Recently, I was looking into the history of knitting, prompted by a freelance story I was asked to write. I discovered reams of information about this craft that, by all accounts, seems to be making a contemporary comeback.
For example, I was reminded of the legends in which knitting figures prominently: Penelope from Homer’s Odyssey who avoided remarriage while Odysseus was fighting the Trojan war by promising she would choose a suitor once she finished weaving a shawl; she just made sure she unravelled the shawl each night, so it was never finished. There was also Arachne and Athena who engaged in a weaving duel . . . Arachne, being mortal, was no match for Athena and took her own life in shame. The goddess Athena resurrected Arachne out of pity — in the form of a spider so she could spend the rest of her life weaving.
I also uncovered an entirely different craft, somewhat akin to knitting. Nålbinding precedes knitting in history, and while it is done with just one needle, the fabric it produces is almost identical to a knit fabric.
But what struck me most about the origins of knitting was the reminder that knitting was so rarely a solitary activity. From its earliest entry on the European stage, knitters gathered as guilds. Early in the history of the craft, about 1268 (there is evidence of knitting having spread to Europe via Spain from Egypt in the years following 1000 AD), there was an active guild of knitters in Paris. By 1514, knitters were one of six leading guilds in Paris, according to historians, likely quite influential. By 1590, Germany had its first knitting guild. Becoming a member of a knitting guild required expert skill. You began as an apprentice, continued as a journeyman travelling to other towns to study the craft and knitting up a storm, and eventually – if deemed qualified – became a master knitter.
Like many crafts and industries, the history of knitting is indelibly linked to other inventions and trends. A mechanical knitting machine invented in 1589 by the Englishman William Lee was commonplace by the 1700s, and, alongside that invention and its derivatives was the trend toward knitted stockings and other knitwear. The trend fed the movement toward mass production, eventually, leaving the hand-knitting guildsmen to either conform to factory knitting techniques or forfeit their craft.
A fortunate consequence of the First World War was the effort by women and children to knit large quantities of warm accessories for Allied troops. Before this, knitting guildsmen were men; the craft was rarely practised by women. At the same time as women hit the knitting scene, the media began to play a crucial role in disseminating easy patterns for mass use. Following the war, by the 1920s, the fashion trend was knitwear, especially sweaters, and later neckties. Its popularity is evident in the modeling of Coco Chanel in Vogue magazine, which also featured patterns. By the 1950s, girls were being taught to knit in school.
From its origins as a high-skilled (guildsman) craft to home craft/hobby that included women, knitting has depended on the fashion trend of the day and the ease of sharing patterns and skills. In today’s revival of knitting, designers are keeping a close eye on trends, while guilds are replaced by knitting circles, classes, and knit-a-longs. The internet has taken care of the requirement to learn the skill: YouTube is a beginner knitter’s best friend. It has also played a paramount role in making reams of patterns available on a mass scale through sharing sites such as Ravelry.com.
Strangely, the revival of knitting seems to come not just as mass media promotes its availability, but also as its enthusiasts strengthen their tie to traditional hand-knitting techniques. Perhaps this is because, as crafters, knitters are more prone to see emerging technology as a tool to preserve their art, rather than a tool to save time or make money.