The History of Knitting

World’s Finest Wool – The History of Knitting

The history of knitting is full of mysteries: In Asia, people are said to have knitted socks out of wool as early as 4,000 years ago. Other sources date the beginnings of knitting to the 16th century.

A Brief Review Of The Culture Of Knitting

When Did People Start Knitting?

When and where exactly knitting was invented is not historically proven. As with most other handicrafts, scientists have different opinions.

What is certain is that there is no evidence from the Ancient Near East or the ancient civilizations that knitting was already practiced at that time.

So when did people start knitting? Unfortunately, as already mentioned, this question cannot be clarified unambiguously.

Some researchers classify textile fragments from a Roman fortress founded around 300 BC as knitted. These segments are the oldest archaeologically confirmed.

They are followed by socks found in Egypt. In the 3rd to 5th century AD, they were made by Copts.

However, according to today’s knowledge, both finds should not be classified as knitted fabrics but should be assigned to needle binding because they were made with a sewing needle from quite short threads.

Untypical, therefore, for knitwear, which is classically made with at least two needles.

Old Man Knitting in Peru

Needles as the first historical evidence of knitting?

Prehistoric Knitting Needle

Weave basket with a prehistoric needle

In addition to a pair of bony needles from late antiquity, iron needles from 500 AD are interpreted by some researchers as evidence of knitting skills. But the classification of the finds as knitting needles is hardly justified.

The oldest preserved knitted fabrics, which can be undoubtedly assigned, originate from the time of the early Middle Ages. The determination and exact scientific assurance of where knitting comes from fails because of the small number of artifacts.

It is assumed that it originated in the Arab world. According to this, the Arabs who invaded Spain would have brought knitting to Europe.

Pillowcases from the late 13th century are considered by some researchers to show that the Spanish Moors cultivated a highly developed art of knitting.

Knitting was first depicted in the High Middle Ages in the form of a knitting Mary. Such depictions can be found several times, and an altarpiece painted around 1400 is considered one of the oldest depictions of circular knitting with a needle.1


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What can archaeology tell about the history of knitting?

Textiles do not last as long as shards of clay, which is why knitted items are rarely found in excavations. It is true that the remains of socks were found in an Egyptian tomb, dating back to the 5th century.

Their image is not missing in any knitting history, but actually, they are made in needle weave, an ancient knotting technique.

The oldest archaeologically confirmed textile fragments, which at least some researchers have classified as knitted fabrics, were found in the 1920s and 1930s in Dura Europos, a Roman fortress founded around 300 BC on the Euphrates River in what is now Syria.

However, knitting was certainly used in the Middle Ages. Among the most significant finds are coffin pillows for Spanish infants. These pillowcases with their elaborate patterns are, with 80 stitches per 10 cm, extremely finely worked.

The sweaters and sailor caps, the remains of which were recovered from the “Mary Rose,” which sank in 1545, were much coarser.

Fine knitwear remained the preserve of the finer people for a long time – until the unrefined end.

King Charles, I wore a sky-blue silk shirt to his beheading in 1649. It is well preserved, although badly stained. Mary Stuart Queen of Scots also walked her last walk in fine hand-knitted stockings.

Knitting Girl historic
Albert Anker, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Knitting in the Middle Ages

An indication of knitting skills in Late Antiquity is a pair of bony needles found in a woman’s grave in the German state of Thueringen and dated to about 300 A.D. Comparable artifacts, dating from about the same time, were found in 1903 in a Roman burial ground in Metz (Germany).2

Iron needles recovered archaeologically date from the Merovingian period, namely from about the year 500, and some researchers have also classified them as knitting needles.

Whether this classification is justified, however, seems doubtful. Woven fabrics have been found that were 30,000 years old; the oldest preserved undoubted knitted fabrics date from early medieval times.

In museums, highly sensitive ancient textiles are almost always kept in dim light and under glass, so researchers find little opportunity to determine exactly how they were made. Polish textile historian Irena Turnau, who has spent years examining supposed knits, suspects that few of them were actually knitted.

In his standard work A History of Hand Knitting (1987), Richard Rutt reports on a knitted fragment discovered in Fustāt, Egypt, that the Swiss textile expert Franz Iklé (1877-1946) had dated to the 7th-9th centuries; older ones were not known.3

The History of Knitting

Knitting Madonna
Knitting Madonna - Bertram of Minden, 
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It may have been the Arabs invading Spain who brought knitting to Europe. Knitted pillowcases from the late 13th century, which were discovered in the tombs of the Castilian royal family, are considered to be an example of the highly developed knitting art of the Spanish Moors, who in the 8th century had introduced, among other things, the Macramé technique.

However, the number of finds is too small to scientifically secure the presumed origin of knitting in the Arab region.

In the High Middle Ages, the first pictorial representations of knitting appear. The knitting Mother of God was depicted several times, for example, in La Santa Famiglia (Ambrogio Lorenzetti, c. 1345), in Madonna dell’Umiltà (Vitale da Bologna, 1353), and in the altarpiece, Our Lady (c. 1400) attributed to Master Bertram, in which Mary is knitting a skirt for the infant Jesus with four needles.

