History of Knitting and Important Facts

On a chilly winter morning, waking up from bed the only thing we look for is nothing but a good pair of socks and mittens. It makes us feel warm and cozy. However, not many of us know about the history of making socks or more so knitted clothes. The term knitted comes from the word “knot”. 

Knitting is the process of using two or more needles to loop yarn into a series of interconnected loops in order to create a finished garment or some other type of fabric. Interestingly, the first garment that was knitted was socks. The technique was called Nalebinding, an ancient art that uses a single needle and a choice of thread. Romano-Egyptian toe-socks made by “Coptic Stitch” in the 3rd and 5th century CE is the forerunner to knitting.

Knitting history hand knitting

Origin of knitting clothes

Does knitting come from European culture or is it an overseas trade?

Knitting is supposed to be an intermix of both. Some believe it originated from Europe whereas some say Arabians were the ones who carried it throughout the countries. Basically, it originated in the Middle East, and it went to Europe by the Mediterranean trade routes further marching towards America following the European Colonization.

Moreover, there is evidence that dates back to the period of civilization when primitive-man made webs out of roots. As early as the 11th and 14th century A.D. the oldest knitted pair of socks were discovered. Muslim knitters were famous for this skill and were seen in the Royal courts in Spain (wikipedia.org). Their work has been displayed in the tombs in the Abbey of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas, a royal monastery, near Burgos, Spain.

Knitting might have originated from various parts of the world, but it was popularized in Europe as early as the 14th century. Knitting guilds were established in France in 1268, and in order to gain membership, one must pass all the tests to be given to them. In fact, the first sweater to be knitted was in the 17th century. Although purl stitch was not known then, yet it showed similarity to true knitting.

Knitting slowly spread throughout Scottish during the 17th and 18th centuries. It became the major occupation of the people, mostly the fishermen. The word knit got listed in the Oxford Unabridged English Dictionary in the 15th century.

Even today, Shetland wool is considered to be of superior quality, and sweaters with a lot of patterns are called Fair Isle sweaters. These have patterns that are created by the use of multiple colors. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the demand for stockings increased. Knitted stockings became the favourites due to their softer handle. Knitting soon became a pastime for women and schools were set to inculcate the skill within more people.

German knitting also has a long history. Four or five needles were often used by German knitters. Many pieces of evidence such as the picture of the knitting Madonna, The Visit of the Angels, painted around 1390, by a Munich painter showcased the craftsmanship.

Which came first weaving or knitting technique?

Even before prehistoric times, humans discovered the beauty of twisting plant fibers which date back to nearly 30 thousand years ago. Weaving is known to be born long ago (almost 4000 BCE) while knitting is the younger one. Both have been practiced for ages and are still ruling the textile world. Weaving is done by entwining a set of vertical threads “warp”, with a set of horizontal threads called “weft” whereas knitting is the process of fabric formation by producing a series of intermeshed loops. On one hand weaving, requires looms however, knitting is free from such obligations, so hand knitting has been practiced for thousands of years.

Industrial Revolution in the knitting process

circular knitting machine for seamless garment
Image: Circular knitting machine for seamless garment

English Clergyman William Lee invented the mechanical knitting machine in the year 1589. Although Queen Elizabeth-I did not like the idea of machine knitted stockings as it seemed itchy, so the patent was called off. While the machine with few improvements was appreciated in Great Britain where the Worshipful Company of Framework Knitters used them predominantly at home.

Before the Industrial Revolution came to power the idea for mechanical knitting was not that welcomed. When the revolution started, machines appeared that did wool spinning, cloth manufacturing, and even knitting lace. The city of Nottingham, particularly the district known as Lace Market, was a major producer of machine-knitted lace.

A portable circular knitted machine was a big hit at that time. In the mid-nineteenth century, steam-powered knitting machines opened the door for more knitting factories to accommodate larger machines. Warners of Loughborough made the first attempt to apply steam power to a frame in 1829. By the mid-nineteenth century, hand knitting was declining as part of the knitting industry but was increasing as a hobby.

Printed knitting patterns and yarn were produced for leisure as well as for industrial use. Framework knitting was traditionally carried out in workers' homes. Hosiers supplied yarn to the workers, children commonly wound the yarn onto bobbins, men knitted it into stockings and women seamed and embroidered the stockings. The industry could keep the whole family occupied. Hosiers and knitters were not accustomed to the new technologies though some of them worked on circular machines during 1845.

A huge leap forward for the knitting industry was the invention of the latch needle by Matthew Townsend of Leicester, patented in 1849. Gradually several companies were setting up which used steam-powered knitting machines like Pagets of Loughborough in 1839 followed by Hine & Mundella in Nottingham in 1851. Corah established its St Margaret works, Leicester in 1865, and I. & R. Morley opened its first factory in Nottingham in 1866. Both framework knitting and machine knitting continued to co-exist in the world.

Related post: Introduction to Flat Knitting and Fully Fashion Garments

How knitting was brought to India?

Indians were unaware of this beautiful craftsmanship until the time of the British Raj. Christian missionaries helped in spreading this skill as girls were taught knitting in schools. With time knitted sweaters gained more recognition than spinning garments. Even in 19th-century winter wear was made of cotton fabric throughout India and knitting seems to have been unknown in India prior to the efforts of the missionaries (Tribuneindia).

