(excerpted from www.wikipedia.com with additonal notes added)
Early origins of knitting
An exact genographical origin for knitting cannot be specified. The craft is believed to have been developed B.C., but this is disputed today. The oldest remnants of seemingly knitted pieces are those that were worn as socks. It is believed that socks and stockings were the first pieces to be produced by techniques similar to knitting as they had to be shaped in order to fit the foot, whereas woven cloth could be used for most other items of clothing. Today it is known that these early socks were worked in Nålebinding, an ancient craft which involves creating fabric from thread by making multiple knots or loops. It is done with a needle (originally of wood or bone).
The first references to true knitting in Europe were in the early 14th century, though the first knitted socks from Egypt might be slightly older. At these early times, the purl stitch was unknown; in order to produce plain knitting it was necessary to knit in the round and then cut it open. The first reference to purl stitch dates from the mid-16th century, but the knowledge may have slightly preceded that.
During the 14th century, pictures of the Madonna and Child Jesus showed the Blessed mother knitting – usually knitting in the round with four or five needles. Legend explains that Mary knitted the “seamless garment” for Jesus that could not be torn by the soldiers during the Passion of Our Lord – basically, Mary made a seamless t-shirt for Jesus.
Knitting Madonnas can be seen in churches and museums throughout Western Europe and date from the early 1300s through to the end of the 1400s.
Importance of Church in Knitting
The Catholic Church, primarily in Spain, helped to spread the interest in knitting through the industry of ecclesiastical garments. Knitted liturgical gloves and altar garments are some of the surviving examples of this ancient knitting. Caps – including clerical caps – that fitted to the wearer’s head were also made extensively in the past.
During this era the manufacture of stockings was of vast importance to many Britons, who knitted with fine wool and exported their wares. Knitting schools were established as a way of providing an income to the poor, and the stockings that were made sent to Holland, Spain, and Germany.
The fashion of the period for men to wear short trunks made the fitted stockings commonly used, a fashion necessity.
Queen Elizabeth the First herself favoured silk stockings, these were finer, softer and much more expensive. Actual examples of stockings that belonged to her still remain, showing the high quality and decorative nature of the items specifically knitted for her.
Guild Knittings – MEN ONLY!
In the 16th and 17th centuries, when guilds were at their height, men served an apprencticeship for six years in order to be considered “master knitters”. According to knititng historian Mary Thomas, “three years to learn, three years to travel, after which the apprentice made his Masterpieces in thriteen weeks:
1. knit a carpet … the design to contain flowers, foliage, birds and animals in natural colors (approx. size 6 ft. x 5 ft).
2. knit a beret
3. knit a woolen shirt
4. knit a pair of hose with Spanish clocks
Importance in Scottish history
Knitting was such a vast occupation among those living on the Scottish Isles during the 17th and 18th centuries that the whole family would be involved in making sweaters, socks, stockings, etc. Fair Isle techniques were used to create elaborate colorful patterns. The sweaters were essential to the fishermen of these Isles, as the natural oils within the wool would provide some element of protection against the harsh weathers while out fishing.
Many elaborate designs were developed, such as cable stitch used on aran sweaters in Ireland.
Rudimentary knitting devices had been invented prior to this period, but were one-off creations. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution wool spinning, and cloth manufacture began to be done in factories. More women would be employed at operating machinery, rather than producing their home spun and knitted items.
The consistency of the factory spun wool was better in that it was more uniform, and the weight could be gauged better as a consequence.
Knitting for Victory: 1939-1945 (and don't forget the Civil War, WWl, Desert Storm, and the War in Iraq)
Make do and mend was the title of a booklet produced by the British wartime government department, the Ministry of Information.
Wool was in very short supply, as were so many things. The booklet encouraged women to unpick any old, unwearable, woollen items in order to re-use the wool.
Knitting patterns were issued for people to make items for the Army and Navy to wear in winter, such as balaclavas and gloves. This had the effect of producing the required items, but also gave a positive sense of achievement towards the war effort, by being able to contribute in this way.
1950s and 60s high fashion
After the war years, knitting has a huge boost as greater colours and styles of yarn were introduced. Many thousands of patterns fed a hungry market for fashionable designs in bright colours.
The "twinset" was an extremely popular combination for the home knitter. It consisted of a short-sleeved top with a cardigan in the same colour, to be worn together.
Girls were taught to knit in schools, as it was thought to be a useful skill, not just a hobby. Magazines such as "Pins and needles" in the UK, carried patterns of varying difficulty, with not just clothes, but items such as blankets, toys, bags, lace curtains and items that could be sold for profit.
The popularity of knitting showed a sharp decline in this period in the Western world. Sales of patterns and yarns slumped, as the craft was increasingly seen as old-fashioned and children were rarely taught to knit in school.
The increased availability and low cost of machine knitted items meant that consumers could have a beautiful looking sweater at the same cost of purchasing the wool and pattern themselves.
Revival in the New Millenium
Following this decline of knitting, manufacturers and designers looked for new ways to stimulate interest and creativity within the craft.
Focus was given to making specialty yarns, which could produce beautiful and stunning results.
Companies like Vogue worked to make their patterns the height of fashion, and Rowan Yarns popularised their patterns with high-quality magazines that bore no resemblance to the old-fashioned style once produced in bulk.
Celebrities including Julia Roberts, Winona Ryder and Cameron Diaz have been seen knitting and have helped to popularise the revival of the craft. A new phrase Guerilla Knitting has been coined for the practice of taking every opportunity to knit in public - often with a degree of organisation such as a mass tube knit-in.
Even men are knitting again as seen by the emergence of male knitting groups.
Macdonald, Anne L., No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting, 1988
Rutt, Richard, A History of Hand Knitting, 1987 (reprinted 2000)
Thomas, Mary, Mary Thomas’s Knitting Book, 1938 (reprinted by Dover Publications, 1972)