Knitting is the art of knotting, that is making loops and knots in a length of yarn or thread into a piece of fabric using needles. Current research places the origins of hand knitting in the middle east, the techniques probably made their way to Europe via the Mediterranean.
Knitting was used mostly to create necessary garments to protect against the elements in most European cultures. Different yarn and wool producing areas developed their own styles of knitting and garment making, for example, the Shetland Islands with the Shetland Shawl of the 17th Century – a finely knitted lace shawl with neither a cast on or cast off edge. The cable knit thought to originate in Ireland and the Aran knitted sweaters containing specific designs thought to originate from the 9th Century.
During times of economic and social change, the art of knitting was used not only in fishing ports but also by farmers and their families to help supplement their incomes. The exporting of woolen clothing can be dated back to 17th Century with woolen clothing from the Channel Islands to supply the fishing industry with practical and warm clothing.
The Industrial revolution led to wool spinning and cloth making, being carried out in factories rather than in the home. People who would have knitted at home were now employed in factories to operate machinery. Hand knitted garments could not compete with the availability and cost of machine produced fabric and clothes.
In Victorian times knitting became an art for the well-bred lady. Even Queen Victoria herself was seen to knit. Lace and beaded knitting were popular and it was more of a craft hobby than a cottage industry as before. Now that the middle/upper classes were knitting, patterns started to be written down and passed on.
It was in the 19th century that knitting ‘pins’ as in the long, bobble-ended type we use today for flat knitting, were first invented. The original English/UK needle sizes from 1 to 26 were specified – the higher the number, the thinner the needle. For some perspective on how intricate Victorian lace knitting could be, a size 20 (1mm) needle for specified for lace knitting.
During the second World War, wool and many other things were in short supply, people would unpick old sweaters to re-use the yarn. Contributions to the war front were done by women knitting uniforms, even bandages for the troops on the front line. When the war was over, rationing was still in place and people still used hand knitting as a way to enhance their clothes. Into the 1950’s and the availability of colors and yarns made knitting a fashionable tool to enhance your wardrobe and home.
Knitwear moved through the 1960’s and 1970’s fashion rollercoasters, The twinset, a short sleeve jumper and matching cardigan was a popular pattern and many patterns became available to women to create themselves in various bright colors. The low point I think was garish patterned jumpers of the late 70’s and early 80’s. This was the start of knitting’s temporary demise. As the feminist movement got started, hobbies that were seen as purely female and women’s work such as knitting, sewing and baking, were no longer fashionable. The availability of cheap mass produced clothes made these arts un-necessary and something grandmothers did to pass the time, not a modern women with a career.
There does seem to have been something of a revival for knitting and sewing in recent times. Celebrities have been seen knitting, which has helped with its popularity and no longer are the old, traditionally women’s crafts, seen as sexist chains holding women back in the work place.
The 2 main stitches of knit and purl can be used in so many ways to create useful and amazing pieces of clothing. New techniques and ideas are unfolding all the time and are free for all to learn, use and experiment with, this is the best thing about fashion in my opinion. No one owns the ideas and style, everyone can be inspired and create their own.