By Helene Agerskov Madsen
Knitting is probably the single most well-known craft technique today. Furthermore, knitting has received an immense renewal of interest over the last years with numerous knitting books being published and the establishment of knitting groups, societies and guilds. Nevertheless, it would probably be useful first to agree on what is meant by knitting: it can be defined as needlework created by interlacing a single thread in a series of connected loops using two or more straight eyeless needles. Other techniques of a similar nature are sprang, knotless netting (i.e. nalbinding) and crocheting. Likely predecessors of the needles known today are knitting frames and the earliest needles are known to have a notch in one end and a point in the other. Just like the knitting needles still in use today in the Balkans and South America and very much like our modern crochet needles.
Speaking of knitting versus crochet, an amusing Finnish country proverb is supposed to say: “He who wears knitted mittens has an unskilled wife”. This is from a time when both techniques were in use but knitting was obviously looked down upon, because the alternative, knotless netting (i.e. nalebinding) was more time consuming and demanded greater nimbleness of the left-hand fingers. But let us not dwell more on this rivalry as it bears too close similarity to the rivalry between knitting and crochet (though the enlightened reader will appreciate each technique for its specific qualities in different situations).
Continuing with the tale of knitting needles, the introduction of four or five needles instead of only two occurred around the 13th century.
When studying the history of knitting, focus has often been on preserved artifacts kept in museum collections. There has been some great discussions as to which techniques were used to produce the individual artifacts and which relic can be described as the earliest example of knitting. The final product of knitting and knotless netting (i.e. nalbinding) is very similar when preservation over centuries is taken into account, and distinction between the two techniques often requires microscopic examination. Also a word of caution – textiles deteriorate at a scarily fast speed, and textiles more than a couple of centuries old are small wonders just for being preserved.
The introduction of knitting
Knitting was possibly performed in the Middle East as early as the first century CE and one theory of the spread to Europe is that the Arabs learned to knit after conquering Egypt. Later they brought it with them when conquering Spain in the 8th century. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the technique began to spread and gain popularity in Northern Europe. In France we have a great number of hats that were knitted in the 14th century. It is also from France we have documentation of the earliest establishment of a knitter’s guild in Paris in 1366. The growing popularity and demand for knitted garments occurred in the 14th-15th centuries and numerous guilds were formed in Western and Central Europe. In the Middle Ages a guild was a powerful union of craftsmen of a particular trade, established to improve the quality of the profession. The system had a structured apprentice system and was exclusively male.
Influenced by Spanish trend, knitted stockings became highly fashionable in Northern Europe in the 16th century. The upper parts of society had previously worn stockings made of woven textile but now fashion dictated tight fitting, knitted silk stockings to show of the legs. It was only later the lower parts of society copied the trendy stockings, but in wool.
Knitting also became popular in the monastic world and liturgical gloves knitted of wool or silk with gold or silver embroidery are often amoung preserved textiles from the Middle Ages. Nuns from the abundant monasteries across Europe knitted these gloves. Knitting also made an imprint on artists of the time and several paintings from the 14th century depict a knitting Virgin Mary. She is often knitting with several needles and this implies that this technique was quite well known and understood by both artists and patrons.
Much later in history knitting became industrialised, but that is another story.
Knitting from a gender perspective
Historically knitting can be seen to follow two separated paths: one for private use and one for the commercial market. Nevertheless, the paths are sometimes interconnected when for example knitted garments are sold as a side income.
As previously mentioned the knitting guilds were strictly male and men as a gender came to dominate the market for knitted garments. A practice carried through to the industrialisation when knitting machines arrived on the scene. However, in private both men and women seem to have practiced the technique until quite recently, when it became an almost exclusively female activity. Today a knitting man is something of a rare sight, but until the beginning of the last century it was considered a normal and very practical skill carried out by both men and women. Knitting was something you could do in many situations, even when walking or herding animals. In this fashion you also gained maximum benefit of your waking hours – so you might think of this and bring out your needles next time your waiting for a train. And you might want to poke your man as well.
Nielsen, Ann Møller. 1985. Pregle, Binde og Lænke: Gammel Dansk Strikketradition. (ISBN: 87-981522-0-3).
Nielsen, Ann Møller. 1988. Alverdens Strikning: Historie og Teknik. Ariadne. (ISBN: 87-981522-1-1)
Turnau, Irena. 1991. History of Knitting before Mass Production. AKCENT: Warszawa. (ISBN: 83-900213-2-3 )