Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Bit of History: Part II - Knitting

This is the 2nd part of a 3-part post regarding a little bit of history on some knitting & crocheting as presented for the Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition workshop on Fiber Arts. (Obviously, this is not a comprehensive history, but serves merely as a primer, and my time line *stops* at the Victorian era).

Part I can be found here.


Knitting hasn't been around as long, as say, spinning or weaving. The word "to knit" wasn't added into English until the 1400s. There are knitted fragments, but it's hard to know if it was really "knitting". There are examples of "nalbinding" (cross between tatting, knitting, and crochet).

Socks are the oldest form of knitted garments found, especially tubular (in the round) knitting (Egyptian socks 1000CE - stockinette done in shades of white & indigo with Arabic decorations -- made out of COTTON.) In the Middle East, the materials available were cotton & silk ...not necessarily wool.) In the 1600s, Britain became the biggest producer of handknitted worseted stockings that were exported around the world (knitted on 4 needles)

The knit stitch is the earliest form. Purl stitches were verfied in usage in 1562, and were mostly used for decoration purposes (not for welts or ribbing)

Examples of early knitting:
• pillow 1275 in Spain.
• Gloves from 1200s.
Paintings from 1350s show some form of knitting.
• V&A example of 16th c gloves knitted in Spain. (knitted in the round)
(You can see some of these at the V&A Museum pages)
• Carpets are often found as examples of handknitting in the 1500-1600s.

14th - 16th Century: A cottage industry of knitting appeared in about 1420s, which also heralded the start of wool knitting. Previously, knitting was done with whatever fibers were the most readily available -- cotton, silk, etc.

In medieval times, knitting was guild controlled craft, and was a mainstay of exported goods (14-15thc). Sailors knitted for the same reason we do today -- it's portable, small, and gave them something to do on their long trips. This also spread the art of knitting.

Industrial Revolution in the 18th century -- transformed knitting into an automated process. Hand knitters found it difficult to make a living, as automation made cloth & clothing cheaper. There were still a few cottage industries of knitting, specifically in Scotland and the Fair Isle sweaters.

However, by now, knitting was slowly turning into a leisurely pursuit.

1800s -- Knitting was considered a more leisurely pursuit, suitable for ladies to pursue. It was also suitable for helping to decorate clothing, as well as hide any alterations of various hand-me-down clothing (along with other trim from ribbonwork, crochet, etc). Amusingly enough, there were knitting techniques that mimic'd crochet (such as picot knitting!)

There were a lot of instructions & patterns as yarn makers & embroidery houses published books to highlight their products (which hasn't changed much from today's current yarn catalogs & websites). There were also a lot of books & magazines geared towards women and teaching them these fine arts (again, this hasn't changed much!)

In the mid 1800s, beaded knitting was introduced and became widely popular, esp. in America, where ladies knitted beaded handbags.

Around the 1870s, knitting was taught to both boys & girls as part of their education, as part of a "useful skills" curriculum in schools for the working classes

By mid 1890s, knitting was considered "passe", but was still encouraged as a leisurely pass time for ladies.

There are still a lot of surviving patterns & books the Victorian era that you can easily find in Libraries or Google Books

Links of Interest

(next post: Crochet History)