This sweater on the picture above is made according to Edwardian fashion trends and is reflecting early features of sportswear. It combines the aesthetics of fashionable outfit through its large gigot sleeves and overall silhouette with the informal sporty mood that is present in any knitted fabric. This evolution of sportswear goes through the 19th century. fashion history, also pointing to important wardrobe news. And those inventions of the 19th century are present today.
As we already saw in the 1st part of this story, the origins and further development of knitting was a surprise to everyone. What was it like in the 19th century when the popularity of knitted apparel began to increase significantly? And what was the role of handicrafts in the era of the industrial revolution? Did the 20th century bring new surprises?
About this and many more moments in the history of knitwear. part 2.!
Mechanical Knitting VS Hand-Knitting
In the past, hand-knitting was popular for both functional and decorative garments in country areas where wool was readily available. By the 19th century knitting machines had come into use but it was not until the wool-related health cult of the late 19th century that woolen garments achieved wide popularity. Sporting activities at the end of the 19th century also helped to promote wool. By the end of the century fashionable outdoor knitted garments were being made up for women by both hand and machine.
With the industrial revolution came the ability to produce everything faster and cheaper with the help of factories. As we saw in the first part, the mechanical knitting machine was invented in 1589, however knitting machines and operators didn’t transfer to factories until the 19th century. By this time, hand knitting was declining as part of the clothing industry but was still a hobby for many.
In 1816 the first circular knitting loom was built in England. It allowed to make stretchy tubular seamless fabric for commercial use and it was ideal for undergarments. As fashion magazines was growing in popularity across Europe, they were also used for promotion of the new knitwear designs. All this knitting development process was consumed by the rising middle-classes and usually women were quite active at home making colorful knitted garments. Women even started knitting their own baby clothes and petticoats too. The first knitting magazine was also published in England and the idea was growing across Europe throughout the century.
The New Knitted Garments
Sweaters, jumpers, pullovers ... How do they differ and where their history is rooted? This can be told at a glance only by passing by, because each of these legendary knitted garments has its own special story, which, however, is sought on the British Isles.
Maybe ganseys were the very first ones?
Like many garments, the history of knitted garments is mostly related to the search for functionality. The most famous historical wearers of sweaters, pullovers and jumpers were fishermen, who needed warm and hard-wearing garments to protect themselves from the elements. As far back as the 15th century, fisherman’s wives from Guernsey in the Channel Islands between Britain and France knitted “guernseys” with tightly spun and knit wool that repelled the sea spray. As trade developed, the guernsey was adopted and modified by coastal communities across the British Isles and North Sea. Called a “gansey” by other communities, these sweaters were distinctively patterned across the yoke with a stitch local to the wearer’s village. The neck was finished with a short collar and the cuffs were structured so that they could be easily re-knitted. Until the turn of the 20th century, ganseys were hand-knitted by a loved one and were still worn almost exclusively as a working man’s garment, though many men owned a finer gansey for Sundays and holidays.In the mid 19th century, the gansey was adopted by the Royal British Navy, and they are still part of the uniform for various members of the British military.
Jersey Costume & Knitted Fabric
What we call knitwear nowadays was originally called jersey. It was soft, stretchable knitted fabric first used on the Channel Island of Jersey in the late 19th century for sportswear and outerwear. In the 1870's, Lillie Langtry, the Edwardian actress, popularized a finely knitted silk or wool garment that clung to the figure down to the mid-thigh, where it was swathed around the knees and worn over a flannel or serge skirt. Best known as a jersey costume, it fastened at the back and was worn for sporting activities.
As for jersey fabric, it was pioneered by Coco Chanel in the 1920's. It was made up into dresses and two-piece suits and became the most fashionable fabric of the period. It can be made of cotton, nylon, rayon, wool or synthetic yarns. It was also a type of thick, knitted sweater originally worn by fishermen.
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My name is Edīte Parute and I am a fashion historian and researcher from Latvia, association member at "The Association of Dress Historians" (UK) and author of the book "Stila un modes enciklopēdija"/"Encyclopedia of Style and Fashion" (2010) as well as author of many publications.