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Similar to crochet, knitting appears to have rather mysterious origins. Although most types of needlecraft, like cross stitch and embroidery, have extensive pictorial and archaeological findings dating back through history, knitting’s origin is more of an estimation; predicted from fragments stored in museums across the globe.
The history of knitting is neither as fantastical nor profound as some might imagine. The needlecraft feels like it should’ve stood the test of time, but in actuality there’s little evidence to suggest that it’s really been around for that long. Moreover, its origins are merely hints at what could be the case. Unlike other forms of needlework, the word ‘knitting’ doesn’t even have a Latin counterpart to derive from. In fact, ‘knit’ was only introduced into the Oxford English Dictionary in the 1400s.
The reason that it’s particularly difficult to source knitting’s origins is because early, possibly ancient, knitted pieces would’ve used natural – decomposable – materials, such as wool and cotton. Preservation of these materials was practically impossible without access to the technology we have today, so we’re left with just a few knitted fragments to suggest its earlier history. We can therefore say that the earliest known evidence of ancient knitting techniques derives from Egypt between 250 AD and 420 AD. But there’s a problem: the two-toed socks that they found aren’t technically knitted.
Nålbindning literally translates from Danish as ‘needle-binding’ and is also known as ‘knotless knitting’ – but its single-needle techniques are technically closer to sewing. As the 3-ply Egyptian sandal-socks appear knitted to the untrained eye, many people believe that this was the starting point for the knitting we know and love today. Crafting continually evolves throughout the ages, so somewhere down the line a nålbinder could’ve brought another needle into the mix to develop knitting’s stitches, style and techniques. But, of course, no-one can really say that for certain.
Although researchers are unsure about when knitting truly began, there are knitted artefacts (real, this time!) to confirm that knitting did exist between 1000 AD and 1300 AD. The first true knitted garments are socks deriving from Egypt, featuring ornate patterns in multiple colourways. The elaborateness of these pieces is what puzzles historians; no-one could pick up knitting with such complexity. Something must’ve come before them. But alas, it’s likely to always remain a mystery.
Let’s move on to the next chapter of knitting’s history. From Ancient Egypt, the needlecraft made its way over to Spain and soon spread like wildfire across the rest of Europe. In the early days of European knitting, it was very much restricted to those rich, powerful or holy enough, like royalty or bishops in the Catholic Church. In fact, the earliest records we have of European knitting are intricately detailed silk pillowcases dating back to 1275 AD Spain, made from extremely fine yarn.
Towards the late 16th century, knitting had become a deep-rooted craft driven by the ultimate trend at the time: men’s stockings. Elegant knitted stockings were all the rage for dapper Spanish and Italian men, so knitting’s demand had never been higher. Henceforth, exclusive knitter’s guilds were opened across Europe – for men only. The guilds began popping up in the 1400s with the idea that they’d safeguard the craft’s secrets and control the quality of knitted garments. But not just anyone could join these restricted knitted master classes – they’d have to endure a rigorous process first.
Teenage boys of the late Middle Ages were sometimes recruited to join private knitting guilds, but to do so they’d have to dedicate six long years of their lives to meticulous training. That’s before they could even comprehend emerging as a legitimate knitter; medieval knitters were brutal. The first three years of a knitting apprenticeship saw young men learning from master knitters, and then the next three were spent travelling to other countries to expand their knitting knowledge across many cultures. After six gruelling years, they then had to pass the exam of their lives to progress further.
Each man would knit various articles of clothing and décor over a course of weeks, and then they’d finally be judged by the knitting guild’s panel of experts. Only then would they be granted entry to the elite guild – or dismally rejected. As the Victorian era commenced, knitting began to transform from a male-dominated industry to a pleasant hobby for women. Why the sudden decline in male knitters? Knitting machines were introduced around this time – so guilds were no longer required.
By the late 19th century, female knitters were commonly romanticised in literature; it soon became an expected domestic skill for stay-at-home wives. But that’s not the end of the story – oh no! Both of the World Wars actually provided many employment opportunities for women competent in knitting. In the later years after World War II, the trend of knitting was resurrected once more in the fashion industry – where it continues to thrive today. Knitting is no longer a relentless lifelong commitment, nor a demeaning responsibility falling victim to the patriarchy. In 21st century Britain, knitting is a beautifully creative needlecraft and a deeply satisfying hobby, there to be enjoyed by all.