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The history of knitting is mostly a big mystery, guessed at from fragments kept in museums around the world. Knitting is made of wool, silk, and other fibers that decay rapidly, even under perfect conditions; knitting needles are essentially sharpened sticks, and hard to identify as knitting needles beyond a doubt; they could be hair picks, skewers, spindles, or any of the other zillion uses there are for a sharpened stick. In the past, when spinning was all by hand and much more time-consuming, many sweaters that didn't fit were raveled and re-knit. Yarn wasn't discarded until it wore out. Add in that not many people in the past thought to save their everyday items for their descendants, and there aren't many useful knitted objects left for us to find, all these years later. Once in a while we get lucky. The archeological evidence we have is very interesting, and there are other ways to date things.

Linguistically, all evidence implies that knitting is a fairly recent invention. There are no ancient legends of knitting like there are legends of spinning and weaving (remember Arachne? Ixzaluoh? Nephthys? Amaterasu? Never mind... the numbers of weaving and spinning gods and mostly goddesses are legion). There are no ancient gods or goddesses who knit, no legend of how it was invented or given by the gods. That lack implies that it is a recent skill, developed after mythologies were established around the world. It's a shame, because I think a knitting goddess would be cool... maybe we could make one up?

A quick cruise of the Oxford Unabridged English Dictionary also reveals that the term 'to knit' wasn't added to English until the 1400s. Further poking around will reveal that any term meaning 'to knit', specifically make loops with two long, straight needles, wasn't in any European language before the Renaissance. Other than the Middle East, and Spain, other places in the world were even later in their assigning words for knitting. It's pretty obvious; knitting hasn't been around that long.

Most of what we're left with in terms of physical evidence is a tiny pile of knitted fragments, and a lot of speculation. And did I mention the knit fragments are really hard to interpret? Before the development of knitting, a craft called nalbinding was used to make stretchy fabrics. (Go here for a quickie lesson on how nalbinding is done. The drawbacks are obvious immediately.) Termed 'one needle knitting' by some museums, it is similar to knitting in structure, but stronger, less stretchy, and a lot more difficult to create. The resulting fabric would look very sloppy unless done by a master, and it wasn't something you could have the kids do while tending the sheep -- unlike knitting.

These socks date to the 300s, and are made by nalbinding. They look very much like crossed-stitch or twisted-stitch knitting.

As a fine example of the nalbinding/knitting confusion, the famous (notorious?) Dura-Europos fragment is considered by many to be the oldest fragment of knitting in existence. Found in the Indus River Valley and dating back several thousand years, it is listed in many books and the original dig report as knitting (I sincerely wonder if they HAD a knitter on the original dig.) Barbara Walker has even written a pattern so we can all knit something historical. Unfortunately, the Dura-Europos fragment has been proven to be made of nalbinding. Still, the knit version would make a cool pair of socks.

Image from "A History of Hand Knitting" by Richard Rutt, p 30.
Fragment currently at Yale University.

The oldest REAL knitting (formed on two sticks by pulling loops through loops) we've got is 'Coptic socks' from Egypt, dating to around the year 1000 CE. There are quite a few fragments, all of them done in shades of white and indigo, in stockinette. Many of them have Khufic (a decorative Arabic script) blessings knit into them, or symbols to ward off evil, or both. All look really cool. And may I point out for the fiber-snobs among us, that all of the really ancient knitted fragments we've got are knit out of cotton. Yes indeedy, cotton. Wool wasn't used for knitting until way later.

Here are some of the earliest sock fragments we've found. You can see the patterns are already quite complex. From "Folk Socks" by Nancy Bush, p. 13 and this page.

These socks bring me (and more importantly real, trained archeologists) to a conclusion; knitting's probably a little older than we think, because the first fragments we've got are good-looking, well-made, complex designs. To put it another way, would YOU do stranded-color socks as your first project, particularly if you were making it up as you went and had no one to teach you? With that in mind, given our thousand-year-old fragments, knitting might be eleven hundred, twelve hundred years old, allowing for a lifetime or two for people to invent the methods and then get fancy with them. It pains my history-obsessed heart to admit it, but knitting's a recent invention (put against the backdrop of all of human history, anyway).

