Knitting Traditions From Around The World

I learned early on in my textile education the importance of clothing and the value of craft in every culture. In most developing countries, the economy is initially supported by some facet of the textile industry unique to the region. Knitting is no exception. Traditional knitting describes garments and other items produced in various regions and communities around the world. The items created follow rules and conventions of tradition, resulting in highly individual expressions of national and local character. Ethnic traditions in knitting are created by the types of yarns used, use of the item, and the techniques of yarn manipulation.

Around the globe there are numerous styles of knitting and techniques that have evolved over time, and people adapted them to their local costume. Knitters learned new techniques by accident or from others living in the area that were shared over time. Even today there are new methods of working yarn that are forming new traditions. The following knitting traditions are only a sampling of the beautiful works of knitting from around the world. They are ones you may have tried or are interested in researching.

Shetland Lace

Knitting lace shawls and wraps have been popular for many years now, and every season there are lace projects introduced in knitting publications. Many of our modern versions consist of lace pattern stitches with roots from traditional lace making. 

I love lace, but prefer a project that’s fairly easy, and made in thicker yarn like fingering versus lace weight yarns. I just don’t have the patience for fine lace weight yarns typical of traditional lace. Shetland lace is probably the most well known among knitters. Shetland lace originates from the Shetland Islands situated off the north east coast of Scotland, between Great Britain, Faroe Islands and Norway. The knitting industry for lace began around the 1840s, and knitters were often commissioned for shawls.

Authentic Shetland lace shawls were knit in creamy-white, natural handspun Shetland wool (1-ply yarn) on very fine needles to create an airy, lightweight fabric. Shetland sheep produce very fine, but strong wool fibers, perfect for this type of knitting. Some shawls are so gossamer, that it can be drawn through a wedding ring, hence the tradition of wedding shawls. Shetland lace was extremely popular during the reign of Queen Victoria, who commissioned many pieces.

authentic Shetland lace stole
Children of Lir Stole
from Traditional Knitted Shawls and Lace by Martha Waterman 1993

Although Shetland lace is complex in design, its essence is simplicity. The knitting techniques are relatively easy, and is further simplified by the frequent use of one pattern stitch. The most famous of the Shetland patterns is Feather and Fan Stitch, a scalloped stitch consisting of only of a 4-row repeat.

stitch pattern from A Treasury of Knitting Patterns from Barbara G. Walker
Feather and Fan Stitch
A Treasure of Knitting Patterns
Barbara G. Walker 1968

Fair Isle Knitting

Fair Isle technique is named after one of the southerly Shetland Islands. Fair Isle knitting has enjoyed much commercial success since the 1920s when the Prince of Wales wore a Fair Isle jumper in public. Traditional Fair Isle garments are characterized by detailed, stranded multi-coloured symmetrical patterns, worked in the round with fine gauge wool. “Steeks” or wide ladders of yarn were formed where an opening would normally be knit, such as the armhole. The steek is later cut open so that the sleeve or border stitches can be worked. Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting is an excellent resource. The technique of Fair Isle or stranded colour knitting continues to this day in all its variations.

Prince of Wales in 1900s wearing Fair Isle jumper
Prince of Wales 1903 – Fair Isle Jumper

Aran

This unique and intricate knitting style began on the Aran Islands, consisting of three small islands situated in the Galway Bay off the west coast of Ireland. Aran knitting maximizes the insulating properties of wool combined with primarily cable patterns in the Celtic style. Traditionally, these beautiful sweaters were knit for fisherman in thick, undyed natural cream wool. Knitting an Aran style garment is one my all time favourite projects.

aran turtleneck purchased in Ireland
Authentic Aran
purchased in Ireland

Bohus Stickning

Bohus Stickning is actually a small hand knitting business started in the late 1930s by Emma Jacobsson, the wife of the Governor of Bohus Province in southern Sweden. The company initially began to provide relief work for wives of unemployed stonecutters.

Bohus became best known for circular knit pullovers with patterned yokes, reminiscent of those from Iceland. But a Bohus sweater or cardigan was more refined and lighter in weight than the heavy, outdoor Icelandic garments. The knitters of Bohus were highly skilled and earned a good living from the craft. Bohus was also known for devoting its time to the well-being of their workers. Bohus Stickning dissolved in 1969, leaving a legacy of exquisite design and skill.

example of Bohus Stickning knit yoke cardigan
Authentic Bohus Stickning Cardigan
from Threads Knitting Around The World 1993

Cowichan Sweaters

These simply designed sweaters and cardigans knit by Cowichan women are symbols representing the Canadian West Coast of Vancouver Island. The hand knit items include a combination of European textile techniques and Salish spinning and weaving methods.

There are various theories as to how the women learned to knit these sweaters. One theory says that an immigrant, Jeremina Colvin from the Shetland Islands to the Cowichan Valley, taught the indigenous women how to card, spin and knit. 

A Cowichan sweater is unique, because of its heavy unprocessed handspun wool, geometric patterns, colour, and design from traditional weavings. The earliest record of the Cowichan sweater is from the early 1900s, and at the time was only worn by the Coast Salish people. Many knitters have continued the craft, though for most it’s a part-time venture, providing supplementary income. The Coast Salish knitters and the Cowichan sweater is recognized as a Canadian national symbol and historically significant.

cowichan sweater
Cowichan Sweater

There are many other beautiful knitting works from around the world that you may even be familiar with, by virtue of where you live, such as Swedish 2-strand knitting, the Greek method of manipulating yarn, Catalán lace doilies, and the knit “chullo” hat made only by Taquile men from Peru. If history has taught us anything, is that there is more than one way to knit. The variety of beautiful knitting traditions have influenced knitters over the decades and continue to do so. For a craft that uses only two stitches, knit and purl, knitting has demonstrated diverse and intricate traditions.

Please keep safe by staying home. As knitters we won’t get bored and will have some great projects to proudly wear when we finally reach a sense of calm.

Stay well and warmest regards;