A Short, Mostly True History of Knitting

Posted on January 07, 2015 by kim fenton | 0 Comments

There is much story around knitting, for it is an ancient craft. There is evidence that the ancient Egyptians knitted.  The oldest knitted artifact found is a sock, found in a grave. No one, of course, is completely clear about where knitting started (generally thought to be the middle east), whether is predates weaving (unlikely as evidence of weaving exists from the Paleolithic era), but certainly it was shortly after spinning fibre into thread that a nomadic tribesperson, without the means to carry a loom, figured out knitting. Some fire-keeper, some house-holder, long ago, devised a way of taking a string and somehow looped it into itself using some sticks to assist, and create a fabric that was loose, and could trap the warm air, and allow the rain and the snow to settle on it and not through to the skin of the wearer. Then perhaps beside the fire of long cold nights, the knitter began to find ways to incorporate story into the fabric they made. As they shared story verbally with the ones around them, they knit into the fabric they were making the marks of their house, their tribe, the accomplishments of their hunters and gatherers. As the hunters went further and further afield, the cloaks they wore to keep them safe and warm were also the identifiers that brought their broken bodies home to the hearth they had left; if not the body then the wrap came home, and the symbols that returned were the same ones etched into stone and carved in to wood and placed over the grave of the wearer.

Knitting was often men’s work; the fishermen minding already mended nets knit to keep their hands occupied. It became not just hemp and flax that the women spun; the undercoat of the sheep was the softest to wear next to the skin, and the outer coat was resilient enough for the hardest rain, the longest journey. Men in the Swiss army learned first how to knit and mend their own socks. Clothing that was too tattered to mend could be made into strips and knit into garments, breathing new life into flour sacks and dresses.

The industrial age shifted handwork of the necessary kind; a sweater could be mass-produced on a knitting machine and soon only the poorest had handmade clothing. No time or effort was given to the development of yarn; it was wool, or it was acrylic, when that was invented, and it was black or white or navy or red or baby blue or pale pink. The same socks and hats and layettes and sweaters were knit over and over and over. The Cowichan people, among others from Ireland and Scotland and Norway, created patterns and symbols to celebrate their tribes and accomplishments in the ancient way.

Today we knit for many reasons. The act of knitting, the rhythm of the in and around, over and slip are measured, peaceful steps we love to listen to and create. It doesn’t matter what we are actually knitting; it is the act itself that brings the calmness to the troubled mind and stills the fretful hands.

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