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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. The word is derived from knot, thought to originate from the Dutch verb knutten, which is similar to the Old English cnyttan, to knot. Its origins lie in the basic human need for clothing for protection against the elements. More recently, hand knitting has become less a necessary skill and more a hobby.
Knitting is a technique of producing fabric from a strand of yarn or wool. Unlike weaving, knitting does not require a loom nor other large equipment, making it a valuable technique for nomadic and non-agrarian peoples.
The oldest artifact with a knitted appearance is a type of sock. It is believed that socks and stockings were the first pieces produced using techniques similar to knitting. These socks were worked in Nålebinding, a technique of making fabric by creating multiple knots or loops with a single needle and thread. Many of these existing clothing items employed nålebinding techniques; some of them look very similar to true knitting, for example, 3rd-5th century CE Romano-Egyptian toe-socks. Several pieces, done in now obscure techniques, have been mistaken for knitting or crocheting.
Most histories of knitting place its origin somewhere in the Middle East, from there it spread to Europe by Mediterranean trade routes, and then to the Americas with European colonization. The earliest known examples of knitting have been found in Egypt and cover a range of items, including complex colorful wool fragments and indigo blue and white cotton stockings, which have been dated between the 11th and 14th centuries CE.
The earliest known knitted items in Europe were made by Muslim knitters employed by Spanish Christian royal families. Their high level of knitting skill can be seen in several items found in the tombs in the Abbey of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas, a royal monastery, near Burgos, Spain. Among them are the knitted cushion covers and gloves found in the tomb of Prince Fernando de la Cerda, who died in 1275. The silk cushion cover was knit at approximately 20 stitches per inch. It included knit patterns reflecting the family armory, as well as the word baraka ("blessings") in Arabic in stylized Kufic script. Numerous other knit garments and accessories, also dating from the mid-13th century, have been found in cathedral treasuries in Spain.
There also is a Votic knit fragment dated to late 13th century excavated in Estonia. This fragment is knit in a stranded pattern in three colors and was likely part of a mitten cuff.
At this time, the purl stitch (the opposite action to the knit stitch) was unknown and purely stockinette fabric was produced by knitting in the round on multiple knitting needles. Sometimes the knitting was cut open, a process now known as steeking.
Several paintings from Europe portray the Virgin Mary knitting and date from the 14th century, including Our Lady Knitting by Tommaso da Modena (circa 1325-1375) and Visit of the Angel, from the right wing of the Buxtehude Altar, 1400–10, by Master Bertram of Minden.
Archaeological finds from medieval cities all over Europe, such as London, Newcastle, Oslo, Amsterdam, and Lübeck, as well as tax lists, prove the spread of knitted goods for everyday use from the 14th century onwards. Like many archaeological textiles most of the finds are only fragments of knitted items so that in most cases their former appearance and use is unknown. One of the exceptions is a 14th or 15th century woollen child's cap from Lübeck.
The first known purl stitches appear in the mid-16th century, in the red silk stockings in which Eleanora de Toledo, wife of Cosimo de Medici, was buried, and which also include the first lacy patterns made by yarn-overs, but the technique may have been developed slightly earlier. The English Queen Elizabeth I herself favored silk stockings; these were finer, softer, more decorative and much more expensive than those of wool. Stockings reputed to have belonged to her still exist, demonstrating the high quality of the items specifically knitted for her. During this era the manufacture of stockings was of vast importance to many Britons, who knitted with fine wool and exported their wares. Knitting schools were established as a way of providing an income to the poor. The fashion of the period, requiring men to wear short trunks, made fitted stockings a fashion necessity. Stockings made in England were sent to the Netherlands, Spain, and Germany.
Men were also the first to knit for an occupation.
Knitting was such an important occupation among those living on the Scottish Isles during the 17th and 18th centuries that whole families were involved in making sweaters, accessories, socks, stockings, etc. Fair Isle techniques were used to create elaborate colorful patterns. Sweaters were essential garments for the fishermen of these islands because the natural oils within the wool provided some element of protection against the harsh weather encountered while out fishing.
Rudimentary knitting devices had been invented prior to this period, but were one-off creations. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, wool spinning and cloth manufacture increasingly shifted to factories. Women were employed to operate the machinery, rather than spinning and knitting items at home. The consistency of factory spun wool was better in that it was more uniform, and its weight could be gauged better as a consequence.
