History of knitted fabrics

Knitting is the process of using two or more needles to loop yarn into a series of interconnected loops in order to create a finished garment or some other type of fabric. It is suggested the name comes from an old Dutch verb, cynttan, that evolved to knutten. The translation in English being knot.


Originally knitting was done by nomadic and non-agrarian peoples as it did not require a loom. It is thought that its origins lie somewhere in the Middle East, spread to Europe by Mediterranean trade routes and then to America through European colonisation. The oldest knitted garments are socks from Egypt from the 11thcentury CE. They have a very fine gauge and complex colour work. 


The earliest knitted items found in Europe were actually crafted by Muslim knitters employed by Spanish Christian royal families. These included knitted cushion cover and gloves of Prince Fernando de la Cerda, 1275. However, archaeological discoveries have found items all over Europe, dating back to the 14th century, for example, in London, Newcastle, Oslo, Amsterdam and Lubeck. The unfortunate thing is, due to degradation of the textile, their former appearance and use is unknown. 


William Lee invented the stocking frame in 1589. Queen Elizabeth denied him a patent as she complained the wool stockings that the loom produced were too coarse for royal ankles. So, he jumped the pond to France, where King Henri IV saw the potential and gave him financial support. He was then able to build a stocking factory in Rouen. Before long, the French spread the knitting loom throughout Europe. This innovation was followed by the invention of a portable circular knitting machine. Then came the industrial revolution, which as the name suggests completely over-hauled knitting in the traditional sense with the invention and improvement of steam-powered knitting machines in the mid 19th century. This shifted production to factories to accommodate the larger machines. 


At the turn of the 20th century, there was an increase in popularity of knitwear in much of the western world, as sweaters and pullovers became essential items of clothing. Knitwear was often associated with sport and leisure at this time, however, people like Coco Chanel championed the knit, embracing it into the scene of high fashion. Vogue also featured knitting patterns in their magazines.


As knitwear progressed into the 1930’s, new technologies such as zip fasteners and synthetic yarns were being brought to market. However, the hardship experienced by many throughout The Depression forced people to knit their own garments through necessity. It was much cheaper to knit your own garments than buy pre-made things. Towards the end of the 30’s however, there was a rise in the popularity of commercial machine knitting as it started to produce cheaper items of clothing, especially with the invention of synthetic materials.


Throughout the 20th century, knitting machines became highly commercialised and efficient, leading to the explosion of fast fashion that we now see on the market. Garments are able to be produced quickly and without human labour, making the end product extremely cheap. Looking to the future, it will be interesting to see how the knitting mill develops, and what kind of fabrics it will be able to make using natural and recycled fabrics.