If you’re on the Purl Avenue blog, chances are, you’re an avid knitter. But did you know that your favorite hobby has been practiced since before recorded history? Today, we’re taking a deep dive into the history of knitting — starting with ancient times, and ending with all of us today in 2021.
Origins in the SWANA Region
According to most historians, knitting likely originated among SWANA (Southwest Asian/North African) countries. Specifically, the oldest evidence that we have of knitwear is from the 11th century in Egypt. During an excavation of an Egyptian town, archaeologists discovered knitted socks in a landfill. This footwear displays complex color work and stitch work depicting Arabic blessings and detailed patterns. Because the garments required both knitting and purling techniques to create, these socks’ intricacies suggest that the craft of knitting has been around much longer, likely since the 5th century. Some earlier versions of knitting may have included a technique called Nålebinding or needle-binding, which uses one needle instead of two.
Popularity in Europe
Eventually, the craft of knitting made its way to Europe with wool traders. In Spain, garments for Catholic church clergy were created using knit patterns. In fact, one painting from the Middle Ages depicts Madonna knitting a sweater. Around the 15th century, knitting expanded throughout Europe and it became an established industry in the Scottish Highlands. Factory workers would use sheep’s wool to create yarn and knit garments that then, they would ship to the rest of the continent. Although now knitting is considered a feminine hobby, these early knitting guilds were operated by men, and the training to become a master knitter was intense. The demand for knitwear, especially stockings, also increased during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, making this craft even more widespread.
The Industrial Revolution
When technological advances in the workplace became more common during the Industrial Revolution, knitting was no exception. In 1598, the knitting machine (otherwise known as the mechanical stocking frame) was created. This invention was revolutionary in the history of knitting. In short, it led to the development of mass-produced knitwear such as jersey dresses, cardigans, and sweaters. In fact, knitwear was a key element of high fashion in the 1920s, with brands like Coco Chanel regularly featuring high-fashioned knitted products.
20th Century to Today
After the explosion of mass-produced knitwear, the craft of knitting by hand went through several iterations in U.S. history. In our country, knitting’s ebbs and flows in popularity depended greatly on the historical context. For example, in the Great Depression, people hand-knitted clothes because so many couldn’t afford store-bought items.
During World War II, women made hats in support of the army and navy. In the 40’s and 50’s, new types of high-quality yarn were on the market, and knitting was back in style. Although it suffered a decline during the 80’s and 90’s (it was seen as “old fashioned” and “upscale” rather than casual), it’s seen a resurgence in the 21st century. With a collective intrigue in DIY crafts, knitting communities have grown since the early 2000s. And they continue to thrive ever since, especially during the pandemic.