When the sweater season begins, many of us are wrapped in knitted clothing and feel simply cozy .. How it was in antiquity? And when did it all begin? I decided to look back into the history of knitted garments and ....It took me away in the old days.
The origins of knitting are rather obscure since only a few early examples survived until nowdays. Knitting is a craft that can be traced back to the Ancient Egypt. Egyptians were knitting by interlocking of one loop of thread or yarn through another, using two needles. It is quite possible that the technique was introduced into Europe from Asia via trade routes or as a result of the Moorish invasion of Spain (AD 711 -12).
The English language word 'knit/knitting' is derived from 'knot', thought to originate from the Dutch verb 'knutten', which is similar to the Old English word 'cnyttan' (to knot). The origins of knitting lie in the basic human need for clothing for protection.
That's why the earliest knitwear was socks, gloves and warm jackets.
The identification of the oldest knitted items in the world is very complicated by the fact that some of the oldest yarn techniques were mistaken for being knitted. Sprang is an ancient technique and a precursor of knitting, though it is made on a frame rather than with knitting needles.
The earliest examples of sprang date from the early Bronze Age (c. 1400 BC) in Denmark. This technique has been also used widely in ancient Peru (1100 BC) and post-Pharaonic Egypt (4th - 7th Centuries AD). Socks from 4th and 5th-century Romano-Egyptian burials also display a technique which resembles knitting, but which has been described in scientific researches as crossed-loop knitting.
As shown in the picture below, these odd, ancient socks are the earliest knitted items in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s collection and quite possibly the oldest socks in the world. Made in 300-499 AD, these Egyptian socks were excavated in the burial grounds of ancient Oxyrhynchus, a Greek colony on the Nile in central Egypt at the end of the 19th century. They have a divided toe and are designed to be worn with sandals.
Particularly intriguing is the technique used to construct these red wool socks. Called nålbindning, or single-needle knitting, this time-consuming process required only a single thread. The technique was frequently used for close-fitting garments for the head, feet and hands because of its elastic qualities. Primarily from prehistoric times, nålbindning came before the two-needle knitting that’s standard today; each needle was crafted from wood or bone.
Some of the earliest examples of true knitting are stockings from Egypt of the Islamic period (c. 1200 - 1500) and late 13th century cushions from royal tombs in the abbey church of Las Huelgas in northern Spain.
Several Medieval paintings from Europe portray the knitting and date from the 14th century and early 15th century. These paintings did not show the knitting patterns. As sources say, the earliest known knitting pattern was published in 1524. Archaeological finds from Medieval cities all over Europe, as well as tax lists, prove the spread of knitted goods for everyday use from the 14th century onward. Knitted liturgical gloves appear to have been relatively common in Europe after 1500.
The stocking frame was the first mechanical knitting machine and was invented by William Lee of Calverton, near Nottingham, in 1589. As its technology developed and the stocking frame became more refined and efficient, factories opened and the rural knitting industry began to die out in Britain. Sources say that after receiving a pair of black stockings from William, Queen Elizabeth I ultimately declined to grant him a patent for his invention. She complained that his machine made wool stockings that were far too coarse for royal ankles. She didn’t like the feel of the stockings or their crude form and she was afraid that the machine would take away jobs from her people. However, France’s King Henri IV saw the opportunity William’s invention provided and offered him financial support. The inventor moved to Rouen where he built a stocking factory. Before long, the French spread the knitting loom throughout Europe.
Interesting enough that the stocking frame may have been used in the manufacture of a group of "brocaded" silk knitted jackets of the late 17th and early 18th centuries which survive in a number of European and North American museum collections. Meanwhile the hand-knitting flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries, when it became a suitable pastime for ladies.
Knitted silk jackets were fashionable in the early 17th century, worn as informal dress and known as 'waistcoats'. It's been suggested that knitted panels, typically used in the construction of such jackets, were imported from Italy and were put together by the client.
One of the most spectacular knitted clothing items is shown in the picture above. It is a man's jacket from the early 16th century that is probably made in Italy. Silk and metallic threads are showing a genuine transition to the fashion brilliance of the Baroque era. Floral motifs are reminiscent of the woven fabrics, and also are showing the spread of knitting popularity in the European fashion.
Another example is revealing the habits of the 17th century ladies. At home they usually wore informal and quite comfortable outfits, which also featured the Baroque style of their time. Such outfits also played an important role in the introduction of newest techniques and innovations.
Jackets like these were worn informally in the home from the late 16th century until the early 18th century. Finely crafted from expensive materials such as silk and gilt thread, it’s likely that they were worn to receive guests. The hand-knitted pattern imitates 17th-century woven and embroidered silk designs, which nearly always featured flowers.
This jacket is made up of five shaped panels: one for the back, one each for the two fronts, and the sleeves. Each panel would probably have been made by one of a team of knitters who would repeatedly create the same piece. The jacket is mainly knitted in stocking stitch, with a border of basket-weave (alternate squares of purl and stocking stitch) edging the lower hem and wrists.
Knitting guilds developed from as early as the 14th century. It took three years of training to become a a trained apprentice or journeyman. To gain full membership of the Hand-Knitters' Guild of Strasbourg, journeymen knitters had to produce 'masterworks' – knitted pieces demonstrating their skill – including a cap, a woollen jacket, a pair of gloves with fingers and a wall hanging patterned with flowers.
As well as being part of a refined lady's repertoire, knitting was deemed an acceptable way for gentlewomen in personal need to earn money. Also seen as a useful skill for poorer members of society, it was taught in orphanages and poor houses. The first recorded knitting schools had been established in Lincoln, Leicester and York in the late 16th century and hand-knitting for income continued in Yorkshire until well into the 19th century. Many have mastered the skills that are striking even in the 21st century.
References & Further Reading:
5000 Years Of Textiles./edited by Jennifer Harris. - British Museum Press, London, 2004
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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.
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