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Top 10 men in knitting
It's cool Report from the urban front

The following short biographies are of the ten most influential men in the world of knitting. Who says that these are the top ten? I do! And by what authority do I make the choice? I thought of it!

Childishness aside, this is a purely academic exercise, and I am well aware that my choices might not be everyone's. In fact, I would love to hear other nominations: the small amount of research I did to narrow my candidates to ten made me realize how little I really know about the history of knitting.

In deciding which men to include, I took the meaning of the word "influential" at face value. Not all of the men were or are knitters, and some of them might not even have known about their knitting legacy. This interpretation, of course, leads to some odd choices, but that makes it more fun, don't you think? Looking at them as a group, there are 3 military men, an iconic author, three knitting instructors, an artist, a prince, two members of the peerage, four designers, a farmer, and a fictional symbol. Makes for an interesting group.

HRH The Prince of Wales
(Edward VIII)

The Prince made a big impression, and not just by abdicating the throne in order to marry American divorcée Wallace Simpson. The knitting world was less interested in his personal life, and more impressed with what he was wearing. And, starting in 1921, the Prince was wearing Fair Isle sweaters.

Beginning with a gift from a draper named James A. Smith, the Prince began to wear Fair Isle sweaters to golfing events, during his globe-trotting public relations trips, and even for a portrait painted by John St. Helier Lander.

According to the grand doyenne of Fair Isle, Alice Starmore, the Prince of Wales wearing a Fair Isle pullover "was undoubtedly the single most important event in the commercialization of Fair Isle knitting."

In the 1920s, Fair Isle sweaters became so popular that most Oxford and Cambridge students owned one, and suddenly it seemed that Fair Isle hats, gloves and cardigans were seen everywhere.

Photo courtesy Postcard World

Alice Starmore's Book of Fair Isle Knitting by Alice Starmore. The Taunton Press, Inc. Newtown, Connecticut, 1988.

James Norbury

James Norbury was a true Renaissance man in the world of knitting. He was a knitwear designer, a television star on his own BBC knitting show, author of such books as The Knitter's Craft, Knit with Norbury, Knitting is an Adventure and the classic Traditional Knitting Patterns [at left], still available today. He was a knitting historian, knitting teacher, and head designer and spokesman for Patons.

With his many knitting skills, enthusiasm for the craft and colorful personality, Bishop Richard Rutt, in his book, A History of Hand Knitting asserts, "James Norbury was the strongest single influence in British knitting during the 25 years after the Second World War."

Norbury took his knitting seriously, and insisted there was a right and wrong way to do everything, claiming, for example, that needles should be 13 inches long or more, the right one should be tucked under the arm and the left should do all the work. He said of himself, "I was a foolhardy lover who has always been prepared to throw his loyalty and devotion at the feet of Mistress Knitting." Hmmmm.

- A History of Hand Knitting by Bishop Richard Rutt. Interweave Press, Inc., 1987.
- Traditional Knitting Patterns from Scandinavia, British Isles, France, Italy by James Norbury. Dover Publications, 1973.

Kaffe Fassett

Kaffe Fassett, whose name rhymes with "safe asset," could be James Norbury's doppelganger.

Also a multitalented knitter, Fassett is first and foremost an artist. After learning to knit from a stranger on a train, Fassett applied his knowledge of color and aesthetics to knitting and in doing so built a knitting empire.

An established teacher and designer, Fassett, like Norbury, publishes prolifically and hosted his own knitting show on the BBC.

Unlike Norbury however, his emphasis is not technique, but rather color, creativity and variety. In fact, he occasionally advises knitters to tinker with traditional technique if it increases efficiency or simply makes sense. Still active in the knitting community while practicing other arts and crafts, Fassett maintains a studio in London, and launched the career of Brandon Mably, another influential man in the world of knitting.

