Knitting is possibly one of mankind’s earliest crafts and its beginnings are thought to have started long before written history. The first knitters were most probably nomads living in the Arabian Peninsula, who were primarily herdsmen. Living in tents and following sheep and other livestock probably wasn’t the life of luxury, but one thing that these nomads did have, that many modern knitters would be envious of was — a basically unlimited supply of wool for yarn (my heart skips a beat when I think about it!)
These nomads traded with other cities and cultures that they came in contact with, which brought knitting far and wide. Scraps of knitted garments and other items have been found in excavated tombs in Egypt, and it’s quite possible that Cleopatra, herself, enjoyed wearing knitwear.
Knitting In Europe
Eventually, the art of making knitted stuff traveled westward from its eastern beginnings and the European countries started employing this very crafty fabric making skill. I imagine this was pretty important in countries that were basically frozen most of the year, as woven material can only keep in so much heat, and not everyone could just go out and kill a bear for its skin if they were cold. In fact, knitting still remains a large part of the culture, and is practiced by men and women alike, in many Northern European countries to this day.
Knitting In The Middle Ages
This is where knitting really got defined as an art form. During those good old days of lords and ladies, if you wanted to get respected for doing anything, you had to be in a guild. Knitting guilds sprung up everywhere, and they were, without exception, exclusively for males (Yep, knitting was a MANLY thing to do!)
If you wanted to join the guild, you would have to go through years of rigorous training. First, you would have to study as an apprentice to a “Master Knitter” for at least three years. This successfully accomplished (hopefully with not too much brain damage from being cuffed over the head for tangling yarn) the apprentice would then go on three more years of traveling, to learn about the different styles and techniques of knitting in foreign lands.
When the apprentice felt ready, they would be commissioned to create a number of unique masterpieces of knitting, and would be given a very limited time frame to finish them. These were displayed before the Grand Master Knitters of the guild, and if they were deemed skillful and beautiful enough, the apprentice would gain admittance to the guild and become a Master Knitter.
Being a Master Knitter at this time was a VERY good occupation. Nobility would often have their favorite Master Knitter that they would heap earthly goods on in exchange for well-crafted socks. But, knitters became even more in demand, when the fashion du jour started demanding that men wear pantyhose (ALSO very manly!) Things continued like this, and men continued to be the primary knitters, often knitting the most delicate lacy patterns on knitting needles no thicker than a toothpick!
So What Happened? How Come Guys Stopped Knitting?
Well, in many parts of the world, they haven’t! In countries where being a shepherd or a sailor is still the predominant occupation for men, many men still knit… with pride! Men in these occupations go for long stretches where they are just basically… waiting; waiting for the sheep to move on to the next field, waiting for the wind to pick up, etc. During these times, knitting is not only a cure for what would be mind numbing boredom, but also a very practical occupation (No need to knit these guys a sweater for Christmas; they’ve already filled up their closet for the winter themselves!)
However, in most western cultures, knitting is seen as a feminine hobby. This is probably due to the many wars we have fought in the last couple hundred years. When the men went away, women had to take over. Knitting was an essential chore, and also vital to the war effort, because one way you could help your loved one on the battle field was to make sure that they didn’t freeze on the front lines. Since then, the picture of a woman peacefully knitting in her chair while listening to the radio became the ideal in many homes. Pretty far from the picture of a young man sweating it out, juggling through complicated stitches and patterns, trying to go fast without having to go back and “frog” it and just knitting for his life so that he could be accepted into one of the most elite crafters guilds ever, right?
Nowadays, most people, myself included, just knit as a hobby. It’s great to be able to create something unique, all on your own! But knowing a bit more about the history of knitting gives a renewed respect for the craft and makes you proud that you’re carrying on the legacy that was born thousands of years ago!