For a long time, the socks worn in Europe were white and the same was introduced in Indian though not everyone wore them. Initially, it was only the wealthy and the western educated that used them. Along with hand knitting, machine knitting was also introduced in India. Machine-made knitted woollens were made for the first time at Sialkot. Knitting magazines, books, and pamphlets encouraged women of India to practice knitting and some magazines like ‘The India Ladies Magazine’ gave patterns for knitting cardigans.

With more people being involved in this process knitting became common and more people took to wearing sweaters. Thus, India also witnessed a new change in the garment sector.
Women’s role in growing the knitting sector.

In India during the British Raj women were seen either doing the household chores or knitting garments. For the middle-class knitting was more like a hobby. This ‘feminizing’ led to knitting being perceived as an ‘idle’ waste of time; a feminine pursuit to be followed safely from within the cage of domesticity.”

When knitting shifted towards framework the entire workload was divided between men and women. While men operated the frames women took to look after the cut-up work as this was considered to be the inferior part of work. Demand for cut-up goods continued to rise during the nineteenth century creating more knitting and sewing jobs for women.

Female employment started flourishing in the 19th century due to the increase of quality goods production. High-quality stitching and embroidery were a skilled task and added significantly to the costs of manufacturers. It is estimated that in the 1830s, approximately 150,000 women worked in hand embroidery in the knitting industry and wider textile industry.

New technologies in the knitting industry widened the chances of women's employment. From hand frame knitting to rotary machines and then for powered circular machines demand for female workers kept on increasing. Knitting was also a symbol of nationalism among people especially women. Women formed groups and started knitting garments to boycott British goods, showing their self-reliance and independence from the British. Martha Washington, George Washington’s wife is also a widely known figure who was a dedicated knitter. So, women and knitting have a long-lasting relation that started decades ago.

Knitting goes hand in hand with fashion

During the 1920s, knitwear such as sweaters and pullovers played an essential role in the world of fashion. Knitwear was often associated with sport and leisure. Prince of Wales popularized wearing a Fair Isle pullover sweater to play golf. High fashion also embraced knitwear, with Coco Chanel making prominent use of it and Vogue magazine featuring patterns. Coco Chanel, who incorporated knits into her signature suits, also emphasized knitwear as ideal for recreational activities like sailing or sports.

Sweater sets and A-line skirts, designed by the likes of Emilio Pucci and Missoni, characterized the 1950s and ’60s, and designers including Yves Saint Laurent, Sonia Rykiel, Calvin Klein, Liz Claiborne, and Diane von Furstenberg have used knits regularly in their collections. Before the 1920s, the majority of commercial knitting in the Western world had centered around the production of underwear, socks, and hosiery. Globalization had a huge impact on the knitting industry in the Midlands with some companies opening overseas factories.

Great Depression made knitting a necessity rather than a hobby. People started making their own garments but knitting get its prominence. During this renaissance, women were encouraged to knit for the war effort thus knitting still maintains connotations with the familial structures, gender roles, and tastes of women who embraced it long ago.

New technologies emerging in the field of knitting

3D knitting
Image: Flat knitting machine for fully fashioned (3D knitting) pullover

Extreme knitting is one of the advancements of the knitting industry. Knit-centric, fashion-forward designers like YanYan and Hazar Jawabra gaining traction around the world and actively reversing preconceived attitudes. The 21st century has seen a resurgence of knitting.

Instant-gratification knitting has seen designers creating patterns using long needles. With the advent of the internet, knitting has gained more popularity among various groups. Among the first internet, knitting phenomena was the popular KnitList, with thousands of members.

In 1998, the first online knitting magazine, Knit Net, began publishing. Knitting Olympics organized by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee encouraged knitters around the world to showcase their talent. The use of social media also played a special part in commercializing this craft. As another sign of knitting's popularity in the early 21st century, a large international online community and social networking site for knitters and crocheters, Ravelry, was founded by Cassidy and Jessica Forbes. With technologies like 3D knitting, the fashion world has yet to witness a revolution in the industry.


Through this article, I have tried to showcase some facts and history of knitting technology. I hope you find some interesting notes about the knitting that started back in 3rd century CE through hand knitting. Now the knitting industry is huge. Every human being from toddler to kids, men and women, boys and girls wear knitted garments. For warm clothes we are mostly depended on the sweaters, caps and coats that are made using knitting method. For the inner wear items and sportswear clothes, knitted fabrics the preferred material.

· https://www.fibre2fashion.com/industry-article/662/the-history-of-knitting
· http://www.historyofclothing.com/making-clothing/history-of-knitting/
· https://textilevaluechain.in/news-insights/history-of-knitting/
· https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/punjab/how-british-brought-knitting-to-punjab-177371
· https://www.knittingtogether.org.uk/industry-timeline/
· https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_knitting
· https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20200630-how-knitting-became-cool

About the Author:
Adita Banerjee is pursuing her graduate degree in Textile Technology from the Government College of Engineering and Textile Technology, Serampore. She loves writing content and reading books.
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