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The Loving Stitch
A History of Knitting and Spinning in New Zealand
By Heather Nicholson
Auckland University PressCopyright © 1998 Heather Nicholson
All rights reserved.
The Historical Background
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Knitting is the second youngest of the textile crafts but how it originated is a mystery. It has been asserted that Penelope's web was knitted, because she was able to unravel it so quickly each night, and that Jesus's seamless robe was also knitted because it could not be cut into pieces. Two thousand years ago, leather, felt, furs and woven clothes were worn, but no traces of true knitted fabrics dating from earlier than about AD1000 have been found. Felting may have been invented by experiencing the results of rubbing damp wool fibres together. Loom weaving may have developed from experiments with finger-woven strands of fibre, and a chain of crochet loops can be made with the fingers, but who thought of setting knit loops along a needle shaft and working them off in order?
About 1000 years ago, true knitting was well established in Arabic North Africa. Skilled knitters made calf-length stockings with elegant geometrical patterns in white and indigo blue cotton. Both the expert work and the well-planned patterning show that the craft had been developing for some time. Perhaps the skills came from India; these stockings were knitted from the toe upwards like those made to this day in south-eastern Europe through to Afghanistan and Kashmir.
Meanwhile, knowledge of this useful craft was drifting along trade routes to other Mediterranean countries. European church records began to mention knitted silk gloves used by clergy, particularly bishops, from the late thirteenth century, and Muslim craftspeople were knitting coloured silk head cushions for royal tombs in Christian Spain. The fine patterning suggests that quality Spanish steel was used for the needles. The needles may even have been hooked, like those still used in parts of Portugal and South America today.
Knitting spread through Europe from Spain and Italy and by the fifteenth century professional knitters were skilfully creating very beautiful knit fabrics in fine silk yarn. Most of these precious textile relics are found in church treasuries and in the tombs of kings, queens, princes and bishops who were buried wearing their very best regalia. In contrast, we know very little about the dress of the ordinary folk, because they had few clothes and were buried in graves.
The special features of knitting, such as easily learned and perfected skills and cheaply made tools, suggest that European townsfolk and villagers had quickly taken up knitting from about AD1300. The craft may have been introduced into England as a peasant handicraft some time before 1400, yielding rough but practical clothes. A few surviving fragments of humble wool stockings, leggings and caps, now held in the London and Norwich Museums, indicate how commoners had turned to knitting such articles instead of sewing them from woven cloth. No special equipment was needed. The work was done in the round on sets of double-pointed needles that were easily made from twigs, wood, bone, bronze and even ivory, long before drawn steel was available. Hand-spun wool and linen yarns were already normal household products. For small garments such as caps, sleeves and stockings, it was much easier and more efficient to knit and shape them in one operation, rather than set up the loom, weave the fabric, full it, then cut and sew it, leaving wastage in off-cuts. When knitting small garments no precious yarn was lost, and the task could be carried about and done while doing other things — travelling, sailing, courting, minding babies, guarding crops and walking to market. While shepherds in southern France stood on stilts to watch over their flocks, they occupied themselves with their knitting and, until quite recently, Shetland women continued their knitting even as they back-packed heavy peat-filled kishies to their homes.
There is a common belief that men did all the knitting before 1900. Rather depressingly, some women feel that claiming women did the spinning while men did the knitting can raise the craft's humble status. There is no evidence to show that either professional or domestic knitting was gender-linked. Perhaps the notion that knitting was an exclusively male craft came from stories about the craft knitting guilds of Silesia, Alsace and Bohemia, which were active from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, producing colourful knitted carpets that were really ceremonial wall-hangings and table-covers. (Although the London Framework Knitters' Charter was written in 1664, there were no exclusive hand knitters' guilds in the British Isles.)
The paintings of knitting madonnas made between 1300 and 1500 in Germany and Italy show that some knitting was done by mediaeval women. The madonnas knitted with sets of double-pointed needles, holding both the needles from above, and with the yarn carried by the right hand. One is doing colour knitting, because several of her yarns are wound on to bobbins set on pegs on a circular lazy kate and another is making a symbolic seamless shirt for the Christ child.
In parts of rural England such as the Yorkshire Dales, knitting was a widespread activity until well into the nineteenth century, involving men, women and children. The sale of wool stockings was often an essential source of income when the earnings from small holdings and labourers' wages were not enough to keep body and soul together.
Cappers' guilds were in existence in Britain by the fourteenth century and manufactured a variety of felted wool caps. The professional cappers in Coventry soon began to use knit fabrics. The earliest models included the famous Monmouth caps, which were shaped like today's Kiwi towelling beach hats. Monmouth caps were popular with soldiers and sailors because they gave warmth and comfort under metal helmets, and they were worn well into the nineteenth century. Among the textile relics found in the wreckage of Henry VIII's lovely new ship, the Mary Rose, which capsized and sank with all hands in 1545, are fragments of knitted caps and knitted stockings or arm warmers.