- Brilliant Knits: 25 Contemporary Knitwear Designs from the Kaffe Fassett Studio by Brandon Mably. Taunton Press, 2001.
- Glorious Colors by Kaffe Fassett. Clarkson Potter, 1988.
- Kaffe's Classics: 25 Glorious Knitting Designs by Kaffe Fassett. Taunton Press, 2000.
- Kaffe Fassett's Family Album: Knitting for Children and Adults by Kaffe Fassett, Zoe Hunt and Steve Lovi. Taunton Press, 2000.
- Kaffe Fassett's Pattern Library: Over 190 Creative Knitwear Designs by Kaffe Fassett and Sally Harding. Taunton Press, 2003.

Charles Dickens

Who is the most famous fictional knitting character in Western literature? Madame Defarge, no doubt.

A creation of Dickens' fertile mind, Madame Therese Defarge appears in his classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities. As a leader of the Jacques during the French revolution, she used pattern stitches as a code and knit a list of the upper class doomed to die at the guillotine. According to Rutt in his comprehensive A History of Hand Knitting, Dickens was inspired by the "tricoteuses", women who attended the National Convention in which the fate of the unfortunate rich was debated during the French revolution, knitting while they listened. Such a macabre pastime earned them a reputation as sadists, and an archetypal evil character was born in Madame Defarge.

This was a true testament to Dickens' talent. He was able to turn knitting, the frequent symbol of loving grandmothers and charming domesticity, into an ominous, cruel, inhuman act.

Photo courtesy Noel Collection.

- A History of Hand Knitting by Bishop Richard Rutt. Interweave Press, Inc., 1987.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Penguin Books, reissue 2003.

James Thomas Brudenell,
7th Earl of Cardigan

The Earl of Cardigan is described by various web sites as "vain" and "contentious" (, "foppish," "hopeless," "a notorious rake," ( while Cecil Woodham Smith, in his book The Reason Why, calls Cardigan, "unusually stupid," and "an ass."

Regardless of his character flaws, the Earl of Cardigan was a natty dresser, and made sure that the brigade he took charge of in 1857 was well dressed, sporting woolen button-down jackets.

Unfortunately, due to a misunderstanding and an apparent lack of common sense, Cardigan lead that same well-dressed brigade into a disastrous cavalry battle against the Russians at Balklava during the Crimean war. Over half the men were slaughtered, and the event was immortalized in Tennyson's poem, Charge of the Light Brigade.

His name is used today to describe a knitted sweater that buttons down the front similar to the original woolen jackets worn by his ill-fated brigade.

Photo courtesy British Empire.

- The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Goldencraft, 1964.
The Reason Why by Cecil Woodham Smith. Penguin Books, 1987.

Fitzroy James Henry Somerset, Lord Raglan

In one of the great ironies of knitting history, (if there are any) the other namesake of a sweater style, Lord Raglan, was also involved in the battle described in Charge of the Light Brigade. Fortunately, he was a comparably likeable man who dedicated his life to the military and Great Britain.

It just so happens that Lord Raglan was the one who gave the Earl of Cardigan the order that was misunderstood and led to the near complete massacre of the Light Brigade.

Some years before that, however, Raglan had his right arm amputated following damage it received at the battle of Waterloo. His tailor then designed a special short coat for him with a diagonal sleeve seam running from under the arm to the neckline making it easier for Lord Raglan to dress himself. With this simple innovation, a classic sweater shape was invented.


Photo courtesy British Empire.

Uncle Sam

All right, it's a cheap choice, but there is a reason. Actually, there are several. First, in the last 100 years the most influential events in convincing men and boys to knit (and many, many women for that matter) were the World Wars. Governments around the world, not to mention the Red Cross, encouraged civilians to assist in the war efforts by knitting garments for the troops. For example, in his article, When Knitting was a Manly Art, Clinton W. Trowbridge fondly remembers his years in elementary school when he learned to knit along with many other boys.

Second, during the first half of the 20th century, wars were primarily administrated and fought by men, so it stands to reason that there must be a man somehow involved in leading the knitting efforts, yes? How about the head of the Red Cross? Although the board of the Red Cross was predominately male, during WWII it was the lone female on the board who organized and encouraged the stateside knitting efforts. The theme of the campaign, however, was "knitting for Sammy," a reference to Uncle Sam.

