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A Brief History of Knitting

Knitting is a practice I'm sure we're all intimately familiar with - creating textiles and garments with interlocking loops of yarn, usually using specialized needles as a tool. 'Knit' is derived from the word 'cnyttan', an old English term for tying a knot. The word knit is modern, first appearing in common usage in the 15th century, but the craft itself may be one of the oldest forms of textile ... as weaving is argued to be the oldest , and those weavers are defensive about it! (though we do not know when or where the first garments were being knit).

We do know that knitting was being practised as a trade in Egypt between 500 and 1200 AD; though we do not have surviving knit garments from that period, we do have receipts, shipping manifests and written instructions that suggest the Egyptian nobility were receiving and distributing knit clothing. We also have very intricately designed surviving knit footwear from 1000 - 1400 AD Egypt, with a level of detail that suggests the practice must have been in a mature state before these items were created.

Arabic states spread the practice of knitting to Europe via Spain, where it became adopted by the Catholic church as the primary means of producing official church garments. By the 1200s knitting guilds were beginning to spring-up throughout France, and highly skilled craftsmen were beginning to create breathtaking pieces knit from golden threads for the European aristocracy as well as the church.

In the 16th century, English knitters developed the purl stitch and began to create stockings, which became a widespread fashion trend among Spanish & Italian men. In 1589, English inventor William Lee built his 'stocking frame' - a machine that could imitate the hand movements of a knitter and used 20 needles to the inch to produce silk or woollen garments.

Unlike most of the rest of the textile industry, however, knitting was not completely transformed by the industrial revolution or the creation of automated processes for finishing garments; to this very day, many garments remain hand knit at least in part. It is a trade requiring fine motor control and dexterity that even the most complex robots we currently have cannot quite match, as well as an element of creativity that perhaps is entirely unique to humans.

Some things are simply better done by hand, it seems. - and this old trade is one of them.

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