Leicestershire and neighbouring counties, had long had an association with the hosiery industry. This continued particularly growing with the invention of portable circular knitting machines. Machines could be hired and worked from home rather than relying on large stocking frames or the much slower hand knitting. One manufacturer of these machines was Griswold and such work was often called Griswold work.
The mid nineteenth century saw the beginnings of knitting as a hobby. Printed patterns began to be produced, aimed primarily at middle class women. Yarns began to be produced specifically for the domestic market. Rather than knitting being a cottage industry, or commercial necessity it could be a pleasurable and useful pastime.
After the White Russians' defeat in the Civil War, many units retreated into China's Xinjiang and were interned there. As China was about to descend into a civil war of its own, the Russian internees were transported by camel caravans to Eastern China. According to Owen Lattimore, it was then that they passed on the art of knitting to the Chinese caravan men, who had ready supply of camel hair from their animals. In 1926, Lattimore was able to observe camel-pullers "knitting on the march; if they ran out of yarn, they would reach back to the first camel of the file they were leading, pluck a handful of hair from the neck, and roll it in their palms into the beginning of a length of yarn; a weight was attached to this, and given a twist to start it spinning, and the man went on feeding wool into the thread until he had spun enough yarn to continue his knitting". This way the camel men not only provided themselves with warm camel-hair socks, but were able to make knitwear for sale as well.
The 1920s saw a vast increase in the popularity of knitwear in much of the western world. Knitwear, especially sweaters/pullovers became essential part of the new fashions of the age for men, women and children, rather than mostly practical garments of associated with particular occupations (e.g., fishermen). The late teens and early 1920s saw a fashion for knitted neckties. Knitwear was often associated with sport and leisure. Garments often became associated with particular sports such as white sweaters/pullers, often with colored stripes (club colors) in the collar became common for tennis and cricket.
Fair Isle knitting enjoyed a golden age during the 20s. Reputedly started by the Prince of Wales (future Edward VIII) wearing a Fair Isle sweater/pullover to play golf. Both Fair Isle and Argyle(knitting) styles have since been associated with the sport.
Before the 1920s, the majority of commercial knitting in the Western world had centered around production of underwear, socks and hosiery. This vastly expanded as the public taste for knitted fashion did also. Both hand and machine knitting were commercially active on a large scale prior to the Great Depression.
The 1920s saw a continuation in the growth of interest in home/hobby knitting which grew during First World War. Conditions of trench warfare lead to a shortage of socks in particular, and the Allied home front in particular was encouraged to support the troops by knitting. Home knitting grew in popularity, especially as fashion fully embraced knitwear. Companies started, or expanded to meet the demands of home knitters, producing patterns, yarn and tools.
The prominence of knitwear in fashion of the 1920s continued, but reflected the changes of fashion. The combining traditional methods in new ways became more common and new technologies such as zip fasteners began to be used in knitwear. New synthetic yarns started to become available.
The hardship experienced by many during the Great Depression meant many turned to knitting through necessity. It was much cheaper to knit your own garments than to buy hand (or even machine) knitted products. Skills were needed for repairs to existing garments,socks and underwear. Patterns, now often included in popular women's magazines frequently reflected this need. Socks with replaceable toes and heels were common. Some hobby knitters took to part-time work, hand knitting for extra income.
The 1930s also saw a rise in popularity of commercial machine knitting. Much commercially sold knitwear of the 1920s was hand knitted, however the costs of this and other pressures of the time saw a large shift in consumers towards cheaper machine knitted products.
Make do and mend was the title of a booklet produced by the British wartime government department, the Ministry of Information. Wool was in very short supply, and the booklet encouraged women to unpick old unwearable woollen items in order to re-use the wool.
Knitting patterns were issued so that people could make items for the Army and Navy to wear in winter, such as balaclavas and gloves. This not only produced the much-needed items, but also gave those on the "home front" a positive sense of contributing to the war effort.
After the war years, knitting had a huge boost as greater colors and styles of yarn were introduced. Many thousands of patterns fed a market hungry for fashionable designs in bright colors. The twinset was an extremely popular combination for the home knitter. It consisted of a short-sleeved top with a long-sleeved cardigan in the same color, to be worn together.
