A History on Knitting

Written by Pam Preedy.

Oh, how I Longed for a machine-knitted jumper when I was young!  Most of my knitted garments were produced by my mother, or more likely my grandmother.  They always had some knitting on the go.  It is not surprising that I learned to knit when I was young.  Knitting saved money in that post-wat era.

The Origins of Knitting

So, when and where did knitting originate?  Since knitted work is fragile and can readily decompose, it is not easily pinpointed in time and space.  It is said to have originated in the Middle East.  Spinning and weaving came first and then came knitting.  Having no man-made fibres at that time, knitted goods were made from cotton, wool and silk.  The word ‘knit’ originated from the Old English word ‘cnyttan’ which means to tie a knot.  Another form of knitting, nålbinging, was found in Syria between 500 and 1200 AD.  I have looked at this on the web and it seems complicated!

From the Arabs the art of knitting moved to Spain, where it was used by the Catholic church to create religious robes.  Two Arab-knitted silk pillows from the 11th century were found in royal tombs in northern Spain.  Several paintings from the 1350s portrayed Mary while she was knitting, showing that knitting was becoming a female activity.

It is thought that hand knitting may have reached England around 1500 via France (1268).  There are a variety of garments knitted in the UK from the mid-16th century.  In the Tudor period there were laws regulating what people wore in England.  The statues of Apparel (1574) specifically stated that all English citizens above the age of six, except nobility, “had on Sabbath and Holydays to wear a cap that of wool manufactured in England.”  The production of caps were produced by the ‘cappers’ and restricted to professional guilds and protected by law.  the delightful Monmouth ‘capper’ is a design from Wales.

In Tudor times, it was estimated that in England ten million pairs of sticking were needed annually, many of which would have been for Henry VIII himself.  At that time hand knitters could provide six pairs of stockings a week!  In 16th century England stockings were already being made of worsted thread and silk.  Even Queen Elizaeth I wore them, being first supplied with Norwich worsted yarn hose in 1576.

The only known example of an original 'Monmouth Cap',dating from the 16th century [Monmouth Museum]

World War 1

Jump 300 years to World War 1 and the soldiers in the trenches.  During the winter months in Europe the trenches were cold and wet.  the soldiers needed knitted goods to keep them warm and among the items were body belts (to keep the abdomen warm) and socks. 

Sometimes they would have to wear a pair of socks for a week in the wet – they did not last long.  Knitters were encouraged by Queen Mary to knit.  Some 300,000 pairs of warm woollen socks and 300,000 of the knitted or woven body belts were provided (over half of them provided by money and gifts).  One innovation at the time was the ‘Kitchener toe,’ a form of grafting which provided a softer tow joint and helped prevent trench foot.

Likewise, during World War 2, women were encouraged to knit for the troops.  Women could be found knitting at home, on the train, during lunch hours, at any opportunity – it was their public duty “England expects – knit your bit“.

Wool was also supplied to organisations such as the Women’s Institutes of Englanf and Wales, who made over 22 million knited garments for the Red Cross (an average of 67 garments per member).  Parcels of their knitwear were sent to prisoners of war, as well as to troops.

In the 1950s and 1960s we all knitted.  Pam Ayres’ poem ‘Thoughts of a Late Night Knitter’ gives a quick peak into the world of knitting.

Originally published in Life in Bromley magazine (Issue 17, July 2023)

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