An Early History of Knitting

Knitting is something we are all familiar with, but surprisingly we know little about when and where the art of hand knitting started. This is because yarn fibers are biodegradable. One thing we do know is that the oldest form of knitting (crossed knitting) was practiced since before the birth of Christ. A pair of knitted socks discovered in Egyptian tombs from the 3rd to 6th centuries A.D. is the earliest archaeological evidence of knitted garments. The earliest knitting needle is a brass rod that dates back to the early Iron Age. Spinning wool started around 4000 B.C. near the Mediterranean Sea. The first wool factory in England was build by the Romans in 50 A.D. The kind of knitting that we are used to was not practiced till quite recently, however.

The oldest form of knitting is crossed knitting, also known as single-needle knitting and pseudo knitting. In crossed knitting, the stitches are rotated a half turn instead of aligning vertically. This knitting method was highly developed by the Nazca culture in Peru (100 B.C.-A.D. 700) in the fringes of their woven cloths. Frequent color changes in these fringes were used to create intricate human and animal figures.

The origins of knitting are hard to trace but there are several theories. Some people believe that knitting started in Persia, others that it started in Israel, Jordan and Syria. Still others believe that it started in the mountains of North Africa, or even Japan or China. Some people believe that knitting grew out of the knitting of fish-nets by men.

Some socks and other items made with the crossed-knitting technique have been found in Egyptian burials possibly dating as far back as the 4th or 5th century B.C. There have been knitted socks found in Egyptian tombs (3rd and 6th centuries A.D., knitted pieces found at the Dura-Europas site near the Euphrates River (about A.D. 200), and sandal socks apparently from Saudi Arabia (about A.D. 350). It is possible however that these earliest socks were worked in nalebinding; which is an ancient craft which often looks very similar to true knitting, and could be confused with true knitting by archaeologists with no training in the history of needlework. A pair of patterned cotton socks from Egypt, dating from A.D.1100 may be the earliest example of “true” knitting or that may be nalebinding too. Socks and stockings were the first items to be knitted because knitting was ideally suited for shaping a garment to fit the foot at a time when fabric and sewing woven cloth were less flexible.

The Complete Encyclopedia of Stitchery by Mildred Graves Ryan says that most historians agree that knitting was probably spread by (probably male) Arabian sailors and merchants who traveled throughout the Mediterranean. Many people believe that knitting was first invented by Arabian nomads who carried the craft into Egypt, probably in the 5th century A.D. Knitting was then carried through North Africa, and into Spain. From Spain, traveling Catholics picked it up and spread it quickly throughout Europe.

It was not until the early 14th century that we have the first references to true knitting in Europe. At that time, the purl stitch was unknown, which meant that in order to produce plain knitting, people had to knit in the round and then cut it open if they needed to. The first reference to purl stitch was not until the mid 16th century, but the knowledge of how to do it may have preceded that a little.

Although nobody knows exactly where true knitting started, it would seem that knitting was probably spread by Arabian sailors and merchants who traveled throughout the Mediterranean. Then, evidently, traveling Catholics quickly spread it throughout Europe. True knitting, as we know it, is a relatively recent craft. Crafts similar to true knitting, such as cross-knitting and nalebinding, however, have a very long history, dating back to before the birth of Christ. They evidently were practiced in a lot of different countries and cultures too, from Japan to Egypt to Peru. Knitting clearly filled a need in people’s making of garments which is still continuing and growing.

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