In Part 1 of “The History of Knitting,” you learned that knitting most likely began in Egypt at around 1000 AD. From Egypt, knitting spread into Spain – carried over by Arabs during the Islamic Conquest or brought back by Spaniards during the Crusades – before exploding into the rest of Europe.
What we know about early European knitting is that it was mostly confined to the very rich, very royal or very religious (as in the Catholic Church).
Case in point: the first pieces of European knitting were found in the tomb of Prince Fernando de la Cerdo of Spain. They are detailed silk pillow covers that date to around 1275 AD.
In Spain, early knitting mostly consisted of liturgical garments and accessories for the Catholic Church. Made with very fine yarn, they were sometimes stitched with gold and silver threads.
In other parts of Europe, knits were small and dainty – things like relic purses for holding the remains of saints, pillows, stockings, purses, and pouches. These were more decorative accessories than practical workhorse garments.
Like a Virgin, Knitting for the Very First Time
Then, around the middle of the 14th century, a funny thing happened. In Italy and Germany paintings were done depicting the Virgin Mary knitting alongside the baby Jesus.
These “knitting Madonnas” tell us that, by the 14th century, knitting had spread into Italy and Germany. The Virgin is shown knitting in the round and doing colorwork, so we know these techniques must also have made their way to the region.
But, now, a pressing question: why is the Virgin Mary knitting?
Joan Thirsk writing in The Cambridge History of Western Textiles suggests that knitting was becoming more commonplace and, perhaps, more publicly fashionable among upper-class women.
Donna Kooler in Encyclopedia of Knitting agrees that female knitting would have been familiar and unthreatening, “even sweetly domestic.” She writes:
“It is unlikley that reverent altarpieces of the Madonna and Christ would introduce a revolutionary theme of the Madonna usurping a male-dominated trade.”
Madonna as patriarchy-defying feminist? Not until the 1990s, I’m afraid.
Real Gentlemen Wear Knitted Stockings
By the end of the 16th century, knitting was an established craft that was driven by a powerful fashion trend: knitted stockings.
For Italian and Spanish men of style, knitted stockings were a must. According to historian Irena Turnau, “Men in knee breeches depended upon elegant legs for their fashion status, and baggy stockings were a disaster.”
Did you hear that? A disaster. Stockings were as fundamental to a Renaissance man’s wardrobe as blue jeans to the modern Joe. The more elegant the stocking, the more fashionable the man.
In response to this demand for knits, knitting guilds sprang up, beginning in the 1400s. Exclusivley male, they were established to protect trade secrets, improve the quality of the profession, and drum up business. Think of them like a labour union – a competitve, rigorous, masterfully skilled labour union, that is.
So You Think You Can Knit?
If you were a young man in the Middle Ages and you wanted to become a Master Knitter in a knitting guild, you’d need to devote six years of your life to training. Three years would be spent in apprenticeship learning from the masters; another three were spent travelling the world to learn foreign techniques and patterns.
If you’re as obsessed with knitting as me, this probably sounds like the best time ever. Barring dysentry and the bubonic plague, what could be better than spending six years knitting and traipsing all over Europe?
As dreamy as it sounds, joining a guild was no cakewalk. After returning home from travel, a knitting apprentice would prove his mastery through a rigorous exam.
To gain entrance into a knitting guild, you’d hole yourself up for thirteen frenzied weeks and knit up an assortment of garments. Like Project Runway for the Middle Ages, these would be picked apart and assessed by guild members who would decide whether you were “in” or “out.”
Required garments included a felted cap, a pair of stockings or embroidered gloves, a shirt or waistcoat and the pièce de résistance – a knitted carpet! Akin to a grad thesis, this carpet or wall-hanging was the culmination of your six years of learning, a representation of your mastery, artistry, and good taste. No pressure!
Intense as the vetting process was, the guild’s high standards elevated knitting to an art. Certain guilds became well-known for their work. In the early 16th century, Parisian guilds were considered the very best. Even in the Middle Ages Parisians were trumping everyone in style!
Just as we moderns have our favourite designers and fashion houses, every member of the nobility had his or her favourite Master Knitter. The period of the knitting guilds produced some of the most astonishingly beautiful knitted items.
Knitting into the Future
From the 1400s, knitting grew as a trade. It spread into new lands along with European explorers and colonists during the Age of Exploration.
Then in 1589, Englishman William Lee invented the knitting machine. While it didn’t demolish the handknitting industry, it foreshadowed more technological changes to come. Namely, the Industrial Revolution.
During the Industrial Revolution, knitting machines became more sophisticated and the manufacture of knits shifted from human hands to machines. In a few generations, knitting transformed from a serious trade (remember those knitting guilds?) to a sweet, staid parlour craft for Victorian ladies.
You’d think this would be the end of knitting. With machines to do all the work and knitting looking as vital as a limp noodle, why bother with it at all? It would surely go the way of the Dodo.
And yet – knitting lives on.
It found its patriotic calling during the two World Wars. It provided employment for the poor in the twentieth century as it did during the Renaissance. In the late 1920s, it was revived as an art form in the world of fashion (thanks in large part to Elsa Schiaparelli), and continues to be part of the fashion firmament today.
Now we are in the twenty-first century, the “Information Age.” We live in a time of efficiency, of endless screens, of fractured attention spans and workaholism. Knitting feels anachronistic here, like we took a time machine and our hands came back stuck in the past, holding these weird sticks and string.
So, why are we still knitting? Why does it matter?
The reason I think knitting has persisted for so long is because it is beautiful. Plain and simple. It’s beautiful to do and beautiful to behold. Knitting satisfies a deep desire in us to create beautiful things, and it allows us the satisfaction of being a creator. Buying a sweater just won’t give you the same intense pleasure and pride as knitting one with your own hands.
That’s why I think knitting will outlast us all. As long as we humans retain the part of ourselves that yearns to create and innovate, the part that delights in beauty, then knitting will live on – from that first mysterious knitter to the four corners of the world and beyond.