A History of European Knitting
Knitting really caught on in Europe in the Middle Ages. With the growing popularity of knitted stockings, knitting became a household occupation. Apparently as many as two million pairs of stockings were exported from Britain to other parts of Europe by the end of the 1600's. It was Britain that invented and perfected knitting frames and machines. Knitting in Europe has quite a history.
When knitting caught on in Europe, it was quickly established as a true craft. The craft flourished in Scotland and England in the 14th and 15th centuries. In medieval Europe hand knitting had become an advanced craft by the 16th century. The first knitting trade guild, (the first trade union devoted to knitting professionals) was started in Paris in 1527. Guilds controlled the manufacture of and market for knitted goods during the Middle Ages. After the clergyman William Lee perfected a machine to knit stockings in England in 1589, the art of knitting gradually became a guild organized cottage industry.
Knitted garments became fashionable for the wealthy upper class, and silk gloves and stockings were highly prized. Knitting cottage industries sprang up throughout Britain and intricate techniques were perfected. Records show that the first sweaters were knit in the 17th century; before that smaller pieces and undergarments were knit.
William Lee, who invented the first knitting machine in 1589, also made a knitting frame which was so effective that few improvements were needed for 250 years. English people also created a ribbing device in 1748, a warp-knitting machine in 1775, and a circular knitting machine in the mid-1800's. These developments made possible the shaping of hosiery and other pieces of clothing. By the 19th century machine-knitted underclothes were common. It was in 1864 that a full-fashioned knitting machine was invented by William Cotton, and it used the same bearded-spring needle as William Lee's original model. Changes to the knitting machines in the 1900's increased their production speeds and offered wider choice in patterning the knitted fabrics. Now we have computer controlled knitting machines that offer greater versatility in our knitting.
To compete with the speed of the new knitting machines, many of the cottage industries started to knit garments in flat pieces which were sewn together; they worked piecemeal. Hand knitting, however, lost its ability to compete with knitting machines in the marketplace even with these faster techniques. Knitting as an art and a craft was kept alive only as a hobby
Different places in Europe created different types of knitting. Fair Isle knitting, which uses two colors stranded into intricate patterns, comes from a group of islands north of Britain. The earliest examples of this technique are thought to have been knitted around 1850. There is a legend that Fair Isle knitting was created in 1588 when a Spanish ship was wrecked off Fair Isle and the crew inspired the native knitters to try new ways of putting colors in a pattern. Fair Isle knitting became popular when the Prince of Wales wore a Fair Isle sweater at a public event in 1921.
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