Knitting history is a never-ending story of colorful patterns dating back to ancient times. The story continued in the 19th century and... gradually knitwear was made into fashion statement during the 20th century. It also brings us to the 21st century.
Knitting's ability to stretch and insulate, without creasing, has made it popular for informal and sports wear in the West during the 20th century. It has enjoyed popularity since 20's and even more in the late 1960's, with a wider range of yarn types offering both professional and amateur knitters endless opportunities for creating variety in texture, pattern and color.
Fair Isle - The World of Magnificent Patterns
Fair Isle knitting originated on the remote island of Fair Isle - a tiny jewel in the ocean lying midway between the Orkney and Shetland Islands to the north of Scotland in the UK, at the point where the Atlantic Ocean meets the North Sea.
The traditional knitwear of Fair Isle and its intricate skills are still being created on this small Isle for generations upon generations. A rare store of patterns has evolved during this time and these are chosen and personally interpreted by each knitter so that each then achieves their own distinctive style. The traditional method of hand-knitting Fair Isle ‘in the round’ using double-pointed needles - known locally as "wires"- along with a special padded knitting belt, continues to this day. [3.]
On a sweater, the Fair Isle design is frequently confined to a band across the upper chest which often drapes around the neck from shoulder to shoulder. During the 1920's the Prince of Wales helped to popularize the Fair Isle sweater, which he wore to play golf.
The origin of Fair Isle knitting patterns still are legendary. Their similarity to Moorish patterns has led to the, rather romantic, notion of a link to the Spanish Armada ship, 'El Grand Grifon', which was shipwrecked in Isle in 1588.. Another legend tells about the Vikings who settled on the island and and skills have been taken from them in the distant past. Elizabeth Riddiford has mentioned that " at some date a piece of patterned knitting was bartered into the isle from a passing ship in return for fresh food and water. Much of this trade was with ships from the Baltic nations and this is from where the knitting could well have originated. The isle women, who were probably already skillful producers of plain knitting, eventually developed the patterns into a unique form of knitting. By the mid 19th century all-over patterned garments were being traded off the isle and the evolution of the intricate patterning has continued ever since". [3.]
Elizabeth Riddiford has also mentioned traditional Fair Isle patterns - crosses and lozenges shaped hexagons containing symbols, often of a religious meaning, that formed the basic pattern and also a range of smaller patterns - such as anchors, ram's horns, hearts, ferns and flowers. All these patterns reflected the life and environment of the isle.
Alongside brightly colored sweaters, there have traditionally also been made knitted sweaters of natural (undyed) colors. Natural color of wool came from the fine-fleeced Shetland sheep, ranging from Shetland black, shaela (dark grey), sholmit (pale grey), moorit (brown), mooskit (dark fawn), eesit (pale fawn) to unbleached white. [3.]
Aran style of knitting is associated with the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland. Coarse, handspun wool, usually in its natural, off-white color, is knitted in cables, twists and bobbles into a centre front and two side panels, creating an embossed effect.
The Islanders of Aran were fishermen and farmers whose lives and livelihoods were deeply intertwined. The Aran sweater was born of this environment, passed down from generation to generation, and has since become the ultimate symbol of Irish Clan heritage. The many combinations of stitches seen on the garment are not incidental, far from it. They can impart vast amounts of information to those who know how to interpret them. Aran sweaters were, and remain, a reflection of the lives of the knitters, and their families. On the Aran islands, sweater patterns were zealously guarded, kept within the same clan throughout generations. These Aran sweaters were often used to help identify bodies of fishermen washed up on the beach following an accident at sea.
The Aran Sweater has many attributes which made it suitable clothing for the island's community of fishermen and farmers. It is water repellent, not allowing the rain to penetrate the sweater thus keeping the wearer dry. An Aran sweater can absorb 30% of its weight in water before feeling wet. The natural wool fibre used in the sweaters is breathable, drawing water vapour away from the skin and releasing it into the air, thus helping the body to maintain an ideal temperature. Most importantly, of course, an Aran sweater kept the wearer warm on the cold days and nights at sea or on the farm. Wool has an excellent insulating capacity due to the high volume of air in it, and this helps protect the wearer from excessive cold and heat. [5.]
Many of the stitches used in the Aran Sweater are reflective of Celtic Art, and comparisons have been drawn between the stitches and patterns found at Neolithic burial sites such as Newgrange. Each stitch carries its own unique meaning, a historic legacy from the lives of the Island community many years ago.
Here is a quick overview of the most important stitches and their meanings that I found when browsing web resources:
Anyway, the legendary origins of the Aran sweater makes us look at this naturally white and embossed knitwear garment quite differently. Originally it was used for sweaters but since the middle of 20th century it has also been used for cardigans, coats, scarves, mittens and other items of winter wardrobe. It is always associated with casual clothing.
Relationship of Knits & Fashion Design. Cubist Sweaters & Trompe-L'Oeil Effects
French couturier Jean Patou (1880 - 1936) whose finest achievements were in the field of sportswear, which always occupied an important position in his collection. In the early 1920's his works in this field gave fashion another dimension. Just like Coco Chanel, Patou created clothes for modern women, those who were active and those who wanted to look as if they were active.
Sweaters were always featured and in the early 1920's he showed Cubistic sweaters which were highly successful.
He brilliantly depicted the fashion trends of the Art Deco era and paraphrased them into knitted Cubistic sweaters that reproduced bold geometric shapes and patterns. The knitwear with sharp and angular compositions was inspired by the low waistline that was so characteristic to fashions of the 1920's. These features are also visible in this example depicted above.
See the full size image here:
As further progress was made in the history of knitting, as more surprises were announced. Spokeswoman of fashion surrealism, Elsa Schiaparelli showed a very striking knitwear designs during in the 1930's.
In the 1930's Elsa Schiaparelli designed sweaters with trompe-l'oeil collars knitted into the overall design.
The 'Cravat' Jumper by Elsa Schiaparelli
This outstanding example from the Victoria & Albert Museum collection is considered to be a masterpiece of trompe-l'oeil. Elsa was playing with the idea of a bow in this woolen jumper. Trompe-l'oeil effect creates an optical illusion that is quite simple as it is knitted by hand and depicts a direct graphic image of formal clothing during the late 1920's. The geometric, 'stepped' quality of the bow's curved outlines are an unavoidable technical feature of hand knitting. The designer exploits this feature and uses the design to hint at her later involvement with the Surrealist Movement: "I drew a large butterfly bow in front, like a scarf round the neck - a primitive drawing of a child". [8.]
Trompe-l'oeil is usually associated with painting and decoration but in fashion it refers to an optical illusion created by seaming or knitting a design into a garment.
The success of this jumper resulted from Schiaparelli's combination of traditional crafts - in this case, knitting - with her own inventiveness and wit. Many of her later designs show her understanding of the fashionable potential of such combinations.
The popularity of knitting in the 20th century went hand in hand with topical fashion trends, as well as the benefits of a comfortable casual clothing. In the 1950's knitwear became even more fashion conscious: new and more flexible fibres were blended with wool to create a far wider range in design, color, texture and idea of comfort. The 1960's saw knitwear firmly established as a fashion statement and in the late 1960's and early 1970's a revival took place of knitting by hand at home, due to the availability of brightly colored yarns and updated, fashionable patterns.
This will be a story at another time.
References & Further Reading:
1. 5000 Years Of Textiles./edited by Jennifer Harris. - British Museum Press, London, 2004.
2. O'Hara Callan, G. The Thames & Hudson Dictionary Of Fashion And Fashion Designers. - Thames & Hudson, London, 1998.
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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.