Knitwear pervades people's everyday lives; it has been estimated that one in five garments worn worldwide are knits. While comprising an essential part
of the industrial manufacture of clothing, knitting is also a widespread leisure practice with a burgeoning literature. The titles of some publications of the late 1990s and early 2000s on the subject—Hip to Knit, Zen and the Art of Knitting, The Urban Knitter, The Knitting Sutra—suggest that in addition to being a craft and an expressive art form, knitting is also a lifestyle.
Techniques, Tools, and Materials
Knitting is the formation of a textile from interlocking loops (stitches) of yarn. Each stitch on a horizontal row is locked into the stitches above and below, creating a durable, pliable fabric that has been used for clothing across the world over centuries. Knitwear's elasticity enhances fit, and its structural properties of absorbency and insulation render it highly functional. Additionally, the fact that the knitter may choose from hundreds of stitches and work with multiple colors offers an aesthetic richness that has led to knitwear becoming a creative, expressive form of dress.
Knitting is formed by hand with needles or by machine. It can be created in flat-shaped pieces that are then sewn together, or worked in the round. Hand knitters have used a variety of needles, usually of metal, through sometimes of wood, bone, bamboo, ivory, and, in the twentieth century, plastic. Needles typically have pointed ends, though in some countries, such as Portugal, they are hooked. The circular needle became increasingly popular during the twentieth century. This double-ended needle with a flexible central section is used for knitting tubular pieces, but also affords greater comfort for flat knitting, as the weight of the fabric rests in the knitter's lap. Sets of smaller double-ended needles are commonly used for knitting socks or for areas with a small circumference.
Although some of the earliest knitted artifacts have been discovered in Egypt, knitting has predominantly been developed in colder climates. The most common yarn has been wool, though some exceptionally fine early pieces were knit in silk. Cotton as a less elastic yarn has not been as popular a choice for hand knitters. The explosion in availability of artificial yarns and blends during the twentieth century offered knitters unprecedented choice of materials, and some of the most innovative design has resulted from the exploitation of the structural properties of these yarns and the surface manipulation of knitted textiles.
The way the knitter holds the yarn varies by region. In America and Great Britain, the yarn is carried in the right hand and thrown over the right needle; the left is used in continental Europe. In some areas, such as the Shetland Isles off the north coast of Scotland, one needle is anchored in a sheath. In Turkey, Greece, Portugal, Peru, and Bolivia, the yarn is often looped around the neck to create tension.
Knitlike structures dating from the later Roman period were long thought to be the earliest extant examples of hand knitting. However, it has been determined that these pieces were made by the nalbinding method, which was practiced in Scandinavia, Africa, and other areas to make socks, gloves, bags, and even dancers' costumes. Nalbinding produces a textile resembling a knit with a single sewing needle and short lengths of yarn.
The earliest surviving true knits are Islamic socks dating from 1200 to 1500, discovered in Egypt and often decorated with bands of ornamental Arabic script, and a meticulously crafted pair of thirteenth-century cushions recovered from a royal Spanish tomb. Medieval knitting was often associated with the church; there are even a number of late medieval and early Renaissance paintings that depict the Madonna knitting. In Britain, more utilitarian applications included cap-making—a flourishing and well-regulated industry.
The Englishman William Lee invented the first hand-operating knitting frame in 1589, in response to consumer demand for imported silk stockings. He was denied a patent because of fears over the machine's impact on the hand-knitting trade. Subsequent advances enabled fabric to be produced in the round (early machines produced flat-shaped work requiring seaming), as well as with complex patterning, and use of multiple colors. But it took many centuries to produce on a machine what a skilled hand-knitter could produce on four or more needles. In fact, only as recently as 1998 was a completely seamless panty-hose product first produced.
In continental Europe, knitting guilds played an important part in regulating the industry, some of them surviving into the eighteenth century. Knits began to assume a significant role in import/export economies. During the sixteenth century, the male fashion for short full trunk hose inspired the import into Britain of expensive silk stockings from Spain, worn to display shapely legs to advantage. By the next century, wool stockings were exported from Britain to Germany, France, Italy, and Holland. While hosiery had been a mainstay of the knitting industry, other garments types such as shirts and jackets were being produced.