Knitted Tudor caps were worked in the round and women outworkers may have done this part of the process. The cappers dyed the knitted pieces and felted them by energetic pummelling. The caps were then blocked to shape, brushed to raise a nap and shorn to make a smooth, soft, velvety surface. Some surviving caps show traces of the original colours including blue (indigo), red (madder) and green (indigo over weld). A wonderful treasure in the Museum of London is a small, dark blue, child's hat that looks almost new.
Plain skull caps and earflap caps were worn by ordinary folk, churchmen, clerks and all the determinedly unfashionable people who deplored modern, sinful fripperies. Meantime, smart young men about town worked hard at keeping up with the latest fashion whims as their caps became more and more elaborate with folded and multiple brims, slashes and cut-outs. The knitted caps soon spread north, and today's Scots bonnets, academic doctoral regalia and military berets are all direct descendants of Tudor knitted and felted head gear.
The Otago Settlers' Museum owns two historic nineteenth-century Scots bonnets. Captain Cargill's bonnet, knitted with dark navy blue yarn at about five stitches per inch finished gauge, is felted and finished with a red tourie. The bonnet that belonged to J. H. Morrison, an early manager of the Mosgiel Woollen Mills, is in much finer yarn, with a band worked in red, black and white checks. The cap is fully lined and the edge is bound with taffeta. French berets and Turkish fez are also descendants of the old knitted and felted caps.
Perhaps up to 80 per cent of knitwear made in the last 500 years was in the form of socks or stockings. Early in Renaissance times, men's long robes shortened into tunics and jackets and their exposed legs were covered with tightly fitting combination breeches and stockings made of woven fabric. The stocking sections sewn to the breeches were cut on the bias for fit, and elaborately shaped to the foot, but they wrinkled.
Sixteenth-century bishops and kings quickly turned to the new knitted silk stockings. These had neatly fashioned leg shapings, were enhanced with embroidery and were extremely expensive. The shaping about the heel and foot was quite different from today's socks, being modelled on the piecing used for the older cloth hosiery. By the middle of the century, wealthy English lords were importing knitted silk stockings from Italy and Spain to wear with their fashionably short trunks. Disapproving puritan moralists railed hopelessly against this insolent, expensive and prideful new fashion, when the price of a pair of imported stockings could have kept a poor family for a year.
The fashion for doublets, short trunks and fine hose turned men's legs into sex objects. Did fashion create a demand for smooth, flexible knit stockings, or did knit stockings themselves create and maintain the fashion? In any case, for the next 250 years, men had to have well-proportioned and smoothly curved limbs, clad in fine, non-wrinkling, fitting, elastic knit fabric, decorated with elegant embroidered clocks at the ankle.
This provided a constant supply of work for stockingers until the early nineteenth century when, disastrously, the fashion changed and men gave up breeches and hose for trousers. At first, however, trousers were narrow and tight fitting, and men's legs still needed to be well shaped, so framework knitters took the opportunity to supply padded long johns to fill out thin calves and thighs. The inside fabric was lined with knitted-in tufts of wool, sculptured and trimmed to flatter.
Except for a few brief glimpses at the beginning of the nineteenth century, women's legs were not generally seen until the early twentieth century. Under all those skirts and petticoats women wore ankle socks, full-length stockings or knee-length stockings called nether-stocks. Ladies' best stockings were often decorated with lace stitching and embroidery, but rarely with anything fancy above mid-calf. You could lift your skirt only so far to display your pretty ankles and stay respectable!
Stocking knitting had been quickly taken up by ordinary folk and was never captured by exclusive trade guilds. The earliest surviving English hosiery includes curiously primitive wool socks and other small garments for children such as sleeves and mittens worked with plain wool yarn similar in thickness to today's 8-ply yarn. Their crude construction contrasts with the professionally made European silk gloves and stockings. The little socks were begun at the toe with a ring of stitches, increased quickly in no special pattern order to achieve foot width, and then worked from toe to top like eastern stockings. Typically, the heel was turned with several rows of garter stitch by knitting back and forth. Perhaps English knitters had not yet learned how to purl, but these naive little socks may well represent the first true seamless knit heel turnings.
Perhaps Tudor folk knitters invented their own techniques by copying in wool what they could see of the imported knit hosiery worn by the gentry. In 1564, in an early example of sixteenth-century industrial espionage, an apprentice borrowed some Italian-made stockings and copied them. Eventually, English and Scottish knitters worked out ways in which to use plain and purl, knit-ups and increases and decreases to make neatly turned and comfortable heels. By 1886, Weldon's could publish ten different recipes for heel turnings and seven different toe shapings.
