Over the years knitting has moved through the classes and sexes. The ancient Greeks had been knitting for centuries but had no single word for knitting, so translators have used the term “weaving” to cover all forms of material production. It is widely thought that Homer’s Penelope was supposed to have “woven by day and unravelled by night”. It was more likely that she was knitting fabric on a peg structure, not unlike the knitting bobbin used by children today.
It is generally thought that hand knitting was brought to the Middle East, where sheep have been domesticated for centuries, by Arabian settlers and nomads. Spain became a centre for the technique of knitting when the Arabs expanded their territories in the eleventh century and the earliest known hand knitted garments date from this period.
The word knitting comes from the Saxon “Cynntan”, and knitting with two needles, as we know it today, began in Europe in the fourteenth century. Henry VII in 1488 is said to have paid 1s.8d. (8p) for a felt hat but a superior woollen cap was charged at 2s.8d. (13p), showing the value that was put on a knitted garment. The price was so high that only royalty or those at court were able to afford them.
With the dawning of the Elizabethan age, knitting moved from a practical everyday craft to a decorative art form. Elizabeth I supported a knitted hose business; for silk stockings had become the vogue. Here work was carried out by men and they continued to dominate the industry for many years. Women and children began to master the skill but only men and boys were admitted to the Guilds. The apprenticeship of boys started at six years old and during this time all aspects of the technique were studied and subsequently an examination was set to produce a shirt, a cap, a pair of stockings and a carpet or wall hanging.
Elizabeth I protected the industry by refusing a patent to the inventor of the first knitting machine. An English clergyman, William Lee, had applied for a patent for his Stocking Frame in 1589 but was not until 1939 that the first European Knitting Machine - a “Passap” was shown in Zurich.
Few changes took place during the 17th and 18th centuries. Knitting became infamous because of the “Tricoteuses” who were the women of the French Revolution who attended the meetings of the Convention and encouraged the men in their bloodthirsty excesses. They were said to knit whilst watching ‘Madame Guillotine’ do her work.
In the villages of Britain men, women and children knitted singing special songs; the faster the rhythm the quicker they worked. All knowledge was passed down by word of mouth and it was not until the 1840s that patterns were printed.
In outlying farms and fishing villages, knitting of a more practical nature was produced. For comfort and warmth the natural lanolin was left in the wool to provide a degree of waterproofing and the names of Aran, Shetland and Guernsey became known.
As with all things, the Victorians required more ornamentation and decoration and knitting came up from below stairs to the drawing room. Up until this time the needles were held under the arms, this is the method still used in Europe today. With the advent of knitting by the gentry, the needles were held over the arms to keep the elbows in and enable young ladies to crook the little finger to show refinement.
In the 1920s the Prince of Wales, later to become Edward VIII, was photographed playing golf in a Fair Isle jersey. This intricate multi coloured pattern retained its popularity for many years.
With the outbreak of the Second World War practical reasons compelled women to find ways round the clothes rationing. In 1941, 66 coupons were allowed per person per year (2oz of wool represented one coupon). The government propaganda machine invented ‘Mrs Sew and Sew’ and she informed women how to unpick two old dishcloths to make a sweater. Today dishcloth yarn is still used to produce fashion garments.
By the twentieth century knitting had become a predominantly female occupation and was usually for practical purposes. The Flower Children of the 60s took up knitting to express their originality in clothing and they started to design outfits which they made themselves.
The use of knitting needles has gone from strength to strength. Knitted designs by such creators as Kaffe Fassett and Sasha Kagan, are worn by the rich and famous and command very high prices.
Today, men wishing to knit are in good company, the Bishop of Leicester recalls knitting socks for soldiers during the war when he was fourteen. Tony Blackburn learnt the art at school and has developed a passion for knitting patterns. Richard Rodney Bennett, the composer, finds knitting is like composing music; it is technical and creative.
So next time your pick up a pair of needles look back over the thousands of years of history and imagine the knitters who have gone before.