Despite mechanization, the hand-knitting industry continued to thrive; hand knitting could of course be executed with the minimum of equipment, at home, and between other work, and was a convenient means of supplementing income from rural industries. It was a craft practiced by women, men, and children, and could provide relief during periods of economic hardship.
Imperialism exported forms of European administration to the colonies, and also knitting. The example of Kashmiri weavers who adapted shawl motifs into knitted caps is a famous illustration of the hybridization of traditions. In America, schools were established to teach children to knit—for profit and to encourage probity—with hands and minds occupied in learning a craft, the apprentices were less likely to misbehave. By the American Civil War, knitting for soldiers became an expression of patriotism, repeated during both World Wars as well.
During the twentieth century, knitwear became an arena in which avant-garde designers experimented and excelled. It has also been a mainstay of street wear from the clinging garb of the 1950s' sweater girls to the prefleece cardigans of the next decades, to the ubiquitous sweat suits of the early 2000s.
Regional Traditions and Social Significance
Hand knitting has played an important role in regional economies, especially in Great Britain and Europe. Embedded as it is in the lives of local communities, the practice is rich in social significance. Many traditions have developed in response to the occupational and climactic needs of a region's inhabitants. The best known of these include the guernseys (or ganseys or jerseys), knitted for fishermen around the coasts of the British Isles. This piece of clothing is knitted in the round on the body and sleeves and in rows on the upper torso to create a seamless garment. Typically dark blue, the guernsey makes virtuoso use of juxtapositions of knit and purl, creating rugged, utilitarian structures that aesthetically delight. Knit stitches are formed with yarn held to the back, and the loops are drawn upward, creating an appearance of vertical rows; purl stitch is created with the yarn held to the front, and the loops drawn to the face of the fabric, creating horizontal ridges. As fishing is a peripatetic occupation, and as fishermen took wives from different regions, it is fruitless to tie motifs to specific districts. What initially started as production for family consumption developed during the nineteenth century into a contract business for a much wider market, further disseminating motifs. The patterns of the guernsey reflect the inventiveness of the makers, as well as the non-local nature of the fishing industry and the role of contract work in the local economy.
An offshoot of the Guernsey tradition with a very different history is Aran knitting, produced on the three Isles of Aran off the Irish Atlantic coast. Aran sweaters are knitted in flat pieces, usually in creamy white wool, and make prodigious use of high relief cables whose boldly chiseled forms are reminiscent of ancient Celtic interlacing. It appears, though, that the Aran tradition is a relatively new one, possibly dating back no further than the early twentieth century, and more commonly produced as fashion wear than work wear.
Some regions in Spain, Russia, and the Shetland Isles became significantly known for lace knitting, and home production was often supported by philanthropic efforts to avoid displacement of rural workers. Lace knitting was practiced during the nineteenth century by the Shetland islanders after the decline in demand for mass-produced hand knitting. The fine, silky wool of the Shetland sheep benefited the production of lace shawls so delicate they could be drawn through a wedding ring. Although methods of distribution varied, home production throughout Britain was certainly assisted by the introduction of the Parcel Post in 1840.
Fair Isle, a tiny island to the south of Shetlands, became known for the production of intricate strandedcolor knitting. First noted in the nineteenth century, Fair Isle knitting was absorbed into mainstream fashion when the Prince of Wales donned this style for the golf course in 1922. Many countries have stranded-color knitting traditions, and it is difficult to establish a history of precedent and derivative. Established trading between Scotland, Scandinavia, Western Russia, and the Baltic states, and the fact that all these regions have comparable knitting styles, suggests a vibrancy of cross-fertilization rather than the importation of a dominant tradition.
South American countries developed distinct styles of stranded-color knitting, often in imitation of indigenous woven textiles. Intricately patterned Bolivian chullos, or caps, knitted with a very fine gauge, are some of the best known. As with the Shetland Isles, availability of fine wool—in this case alpaca, llama, and vicuña—stimulated this industry. Cooperatives continue to assist South American knitters in the marketing of their work, and it is common to see sweaters from Bolivia and other South American countries for sale in the high street.
A prominent twentieth-century example of the promotion of knitting as a means of economic stimulus was the Bohus Stickning collective, created in Sweden in the 1930s to provide work for the wives of unemployed stonecutters. This company was innovative in its use of trained designers to create garments targeted at a high-end market.