Girls were taught to knit in school, as it was thought to be a useful skill, not just a hobby. Magazines such as Pins and needles in the UK carried patterns of varying difficulty including not just clothes, but also blankets, toys, bags, lace curtains and items that could be sold for profit.
The popularity of knitting showed a sharp decline during this period in the Western world. Sales of patterns and yarns slumped, as the craft was increasingly seen as old-fashioned and children were rarely taught to knit in school.
The increased availability and low cost of machine-knitted items meant that consumers could have a sweater at the same cost of purchasing the wool and pattern themselves, or often for far less.
Alternatives to traditional woolen knitwear gained in popularity, such as tracksuits and sweatshirts which began to be worn as everyday wear rather than only in a sporting context. Sewn from a micro-knit synthetic fabric and brushed on one side, these were more fashionable at the time, much cheaper and quicker to produce and for the consumer much more easily cared for. These fabrics could also easily be printed with fashionable designs. Although made from a kind of knit fabric they are not usually considered knitwear.
These new garments, along with trends away from formality in clothing meant traditional knitwear was no longer seen as sportswear such as it had been in the 1920s. Knitwear became associated more as "smart casual" wear.
Technological advances such as computerized knitting machines saw new designs and approaches to knitting. Some artists began to see knitting as a legitimate art form rather than a craft or cottage industry and more attention began to be placed on the design possibilities of knitting from an artistic perspective rather than wholly fashion (or practical) approaches.
By the late 1980s many of the supplier to the home knitting market had disappeared or been absorbed into other companies. Local wool shops supplying the same market had also suffered a marked reduction in numbers. Home knitting still had a strong and loyal following.
The growth of craft fairs, release of well researched books on many aspects of knitting and the continued support amongst those who had learnt the skill in the heyday of the 60s and 70s kept a considerable amount of interest in knitting alive.
One of the most influential changes was the internet in enabling knitters to share advice, patterns and experience, but also it meant that home knitters had direct access to supplies rather being reliant on local sources. These trends have continued.
The 21st century has seen a resurgence of knitting. This resurgence can be noted in part to coincide with the growth of the internet and internet-based technologies, as well as the general "Handmade Revolution".
Natural fibers from animals, such as alpaca, angora, and merino, and plant fibers, chiefly cotton, have become easier and less costly to collect and process, and therefore more widely available. Exotic fibers, such as silk, bamboo, yak, and qiviut, are growing in popularity as well. The yarn industry has started to make novelty yarns which produce stunning results without years of knitting experience. Designers have begun to create patterns which work up quickly on large needles, a phenomenon known as instant-gratification knitting.
Celebrities including Julia Roberts, Winona Ryder, Dakota Fanning, and Cameron Diaz have been seen knitting and have helped to popularize the revival of the craft. The new millennium has also seen a return by men to the art of knitting.
As time and technology change, so does the art of knitting. The Internet allows knitters to connect, share interests and learn from each other, whether across the street or across the globe. Among the first Internet knitting phenomena was the popular KnitList with thousands of members. In 1998, the first online knitting magazine, KnitNet, began publishing. (It suspended publication with its 54th edition in 2009.) Blogging later added fuel to the development of an international knitting community.
Patterns from both print and online sources have inspired groups (known as knit-a-long's, or KAL's) centered on knitting a specific pattern. Knitting podcasts have also emerged, with much cross-pollination of ideas from blogs, 'zines, and knitting books. Traditional designs and techniques that had been preserved by a relatively small number of hand-knitters are now finding a wider audience as well.
On January 14, 2006, influential author and knit-blogger Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, otherwise known as Yarn Harlot, challenged the knitting world to participate in the 2006 Knitting Olympics. To participate, a knitter committed to casting-on a challenging project during the opening ceremonies of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, and to have that project finished by the time the Olympic flame was extinguished sixteen days later. By the first day of the Olympics, almost 4,000 knitters had risen to the challenge.
As another sign of the popularity of knitting in the early 21st century, a large international online community and social networking site for knitters and crocheters, Ravelry, was founded by Casey and Jessica Forbes in May 2007. At first available by invitation only, the site connects knitting and crochet enthusiasts around the world and, as of May 2013[update], had over 3.15 million registered users.