Among some historians (I won't name names), there seems to be a lot of, um, denial going on about where knitting was developed. There is a fairly obvious trail of artifacts from Egypt to Moorish-occupied Spain, and up into the rest of Europe. Some rather Eurocentric types claim this isn't evidence enough to 'prove' that knitting was invented in the Middle East, so I'll pile on a few more points in favor of a Middle-Eastern invention of knitting. Keep in mind we're discussing the Middle Ages.

The first dateable hunk of knitting found in Europe is from Spain (the Spain that was, at the time, held by Arabic peoples), in a tomb that was sealed up in 1275, slap in the middle of the darkest of the Dark Ages. And YET, all of the early knitting fragments have writing knit into them. Many of the sock fragments have 'Allah' knit in bands around them, assumed to function as a blessing. The pillow in Spain has 'blessing' in a decorative Arabic script knit around the edges. We can pretty safely assume that knitting words into knitting was done almost from the first, at a time Europe was largely illiterate. It was the Islamic world that had wide-spread literacy. No one's gonna convince me that an illiterate was the one who came up with the idea to knit words into a sock. So, the early knitting fragments were produced by someone literate, and most literate people were found somewhere in the Islamic world. Particularly literate people with a knowledge of decorative Arabic scripts.

Added to that, for the first four or five hundred years of knitting's history, the most common materials were cotton and silk. Not wool. Cotton and silk were far easier to come by in the Middle East than in Europe. If knitting had started in Europe, I imagine they'd have used wool first. Or maybe linen.

My final proof is how we knit. Ever notice we work the stitches from right to left? Ever wonder why? We write left to right... doesn't it follow that we would KNIT left to right? Only if we invented it in the first place. Arabic is written from right to left. I'm betting that our current knitting method is a holdover from that. (We knit right to left today because some Arabic person started doing it that way over a thousand years ago. History is so cool.)

So what do we know? Knitting kind of appeared, poof, probably in Egypt or an adjoining land, sometime around 1000CE and spread rapidly, moving along trade routes into Europe. Another theory holds that knitting was brought back to Europe during the Crusades (1095-1291), but I can't imagine the Crusaders taking time off from raping and pillaging to share sock-making techniques in the Middle East. Call me a cynic. I can't imagine a bunch of Arabs taking a break from being attacked to teach some stinky Europeans how to knit, either.

From the 1275 pillow found in Spain, things fan out in terms of direction, and speed up. There are 'clumsily made' gloves from France dating to the 1200s (someone teaching themselves to knit, having seen a trade good?) Then liturgical gloves in a German tomb, dated to 1297, similar to the ones found in the Victoria and Albert Museum:

At this stage, knitting was still a luxury trade item; it was created from imported silks and cottons, and made into non-vital things like pillows, liturgical gloves, and small bags.

In the 1350s, paintings called 'knitting madonnas' began to appear. They depict the Virgin Mary knitting; the paintings are detailed enough to show that SOMEONE in Europe knew how to knit. The painting thought to be the earliest of them is found in Northern Italy (not far from Spain, especially if you think in terms of trade routes). Another knitting Madonna was painted in Germany around 1400. The knowledge of how to knit was starting to spread, quickly.

In the mid-1500s, the first and only major new technique was introduced to knitting: the purl stitch. First found on a pair of stockings in a tomb in Toledo, Spain, dated to 1562. Up until then, all those socks had curly edges. Can you imagine?

By the 1500s, most of the wealthy in Europe had at least one pair of knit socks (these were the days of shortie trunk hose and loooong socks for men, remember), and possibly a knit undershirt or jacket.

In 1566, King Eric of Sweden had a garment inventory done; he owned twenty-seven pairs of silk stockings imported from Spain, each pair costing the same as his valet's ANNUAL salary (What a clothes horse! He's lucky he didn't have taxpayers to answer to).

The gauge on these stockings was completely insane; Nancy Bush says the gauge of one pair is 25 stitches and 32 rows PER INCH. Yes, INCH. This was before the invention of knitting frames or anything else in terms of automation; these babies were knit by hand. (For the sake of the knitters, I hope they were done in direct sunlight, but I'm betting not. Poor things.)

