Future

From the 1400s, knitting grew as a trade. It spread into new lands along with European explorers and colonists during the Age of Exploration.

Knitting Machine
A framework knitting machine.

Then in 1589, Englishman William Lee invented the knitting machine. While it didn’t demolish the hand-knitting industry, it foreshadowed more technological changes to come. Namely, the Industrial Revolution.

During the Industrial Revolution, knitting machines became more sophisticated and the manufacture of knits shifted from human hands to machines. In a few generations, knitting transformed from a serious trade (remember those knitting guilds?) to a sweet, staid parlour craft for Victorian ladies.

You’d think this would be the end of knitting. With machines to do all the work and knitting looking as vital as a limp noodle, why bother with it at all? It would surely go the way of the Dodo.

And yet – knitting lives on, and despite the speed, machine knitting still can't compare to hand-knitted items.

It found its patriotic calling during the two World Wars. It provided employment for the poor in the twentieth century as it did during the Renaissance. In the late 1920s, it was revived as an art form in the world of fashion (thanks in large part to Elsa Schiaparelli), and continues to be part of the fashion firmament today.

Elsa Schiaperelii Bow Sweaters
Elsa Schiaparelli’s iconic Trompe L’oeil “Bow Knot” sweaters jump-started her career and reinvigorated knitwear in the late 20s.

Now we are in the twenty-first century, the “Information Age.” We live in a time of efficiency, endless screens, of fractured attention spans and workaholics. Knitting feels anachronistic here like we took a time machine and our hands came back stuck in the past, holding these weird sticks and string.

So, why are we still knitting? Why does it matter?

The reason I think knitting has persisted for so long is that it is beautiful. Plain and simple. It’s beautiful to do and beautiful to behold. Knitting satisfies a deep desire in us to create beautiful things, and it allows us the satisfaction of being a creator. Buying a sweater just won’t give you the same intense pleasure and pride as knitting one with your own hands, or purchasing a hand-knitted item that you know someone put time, effort and love into.

That’s why I think knitting will outlast us all. As long as we humans retain the part of ourselves that yearns to create and innovate, the part that delights in beauty, then knitting will live on – from that first mysterious knitter to the four corners of the world and beyond.

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