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What is the History of Knitting?

By Britt Archer
Updated May 16, 2024
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The history of knitting is as complex and tangled as the fiber that the art produces. Historians have been trying for years to unravel the history of knitting and still haven't gotten any conclusive answers. Several earlier arts, such as naalbinding -- Scandinavian needle-binding -- resemble knit fabric in both texture and technique. Extant examples are tough to find, since fiber degenerates quickly when left to natural elements. It seems nearly impossible to tell when and where the art of knitting originated.

In its simplest form, knitting is the art of repeatedly knotting string with two sticks. There are two basic stitches used in knitting, the knit stitch and the purl stitch. These two stitches make up the foundation that all the more intricate varieties draw from. The purl stitch is a relatively recent discovery, having first appeared in a reference dated to the mid-1500s. Producing a fabric without the purl stitch is possible, and is often accomplished using circular needles or with a set of four double-pointed needles arranged in a square pattern.

In tracing the history of knitting, the earliest piece of knitted work may be a pair of socks from an Egyptian tomb, dated between the 3rd and 6th centuries CE. While this does support the commonly held belief that knitting found its origins in the area of the world known as the Middle East, it is not currently believed that these socks are an example of knitting, but rather naalbinding. This has caused much confusion for historians who try to pin down the history of knitting as well as those interested in the origins of the art.

It is incredibly hard to tell the difference between knitting and naalbinding, even when the tools of the craft are present. Naalbinding uses one needle, while knitting utilizes two. Because the needles resemble thin rods and sticks, and may be made out of a variety of materials, they are often not recovered on archaeological digs, or have decomposed altogether. Tools that are thought to be for naalbinding may be a set of knitting needles with one component missing, and tools thought to be for knitting may be nothing more than sticks. These facts cause even further confusion for historians and enthusiasts alike.

There are four paintings of knitting Madonnas dating from the 14th century that depict the Virgin Mary creating knit fabric using double-pointed needles. This visual representation suggests to historians that the art of knitting was not new at that time. Several examples of fabric exist that were almost certainly knit during this era from regions as far apart as Spain, Ireland and Estonia. Most existing knit items of historical note were excavated from gravesites of those who were not particularly rich, suggesting that by the 1300s knitting was a skill that those outside of the specialized classes possessed.

In the history of knitting, the Elizabethan period stands out as one of great popularity, when the demand for knitted items skyrocketed. Men were the most common practitioners of this art, forming guilds and passing laws to regulate the price of knit items. Knitting was done for practical reasons until the Industrial Revolution again changed the course of the history of knitting, with machines taking over the mass production of items and hand knitting became a leisure activity. It was about this time that knitting gave way to a new form of needlework, crochet, which varies in that it uses a hook to form the fabric. In recent decades knitting has undergone a revival and many people, both young and old, continue to practice this ancient art to this day.

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