The latter painting is also one of the oldest depictions of circular knitting with a needle set.

In the following centuries, knitting gained special importance in commercial seafaring. On the increasingly long fishing and trading voyages, knitting offered a way to make or mend complete garments on board without the need to carry bulky looms – Similarly, for nomadic communities or occupational groups such as shepherds.

Who knits is in good company. Our Lady also knitted, at least in some late medieval paintings. The best known is the ‘Buxtehude Madonna’ by Master Bertram.

It shows Mary picking up the stitches for the neckline of a shirt, while the infant Jesus is engrossed in a book at her feet. If the highest of all women was not too shy for needlework, then also the ladies of the fine society could not pass.

When did knitting develop into a commercially recognized craft?

In Paris, commercial knitting was mentioned for the first time in 1268 in the form of the Paris Knitters’ Guild. There are records of knitting guilds in the Netherlands and Spain from the 15th century.

A document for Germany in the form of the Nuremberg pants and stockings knitters was not found until 1600. But how did the development take place outside Europe?

Only in the middle of the 19th century did the first foreigners in Japan spread knitted fabrics that had been virtually unknown until then. The further the opening of the country progressed, the broader the strata of the population became familiar with the technique of knitting.

This culminated in the early 20th century in the spread of hand knitting in private households and the establishment of knitwear factories. The development in China followed a similar course.

Knitting was unknown here for a long time until the technique became widespread with the import of knitted stockings as well as knitted underwear.

The first knitwear factory was built in 1902, while circular knitting machines for the production of stockings were introduced in many private households.

Mother Knitting with Kid. Date: 1883
Mother Knitting with Kid. Date: 1883

Also, in Paris, guilds were formed, which were engaged in knitting and the sale of knitwear. Interestingly, knitting was initially an occupation for men, while later, it was considered a classic women’s work.

As with the people of Asia Minor thousands of years earlier, Europe was also initially concerned with warm feet: the history of knitting began with the growing popularity of warming socks made of wool.

A center of knitting soon established itself in Great Britain. Here, wool was processed on a large scale and then supplied to the whole of Europe.

The invention of the knitting machine

Textile equipment for round knitted fabric production and knitting machine
Textile equipment for round knitted fabric production and knitting machine

Knitting is commonly regarded as a leisurely, relaxing activity. During the Industrial Revolution, knitting was one of the last manufacturing processes to be transferred from man to machine.

In 1863, the American Isaac William Lamb patented a flat knitting machine. This was followed about a year later by the knitting machine of the Englishman William Cotton.

Like knitting, warp knitting is based on the formation of stitches, but in warp knitting, the stitches are not formed individually one after the other, but stitch row by stitch row.4 

Knitting Bag Yarn Storage

Knitting Needles Set
Merino Beddings

Knitting basics and techniques

If we look at the origin of the word “knit,” we can determine the following. “To tie a loop, a knot” and “to bind” are the oldest provable meanings of the word “knit,” which is derived from “rope.”

In 1495, the now generally known newer meaning of the word is found for the first time as “the making of textiles from a continuous thread by means of two or more needles.”

In knitting, the stitches of a row are formed one after the other and are created by looping yarns around each other. In addition to hand knitting, in which two to five knitting needles are used to produce textile products, machine knitting is also known.

As a basic material, hand knitting requires appropriate hand knitting yarn, which can be, for example, cotton, virgin wool, angora, cashmere, silk, synthetic fibers or even mixtures of these materials.

Industrial machine knitting is carried out with the aid of knitting machines. A distinction is made between flat and circular knitting machines. These can be operated by a motor or by hand.

Unlike hand knitting machines, which are used in the home and by hobby knitters, industrial machines can produce the work-piece in one operation.


Do all people in the world knit the same way?

In fact, there are regional differences in knitting methods. This affects, among other things, the guidance of the working thread, the position of the hands and the shaping of the stitches.

However, only two types of stitches are distinguished everywhere: right stitches, also known as plain stitches, and purl stitches, also known as reversed or curly stitches.

In addition to the various combinations of right and left stitches, turnovers, decreases and increases, interlocking of stitches and other types of stitch formation create different patterns.

These are called knitting patterns. Here, flat patterns are distinguished from “Ajour Knitting,” which is also known as hole or lace knitting.

The techniques of knitting are varied and offer a wide field of activity. For not only garments such as scarves, stockings, hats and sweaters but also carpets, blankets, and much more can be knitted.


Knitting in other Cultures

Today, knitting is once again very popular with many people as a leisure activity.

Here we have come full circle: just as in Paris around 1520, a growing number of men are once again trying their hand at the art of knitting. This form of needlework is also popular again among young people under thirty-five years old.

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  1. From Sibudu Cave, Probably the Earliest Sewing Needle, Made of Bone

  2. H. Graeven, H. Lehner: Museographie über das Jahr 1902. In: H. Graeven, J. Hansen, H. Lehner (Hrsg.)
  3. Kerry Wills: The Close-Knit Circle. Praeger, Westport, CT, London 2007, ISBN 978-0-275-99246-0,
  4. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "William Lee". Encyclopedia Britannica, 29 Jan. 2019, Accessed 9 November 2021.

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