Journey Through Time: Unravelling the Fascinating Origin of Knitting

Ever unravelled the mystery of your favourite knitted jumper? Ever wondered about the journey of this cosy craft from its beginnings to your wardrobe? Well, I’m here to take you on a fascinating voyage through the history and origins of knitting.

Knitting isn’t just a hobby, it’s a testament to human ingenuity and creativity. Originating in the Middle East and spreading across the globe, this craft has warmed countless generations. From the intricate patterns of Fair Isle to the robust fishermen’s jumpers, knitting’s legacy is woven into our culture and history.

So, grab your needles and yarn, and let’s delve into the story of knitting, a tale spun from the threads of time. Join me as we stitch together the past and present of this remarkable craft.

The Early History of Knitting

Moving back in time, I aim to illuminate aspects of knitting’s past that date back as far as 1000 B.C. Delving into this tale of needles and yarn, it’s mesmerising to see how this humble craft matured over the centuries.

Prehistoric Beginnings

Unveiling the shrouds of history, we find the inception of knitting rooted in the essence of prehistoric times. Remarkably, the first evidence of this craft doesn’t come in the form of knitted samples, but rather from the imprints of net-like structures on clay artefacts, dating back to 6500 B.C.

Researchers, from their meticulous analyses, hypothesise that these imprints represent one of knitting’s earliest forms – nålebinding, a technique involving single, short lengths of thread passed through loops with a needle.

Historical artefacts, like the indigo blue socks from Egypt’s Coptic tombs (3rd-6th century AD), further validate this inference and fascinate me with their intricate patterns and technique, a testament to the artisan’s skill and patience.

Knitting in Ancient Civilisations

Bridging timelines, knitting emerged as a cherished craft in ancient civilisations, particularly alongside Rome’s monumental rise around 2nd century A.D.

An enthralled audience of the craft, Romans avidly incorporated it into their daily life, utilising it for clothing and utility items. Furthermore, they contributed to the evolution of knitting by introducing metallic needles, which were easier to manipulate and allowed for more precise knitting forms.

Upon falling to the Eastern Empire, knitting’s prominence endured, flourishing in Egypt and the subsequent Middle Eastern regions. Here, skilled artisans developed various stitches, such as the purl stitch, enriching the craft’s vocabulary whilst maintaining its original charm.

Thus, in delving into the early history of knitting, I am intrigued by how this ancient practice has seamlessly threaded its course through history. Today’s knitters, by drawing inspiration from the past and adapting to the needs of the present, continue to ensure knitting remains a revered and dynamic craft.

Development Through the Middle Ages

Moving through the Middle Ages, knitting spread quickly across Europe. This important time period witnessed many changes and innovations in the field of knitwear.

Spread Across Europe

As the Middle Ages progressed, knitting’s popularity grew exponentially. It made its way from the Mediterranean, slowly spreading northwards, particularly being embraced in Scotland and Ireland. In these regions, knitters created iconic patterns, like the ones you find in Aran Jumpers, to tell stories about the wearer’s clan and ancestry.

Markets saw a surge of knitted items, such as gloves, hats, and stockings. These items became commodities of trade, showing knitting’s significant economic impact. Notably, the knitting guilds of the 13th and 14th centuries further grew the craft’s renown. Consisting of male knitters only, these guilds protected trade secrets, keeping fine knitting techniques within their exclusive circles.

Legends of knitting’s spread across Europe include stories of pious women carrying their knitting during pilgrimages, subtly passing on the craft from place to place. Despite the limited technological aids of the period, the region’s love for the craft ensured its widespread survival and development.

Innovations in Knitwear

The Middle Ages were also a time of exciting innovations in knitting. An important milestone was the introduction of multi-coloured knitting or intarsia, which allowed knitters to create vibrant, patterned fabric. This was a stark contrast from the earlier, monochromatic and simplistic knit designs.

