Some History About Knitting

In man's quest for better, more practical and more beautiful textiles, the art of knitting was historically later than weaving. No one knows exactly when knitting first began since there is no actual record of any knitted fabric before 200 A.D. However, there are legends, one of which is that Christ's seamless garment was knitted. Indeed, seamless or tubular fabrics have been knitted for many generations.

The Arabs were responsible for the spread of knitting from the East (where it originated) to the Mediterranean coast of Europe. From there, it spread through northern Europe and eventually to America. As was the case with Macrame, it was the men, sailors and traders, who knitted, but in Europe, it became women's art as well.

Both weavers and knitters formed guilds in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the men who worked in the industry had to pass rigid tests to be accepted into the guild. In most of Europe, the men did the commerical knitting while the women knitted for their families. In the British Isles both the men and women knitted commercially. These cottage industries still are said to continue in some of the small isles today.

Some of the feats of the guild knitters before the industrial revolution are difficult for today's beginning knitter to comprehend. Most guilds required that a man design and knit several "masterpieces" within a limited time in order to be accepted as a Master Knitter. One generally required item in the test was a carpet approximately 6 feet by 5 feet intricately patterned in many colors. The finished effect of these carpets was much like that of a Persian rug.

Speed was of the utmost importance to commerical hand knitters. To make it possible to knit faster, many supports for the needles and other such aids were invented to take some of the strain off the hands. There are records of some people knitting more than 200 stitches a minute on common knitting needles, using supports so that the hands were free to handle the yarn at high speed. As of the late 1970's such methods were still seen in remote areas of England, Scotland, Ireland or Wales.

Other innovations have been used to increase knitting speed and make it possible to knit larger pieces. One that appeared in many forms was the knitting frame, a square or round frame with pins set all around. These most nearly resemble the knitting spools still used today to make small tubular pieces, the frames made large tubular pieces.

The first knitting needles were shaped rather like long crochet hooks, but the technique was that of knitting. Straight needles with smooth points probably appeared in the 13th or 14th century. Early knitters made their own needles of bone, wood, ivory and many other materials. These were smooth and highly polished. There were no knob ends so small stoppers of wood or cork were necessary to keep the stitches from sliding off. The finest needles, barely more than wires, were used for knitting silk.

Wool has always been the principal yarn for knitting and it has been prepared and treated in many ways. People in fishing communities such as Ireland and the Aran Isles spun their yarn from wool still containing its natural lanolin which enabled it to still shed water as it did on the sheep. In France and Austria some knitted garments are still felted after completion so that the yarn becomes matted together and thus impervious to wind and weather. Wool can be spun to be heavy enough for a coat or delicate enough for a baby's sweater. Silk, linen and cotton are also been used for knitting, and now, synthetics are the most popular yarns.

As the Puritan work ethic grew in the last centuies, knitting became a symbol of the woman whose hands were never idle. Women often kept small pieces of knitting in their pockets to work on in every spare minute. It is told, that the terrible Madame Defarge in Tale of Two Cities even knitted while she watched the executions at the guillotine.

Today's busy woman often finds knitting a good tranquilizer, most knitting can be put into a bag and taken along on vacations, business trips and for long waits in the doctor's office.