Thursday, 3 June 2010

A Tale of Knitting

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.

Textile preservation
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.

Monastic knitting
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 )


  1. It is also interesting to see how different traditions moved--
    the color work of Turkey moved up the Volga--and into scandiania almost unchanged (except for pattern names (flowers became snow flakes!) and color work move then to Fair Isle (in the North Sea) and then south into Scotland and England.

    At the same time textured work seems to have moved into Spain from points south, and from south and east into Souther Europe--and spread from these trade points, everywhere.

    A wave of lace knitting seems to have moved across norther europe at some time too--From the Cossacks, to norther russia, to the baltic states--and west to the shetland islands!

    Now days, there is a diffusion of styles (with Eastern and combination knitting styles being more and more openly practiced, side by side with european styles of knitting) --and a diffusion of techniques--The traditional Fair Isle motifs sit side by side with scandinavian color work , and many a modern knitter (like me) from the north west corner of europe, has learned how to knit socks in the Anatolian (turkish) color work style.

  2. Hi Helen of Troy,
    Thank you so much for your interesting contribution. It is true I guess that knitting today is such a fusion of techniques and pattern / colourways from all over the place. Specially as we get to use great yarn from exotic places that our grandmothers would never have heard of.
    You seem to be doing a lot of fun sock patterns. I will have to take a closer look at this when I finish my current projects.

  3. Hi Helene,

    Nice article and a great overview of the early history of our craft.
    In your article under the heading “Knitting from a gender perspective” you stated that “knitting guilds were strictly male and men as a gender came to dominate the market for knitted garments.” Yes this is correct, the majority of Guilds were limited to male craftsmen however in a number of cities the textile industry was not organized within the guild system and this presents us with the opportunity to explore the division of labor in a somewhat less regulated environment.

    Research conducted by Elise van Nederveen(1) in 2004 into the role of women in the textile industry in the Netherlands and specifically in the city of Leiden where the textile industry was not organized under the Guild system adds some interesting facts to the discussion.
    In a comparison of the division of labor in the textile industry in 1581 and 1749 we see a strong increase in not only the total amount of knitters within the industry however also the percentage of women working as knitters. Of all workers involved in the textile industry in Leiden in 1581, 1.25% was involved in knitting. This percentage grew to 3.61% in 1749.

    In 1581 of the 1.25% employed as knitters 14.29% were women. During the following 170 years we see a major shift in the division of labor to the position where women employed as knitters in 1749 formed 67.3% of the total knitting workforce.

    Yes indeed during the Middle Ages and Renaissance professional knitting was a largely male orientated craft however with the decline of the Guild system during the Baroque period and the lead up to the industrial revolution we start to see far more women entering the craft.
    I am currently preparing a series of articles on the subject that I will post on my site in the near future.

    All the best
    Elisabeth Read

    (1) Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk: “Women and work in the early modern Netherlands: textile workers, gender, and the organization of production”, International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Paper for the EESHC, Berlin March 25, 2004

  4. I had no idea the start of the knitting and crocheting, how enlightening this story is. I would have never thought men started this, it just seems unnatural because they have such big hands and big fingers it would seem difficult to do such delicate work.

  5. Hi Elisabeth,

    Thank you for the very enlightening comment. We would love to hear more about Gender in the knitting industry.


  6. Tihi Kyla, you may have a point. But of course not all men have big hands!

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  8. "She is often knitting with several needles and this implies that this technique was quite well known and understood by both artists and patrons."I had no idea!


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