Third, if we were to trace the roots of the martial knitting efforts back to the men who truly started everything, we'd end up with the Archduke Ferdinand and Adolf Hitler on the list of most influential men in knitting history. Uncle Sam seemed like a better choice to represent the overwhelmingly male population that was knitting and wearing knitted items during those years.


- No Idle Hands by Anne L. Macdonald. Ballantine Books, 1988.
- For the Love of Knitting, Kari Cornell, ed. Voyageur Press, 2004.

Eugene Bourgeois

Eugene and Anne Bourgeois are the Lunt and Fontaine, the Ball and Arnaz, the Torville and Dean, of the knitting world. In each of these cases it's hard to see where one partner leaves off and the other one begins, but it is perfectly clear that each individual is talented in his or her own right.

In the Bourgeois case, while their collaborative efforts built the Philosopher's Wool company, it was certainly Eugene's academic background that influenced the company's name (he has an M.A. in Pythagorean mystical philosophy). According to his description of their journey toward founding a wool/yarn/knitting business, it was Eugene's interest in raising mushrooms, that led to an interest in sheep dung fertilizer, that led to an interest in sheep, that led to an interest in fair market prices for wool, that led to producing yarn (that would be a chain [stitch] effect.) It was Ann's knitting that then brought them full circle to providing high quality yarn, patterns, books, videos and knitting lessons. In the process, Philosopher's Wool has been a moving force in reintroducing beautiful, soft wool yarn dyed in a variety of inviting colors; nouveau Fair Isle designs, and the "two-handed" stranding techniques. Now an inveterate knitter himself, Eugene's continues to influence the knitting world at trade shows, through publications and at Philosopher's Wool home base in Ontario, Canada.

- Fair Isle Sweaters Simplified by Ann and Eugene Bourgeois. Martingale and Company, 2000.

Izo Matukawa
(dates unknown)

In her 2002 article on the history of knitting, Yoshimi Kihara describes the importance of Izo Matukawa on Japanese knitting. Converted to Christianity in the 1880s, Matukawa learned to knit from a missionary. This was apparently not uncommon. As western styles culture became more popular during the late 1800's, many Japanese students learned to knit in missionary schools. However, according to Kihara, Matukawa took the craft to another level. "To some extent the beginnings of the Japanese method of making hand knitting patterns with charts can be traced all the way back to [Matukawa]. It was he who first thought of the idea of adapting knitting patterns along the lines of the markings used on canvas embroidery patterns." In the mid 1800s, he led a number of workshops to teach knitting, and in 1986 Matukawa published Step by Step Knitting Patterns.

Barry Klein

I round out the ten most influential men in the world of knitting with a man whose career is in its early stages. There's no doubt that Klein is making his mark however; he's everywhere! Barry Klein is the owner of Trendsetter Yarns and is a past president of the National Needlework Association. He has designed patterns for Vogue Knitting, Interweave Knits, and Knitters Magazine among others -- in fact, one of his designs is on the cover of the current issue of Vogue Knitting.

His books include The Ultimate Knitted Tee and Knitting with Novelty Yarns, and The Knitters Template, all co-authored with Laura Militzer Bryant. He once knit for 36 hours straight, making sweaters for Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street. Klein makes frequent appearances at conferences, knitting cruises and the like. A simple Google search turns up 8,490 references (and that excludes Barry Klein the realtor!) including mentions of him in the knitters chat rooms, in an article about Lily Chin, a reference to his appearance on Shay Pendray's PBS Show, his free patterns, and on and on.


- A Knitter's Template- Easy Steps to Great Fitting Garments by Laura Militzer Bryant & Barry Klein. Martingale & Co., 2003.
Knitting with Novelty Yarns by Laura Militzer Bryant and Berry Klein. Martingale and Company, 2001.
The Ultimate Knitted Tee by Laura Militzer Bryant and Berry Klein. Martingale and Company, 2004.


Ann Richards is a professional writer who teaches knitting as a hobby, although the line between profession and hobby tends to blur considerably.