How Did We Get Here – A Brief Social History Of Knitting

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“Knitting is the new black”. I love this phrase, and it’s true. Knitting has become “cool”. It certainly has a fashion history, but it also has a social history that explains how it became cool. Historically, interest in knitting was more a response to the political and economic environment, and gender role expectations. Today, there are social gatherings of avid knitters worldwide, meeting in person and online. Knitting’s popularity is at an all-time high, is not gender specific, and has shed the stereotype of a past-time for grannies.

Historians have concluded that knitting’s roots likely began in the ancient civilizations around the Mediterranean, first practiced by nomadic males. Initially, it was a male-only occupation. During the Middle Ages, men belonging to French and Italian Guilds (women could not be members) were highly skilled and became master knitters through an apprenticeship program.

Prior to the late 19th century, hand knitting was very much a domestic activity, a basic chore for women. In Victorian times, it was a leisure-time activity among ladies. The first inkling of gatherings appear with women in their role as homemakers, and wealthy women passing the time together.

A knitting mania occurred in both World Wars, whereby men, women, and children knitted required garments for the soldiers, organized in large part by the Red Cross. In times of war, the limitations of gender fell by the wayside. In the United States, it was considered unpatriotic to be a non-knitter.

During the early 1900’s and 1920’s, knitting was rejected as a “silly past-time”. The Suffragettes or early feminists went so far to say that knitting was nerve wracking, and that lace knitters were engaging in a time consuming task. However, during the Depression of the 1930’s, women were knitting again, because of the tight economy practicality ruled. Many small knitting shops were set up by women to augment the family income.

In the 1950s, knitting became synonymous with the “home” and families were wearing knits nostalgic of the 1930s and 1940s. The 1960s experienced “knit-kwik” fever, due to the propensity for plain machine knits and anything synthetic. Knitting declined so much that Vogue discontinued its knitting magazine inaugurated in 1932.

A renewal of knitting interest in North America was sparked by three individuals in the 1970s. Barbara Walker, author of the series “A Treasury of Knitting Patterns” provided us with an endless variety of pattern stitches. Mary Walker Phillips lifted the status of knitting to an art form, and Elizabeth Zimmerman was responsible for instilling self-confidence in knitters. These women still have a profound influence amongst knitters today. Barbara Walker’s books are my go-to references. Regardless of their influence, knitting again came to be seen as a symbol of women’s entrapment in the home. But the hippie types used knitting as a way to get back to nature.

The turnaround came in the 1980s by British Art College graduates. These individuals began their own small businesses, proving it was possible to produce and sell quality hand knit items. Another important person is Kaffe Fassett, an artist who revolutionized the hand knitting industry around 1985 with his debut book “Glorious Knits”. Although he is American by birth, his knitting career has been spent in England. His signature is the use of color, creating works of art. He tours the world explaining his approach to design and conducts workshops. He was the first textile artist to be honored with an exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England. Because of the renewed interest generated by these individuals, Vogue Knitting reintroduced their magazine in 1982.

The next exceedingly important moment is 2003 with the publication of “Stitch’N Bitch – The Knitter’s Handbook” by Debbie Stoller. The slang term stitch’n bitch has been used to refer to social knitting groups since at least World War II. Debbie Stoller is the founder of the New York City Stitch’N Bitch Group of 2000.

The modern day knitting group emerged as a result of Stoller’s successful books. Her approach to knitting is very relaxed, and one of her goals was to raise knitting’s visibility and value to culture. She has succeeded. If you look around you find casual groups of people, young and old discovering and rediscovering the joys of knitting. They are everywhere: coffee shops, lunchrooms, movies, bars, classrooms, buses, and airports. The social knitting movement has expanded worldwide. These groups provide the knitter with support, knowledge, and social connection. Now with internet accessibility, there are online groups and resource sites. One of the most popular, the “Ravelry” community, began in May of 2007. It is a free social networking service, and organizational tool of projects by the user.

I believe the popularity of knitting is because of a search for individualism, an anti-consumerism attitude, and a reclamation of the domestic arts. We are certainly a DIY culture. We take pride in knitting fashionable items versus knitting out of necessity. What I find exciting is it’s okay for men to knit, and children are learning to knit in schools. I have experienced first hand the interest by men – an engineer making his girlfriend a Christmas gift, a young man who designs his own socks because of his large shoe size, and a firefighter knitting for relaxation. Knitting will continue to be an important part of our fashion and social history, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.