The pace at which commercial hosiery work spread through the British Isles suggests that many folk already had some knowledge of the craft. Unlike fashionable felted caps, stockings need very little skilled finishing so, for merchants, cheap rural labour was ideal. They encouraged knitting when they saw how the growing demand for smoothly flexible knit hose could be exploited, and the new trade quickly established itself as a valuable home and export industry based on good English wool. Even in sophisticated Spain, the virtues of practical, strong, English wool yarn for everyday stockings were soon recognised.
The production of knitted articles in Britain exploded. In 1500, knitting was scarcely recorded, but by 1600 a flourishing export trade in hand-knit wool and worsted stockings had developed. By 1700 about 20 million pairs of hosiery a year were produced by 200,000 knitters for domestic consumption and export. The grades varied from finest worsted to rough, coarse wool in a wide range of colours and styles, and frequent style and pattern changes kept the fashionable citizens eager to continue buying.
The expanding demand for stocking knitters resulted in the formation of a number of knitting schools, especially in rural districts, to relieve poverty and to keep idle hands busy. For many, stocking knitting was a necessary addition to household income, for some it was drudgery and for others it was a way of making life a little more comfortable. For several hundred years, knitting was seen as a useful skill for the poor. A contributor to Useful Hints for Labourers, published in 1855, recommended that the children of cottagers should not be allowed to run about idle at four or five years but should be put to work at a variety of little tasks, such as knitting.
Knitters did not always have a good reputation. Seventeenth-century Channel Islanders did so well out of knitting that they neglected to till the fields, and in England there were occasional complaints about knitters making nuisances of themselves by hanging about together under the hedges and annoying others by knitting and laughing. Knitting was also sociable. In the Yorkshire Dales of the late eighteenth century, the little children were put to bed in the evenings and the fires covered, while the village neighbours gathered in one of the cottages to knit, tell tales, sing and court. Social knitting survived well into the nineteenth century and is still seen today in frolics, spin-ins and knit-ins.
Stockingers had to wait until wire drawing was developed for thin, strong needles of a standard size for knitting really fine hosiery. Although the skill of producing steel wire was known in England in the mid-fourteenth century, mechanisation did not begin until 1566, when water-powered wire-mills were introduced. Until well into this century, Shetland knitters went to the hardware merchant to buy lengths of steel wire for needles and they still call needles 'wires'.
The first knitting needle gauge, invented in the 1840s by the pattern writer, Miss Frances Lambert, was a flat metal disc with holes sized from 1 to 26, based on the British Standard Steel Wire Gauge. New Zealand pre-metric needle sizes were also the same as those used for the wire trade and our favourite number 8 needles were the same thickness as our faithful number 8 fencing wire.
William Lee invented the knitting-frame in 1589, not very long after hand knitting was established in England as an important export industry. Lee's frame was an amazingly sophisticated pre-industrial invention. For ten years Lee struggled to develop his invention and get it recognised. Eventually he left England to live in Rouen, and it was not until after his death that the knitting-frame was brought into regular production in the London area.
Frame knitting developed alongside hand knitting and at first, it was not a great deal faster. Fashion changes helped to keep hand knitters ahead of frame knitters for a century or so because they could adapt to changes and short runs more quickly. And since hand knitting was often a spare-time activity, it was cheaper than full-time frame knitting by skilled men. Hand knitters could work at any time, even by firelight, but knitting-frames were heavy to operate, and were worked only in good daylight. Nevertheless, frame knitters improved their machinery and techniques through the 1700s until they could efficiently produce a wide range of garments as well as plain and textured yardage. Besides, there was virtually an international exchange of ideas in styling and techniques between manufacturers.
By 1800, the whole of English society was enduring a massive series of technological, political and fashion changes. Some cottage industries survived for a while alongside steam-and water-powered factories, but hand- knit hosiery was quickly declining against competition from mechanised knitting. After about 1820, hand knitting as a trade struggled on only in isolated areas.
Even changes in farming methods contributed to the disappearance of craft industries as by-occupations. Farming improvements led to the need for enclosures. Many tenant cottagers were evicted and, if small holders could not afford fencing, or if their tiny farms were uneconomic, they abandoned the land, and the craft skills went with them. Displaced peasants moved to the towns to find work and, as the population there increased, wages collapsed, so that skilled spinners and knitters earned no more than about sixpence a day. For the first time, workplaces and households were separated as people found work in factories, where fourteen-hour days in dreadful conditions were common.
Excerpted from The Loving Stitch by Heather Nicholson. Copyright © 1998 Heather Nicholson. Excerpted by permission of Auckland University Press.
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