Fashion Design for Hand Knitting
Despite mechanization of the craft, hand knitting continues to contribute to local economies and also functions as a fast-growing leisure pursuit. Since the 1970s, fashion designers, often trained in universities and art schools, have inspired hand knitters to take a more adventurous approach to texture, color, and construction.
Mary Walker Phillips has been at the forefront of the movement to promote knitting as a fine art, publishing books on innovative stitches and experimental structures. Patricia Roberts has revolutionized the way in which the leisure practice of hand knitting is marketed. Discouraged by the poor yarn selections in stores, she began in 1974 to sell mail-order kits with patterns and yarn. In 1976, she opened a specialized yarn shop in Knightsbridge, London—the beginning of an effort to market her line internationally. The format of her high-quality fashion publications for disseminating her designs has been much emulated.
The designer knitting boom has been fed by improvements in yarn availability for home consumption. In 1978, Stephen Sheard co-founded Rowan Yarns in Yorkshire, England, which in the early 2000s remains a prominent manufacturer of natural fiber yarn in exciting color palettes. Rowan works with some of Britain's most innovative designers such as Kaffe Fassett, originally of California, whose works inspired by Oriental ceramics, kilims, and Indian miniatures demonstrate that even inexperienced knitters may achieve results of lush, glowing color.
Many designers produce for the home knitter, as well as the fashion industry. Examples include Jean Moss, a virtuoso Fair Isle designer who has worked for Laura Ashley and Ralph Lauren; Susan Duckworth, a painter whose early clients included Joseph Tricot; and Martin Kidman, a designer of clever pictorial knits who has worked for Joseph as well.
Couture and Ready-to-Wear Knits
Certain couturier knits have become design icons—for example, Chanel's jersey-knit suits and Schiaparelli's butterfly-bow trompe-l'oeil pullover. Some design houses have built their oeuvres on knitwear. Missoni, for instance, created its unmistakable striped and zigzag motifs on the family's warp-knitting machinery, previously used for producing shawls. The Benetton company created a niche producing upliftingly colored sweaters and cardigans, often in lambswool, to a mass market.
Some designers have reinterpreted classic knitting traditions. Solveig Hisdal for Oleana transforms Norwegian folk traditions. Jean Paul Gaultier often manipulates the scale of Aran motifs, while Vivienne Westwood jests with argyles and knitted lace. The design house TSE is well-known for fine-gauge intarsia.
Perhaps the most innovative approach to contemporary knitted clothing lies in its construction. Some designers retain a couturier approach to knits, such as John Galliano, who cuts and seams with aplomb. Yohji Yamamoto manipulates garment shapes, playing with reversibility and layering. Hussein Chalayan is master of the trompe-l'oeil, creating garments that deliberately deceive as to their construction. Possibly the most radical in this field is Issey Miyake, whose concept A-POC (A Piece of Cloth) combines mass manufacture with mass customization—a potential revolution for clothing manufacture. A-POC, which has been featured in museum fine art exhibitions, creates clothing modules from enormous rolls of tubular knitted fabric.
The type of technological advance that allowed APOC has provided fertile ground for fashion designers' experimentation. The mechanization of knitting is a complex and still-evolving subject. Developments in machinery and yarn have been symbiotic; machines are now capable of knitting "yarns" of metal wire and plastic. A further step has been the utilization of processes that permit the surface manipulation of knitted textiles—processes such as heat-bonding, laminating and rubberizing, that tend to explode the boundaries between knits as utility and art.
Black, Sandy. Knitwear in Fashion. New York: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 2002. A well-illustrated survey of knitwear in contemporary designer fashion.
Keele, Wendy. Poems of Color: Knitting in the Bohus Tradition. Loveland, Colo.: Interweave Press, 1995. Explores one example of the role of hand knitting in a regional economy, and discusses a model of manufacture and distribution, in additional to providing much clearly written technical information.
Phillips, Mary Walker. Creative Knitting: A New Art Form. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1971. Influential argument for knitting as a fine art, with instructions for experimental stitches.
Rutt, Richard. A History of Hand Knitting. Loveland, Colo.: Interweave Press, 1987. A comprehensive history of hand knitting with particular emphasis on Britain.
Vogue Knitting. New York: Sixth and Spring Books, 2002. A definitive single source for stitches and techniques, and a good brief history.