In the 14th century, purl knitting came into existence, giving knitters the ability to weave more complex and intricate patterns. This technique revolutionized knitwear by providing greater flexibility and design variation.

Knitting patterns also became increasingly complex and artistic. Digital archives today contain preserved fragments of ornate religious icons and royal insignias knitted during this period. Surprisingly, despite the absence of modern tools and materials, the sophistication of the knitwear from this era is astonishing.

Thus, the spread and development of knitting during the Middle Ages created a rich tapestry of knitting culture that continues to influence and inspire knitters today.

The Industrial Revolution and Knitting

Impact on Hand Knitting

The Industrial Revolution, spanning the 18th to 19th century, brought about notable changes in the knitting sector. Hand-knitting, once an ingrained part of daily life in many societies, saw a significant reduction. The onset of industrialisation turned knitting into a factory-based endeavour. Materials like wool, silk and cotton were now mass-produced. Communities that had centred their livelihoods around hand-knitting experienced a harsh economic impact. Notably, the spinning wheel, an emblem of hand knitting, became outdated with the invention of spinning jennies and water frames.

However, despite the surge in mechanised knitting, hand-knitting wasn’t entirely abandoned. Rural communities, isolated from industrial advancements, sustained the tradition. Uniquely crafted pieces, such as the Fair Isle patterns of Scotland, became identifiers of specific regions and their knitting styles. Today, these remnants of hand-knitting history continue to influence modern knitters.

Rise of Knitting Machines

The introduction of knitting machines revolutionised the industry. In 1589, the first knitting machine was invented by William Lee, a Nottinghamshire clergyman, opening a fresh chapter in knitting’s evolution. This machine, known as the stocking frame, could produce a series of loops in a line, dramatically increasing the speed of production compared to hand knitting.

The 19th century saw the rise of fully automated knitting machines, such as the circular knitting machine in 1816. This invention allowed for seamless stockings and socks, providing a significant time advantage. Further improvements, like the Ribbing Attachment introduced in the 1850s, transformed the knitting industry entirely. It facilitated greater diversity in knitted garments, assisting the mass production of ribbed stockings.

By the end of the 19th century, home knitting machines were available, making knitting more accessible to everyone. Today, knitting machines stay prevalent, producing most of our store-bought knitwear, yet they coexist with hand knitting as a beloved, meditative hobby.

Knitting in Contemporary Times

Revival of Hand Knitting

Falling in line with the modern DIY movement, hand knitting experienced a resurgence. This is backed by the evidence of a thriving online knitting community on platforms like Ravelry and Etsy. Additionally, the 21st century saw the advent of ‘knit-ins’, similar to the ‘sit-ins’ of the 1960s, where knitters gathered in public spaces to work on their projects. To modern-day practitioners, knitting is not just a way of producing clothing but also an enjoyable pastime and form of self-expression.

Technological Advancements

The 20th and 21st centuries have given rise to remarkable technological advancements in knitting. Now, computer-aided knitting machines produce intricate patterns that once required hours of manual work. For instance, Shima Seiki’s WholeGarment© technology enables the production of entire garments, like jumpers or dresses, without the need for linking or sewing. However, these technologies have not replaced hand knitting but rather function in parallel, catering to different market segments.


So, we’ve journeyed through the rich tapestry of knitting’s history, from its medieval roots to its modern resurgence. We’ve seen how it’s evolved from a handcrafted skill, governed by guilds, to a mechanised industry. Despite the onset of the Industrial Revolution, hand knitting’s charm has endured, offering a personal touch in our fast-paced, automated world. Today, the knitting industry is a blend of tradition and innovation, with hand knitting and high-tech machinery serving various market needs. The rise of computer-aided knitting machines and WholeGarment© technology showcases the industry’s adaptability and forward-thinking. Yet, the renaissance of hand knitting underlines our innate desire for creativity and self-expression. It’s clear that knitting, with its rich history and continual evolution, is a craft that will continue to weave its way through the fabric of our lives.

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