Facts That Figure: Knitting

Facts That Figure: Knitting

By: C.G. Hoffman

Knitting is something that everyone is into these days, from bespectacled bubbies to pink haired hipsters. Everyone and their next door neighbor seems to be getting together to create baby booties, blankets and sweaters in what has become a newly popular activity, now no more limited to grannies and gartels.

The simplest definition of knitting is the creation of a textile by interlooping yarn with one or more needles. The earliest sample of knitting was found in Israel, in a Canaanite site. Archaeologist have also found finely knitted socks in Egypt, which interestingly, was designed to have two sections, one for the big toe and one for the rest of the toes!

Knitting was serious business in medieval Europe, and knitters were organized into knitting guilds. They were similar to today’s unions, and provided training, standardized pay and quality, and took care of widows and orphans of deceased guild members. They were exclusively male, and children as young as 3 were already taught to spin and knit. Boys would be apprenticed to master knitters from the age of ten, and as their skill grew, apprentices became journeymen, and eventually, masters.

Knitters were important, and the caps they knitted were required to be worn in England by “Everyone above the age of six on Sundays and Holidays”, according to the Cappers Act of 1571. Everyone except for "Maids, Ladies, Gentlewomen, Noble Personages, and every Lord, Knight and Gentleman of 20 Marks Land”.

The invention of the first mechanical knitting machine as early as 1589, moved knitting from a cottage industry to factory production. Rural knitting as a craft started to die out, but it soon became a ladylike hobby, suitable for wealthy ladies who were not occupied with manual labor. Girls would show off their fine skill at producing dainty little goods such as purses and pincushions, decorated in intricate patterns and colors.

Knitting was also deemed a suitable skill to be taught to poor boys and girls at orphanages and workhouses in England. The pupils of one Quaker school in England knitted 339 pairs of stockings in one year alone!

Here’s an unlikely combination: knitting and espionage! One enterprising Belgian bubby sat at her window during WWI, seemingly completely focused on her knitting. In fact, she was carefully observing the comings and goings of the train nearby, and recorded the timetable in dropped stitches. Later, she risked her life by handing over the finished fabric to a fellow spy in the Belgian Resistance.

During WWII people were encouraged to knit for the war effort. Despite machine made knits being more efficient, knitting gave a way for people back home to help. American and British women picked up their knitting needles to knit socks, sweaters and mittens to keep the boys at the front warm. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was often photographed knitting, or carrying around a huge knitting bag, setting an example for American women. When wool was in short supply, thrifty housewives would unravel old holey sweaters and continue knitting new socks and sweaters with their new supply of yarn.

Welcome to the crazy world of: yarn bombing! The British take their knitting seriously, so seriously that some women have decided that it was incumbent upon them to rescue the famously drab British streets from their monochrome dinginess. They descend upon streets in a guerrilla campaign of “yarn grafitti,” decorating telephone poles, mailboxes and park benches in a colorful explosion of whimsically knitted yarn.

Knitting has been elevated from an old fashioned activity for arthritic grandmothers, and has suddenly become “cool,” especially since the Coronavirus pandemic. With extra time on their hands, men, women and children have turned to knitting as a soothing activity that helps calm anxiety. Today, around 45 million Americans know how to knit or crochet, spawning a huge jump in the yarn industry, valued at $14.4 billion dollars in 2023.

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