Knitted jackets and shirts were also popular at this time, usually knit from silk and gilt threads. (Gilt yarn at the time was made from actual metal. Can you imagine how fun THAT was to knit with? It probably tarnished and looked like crap within the year, too.) Looking at this jacket, you can see that they were still following woven ideals for fit and cut. The undershirts are very much like woven undershirts of the day, something like a modern Henley, with a longer, flaring shirt tail. Charles the I of England was said to be wearing one of these undershirts when he was beheaded in 1649. (Sky blue silk at a gauge of 8.5 stitches per cm, or about 17 stitches PER INCH.) Knitting was still pretty exclusive, but not for long. Economics reared its ugly head, in the form of supply and demand.

Demand being insanely high, cottage industries began to appear; a hat-knitting guild appeared in England in 1424, along with many others across Europe. Once the common man knew how to knit, the obvious happened. We started knitting for ourselves. One of the first of the commonly available knitted products was the 'acorn hat', made of felted wool. This one dates to the 1600s. That's right, it took us about five hundred years to make common 'everyday' knitting out of wool.

After this, the history is pretty predictable; the knowledge of knitting spread around the world, following trade routes. Sailors were big fans of knitting, since it was small, portable, and gave them something to do on long voyages. Back in Europe, the peasants gradually began adding knitting to their folk costumes, giving us all those lovely ethnic sweaters we (okay, I) love to knit.

Over the years, the role of knitting has shifted regularly, from high-demand luxury item to low-demand folk craft, and back again. In the Victorian era, knitting became a parlor art, used to make all sorts of exquisitely fine laces, bags, and baby clothes. They seem to be the ones who introduced fine beadwork to knitting, stringing tiny beads onto sewing thread and knitting it into fabric.

The next revolution in knitting was the idea of knitwear as sportswear, coming from two places at once -- British royalty and the Paris designers. The Prince of Wales began wearing Fair Isle sweaters to golf in (the one below is similar to his, but no one knows where the original is, if it still exists).

Then Elsa Schiaparelli mass-produced her 'bow knot' sweater, the crowds went wild, and the rest is history. (Thankfully. I'd hate having to wear wovens all the time.)

In the 1930s, the depression hit, and around the world, several co-ops were set up to help women earn money by knitting. The (deservedly) most famous of these was Bohus Stickning, founded in Sweden by Emma Jacobsson. The sweaters are still known among hard-core knitters like myself, as amazing examples of color and design, proof that with care and attention, any craft can be made into art. Below is a photo of one of their most popular designs, the "Blue Shimmer".

Blue shimmer photo from the Bohuslans Museum.

The thing that made knitting so immediately popular when it was invented, is what makes it popular even today: it's simplicity. With two sticks and some string, you can create literally any article of clothing (And not only is that simple, it's pretty darn cool). We occasionally add a new technique, but for the most part knitting is unchanged from twelve hundred years ago, when some poor nalbinder dumped their needle and said 'there has to be a better way'. Knitwear is as popular as ever, if not more so; people learn to knit daily, and classes are booming. Scientists have begun knitting nylon arteries to transplant into bodies, and metallic shields for hoses. It will be interesting to see what knitting will do next.


All photos from the Victoria and Albert Museum unless otherwise noted. The V&A has a great online knitting exhibit available at Victoria and Albert Museum Knitting Exhibit.

"A History of Hand Knitting" by Richard Rutt contains a lot of interesting photos of historical knit pieces, and charts of their patterns.

"Folk Socks" by Nancy Bush not only has a great history of socks in it, but contains a lot of modernized patterns for historically significant socks, including a very nice adaptation of the ancient Islamic socks.

Vogue Knitting's Winter 2005/2006 issue has a discussion of "Armenian Knitting" the technique used by Elsa Schiaparelli's knitters to produce the Bow Jumper. It is written by Meg Swansen and contains detailed directions and an example pattern.

The Bohus sweater is from the Bohuslan Museum. According to the site, there are yarn packs and kits available; I've tried the contact information and gotten no reply. If anyone else has information on that, let me know? Otherwise, "Poems of Color" by Wendy Keele contains a history of Bohus Stickning and an assortment of patterns and charts.



Julie lives on the East Coast with her husband, daughter, and cat. With a baby in the house, she's giving up stranded color on size four needles and is thinking fond thoughts of super-bulky yarns knit on broom sticks. In one color.

Occasionally she manages to write something. Read all about it at Samurai knitter.