In A Nutshell
Knitting might seem like a female-oriented pastime these days, but during the Middle Ages, it was a craft that only men were allowed to perfect. They would spend six years doing so, allowed into guilds of knitters only after passing a rigorous exam. Professional, guilded knitters were responsible for an amazing amount of clothing well into the 16th century. Once the knitting machine was invented, though, it became something that men didn’t need to do any more and women could take up as a hobby.
The Whole Bushel
Knitting has seen a massive resurgence lately. Social media is full of people sharing their latest creations, asking opinions on creating pop culture icons with nothing more than yarn and knitting needles, swapping patterns and asking for advice on colors. Today, it’s mainly thought of a woman’s pastime, although there are more and more men that are picking up the knitting needles as well. That’s not an odd thing at all—in fact, they’re following in the footsteps of centuries of manly knitters.
The history of knitting is a little foggy, but it’s been suggested that the earliest roots of the craft were found in the minds and hands of resourceful fishermen. The theory, although it’s unproven, says that when you’re feeding a family or village, catching fish one at a time with a single line was difficult and time-consuming. Fishermen wove ropes together to form nets, used the nets to catch the fish, and the roots of knitting were born.
When it comes to fabrics that were knitted in the terms of the definition we know (using two needles to make yarn into a piece of material) the earliest knitted objects we’ve ever found are some pretty impressive Egyptian socks. The socks, which are little more than remnants at this point, have some small, intricate patterns on them that seem to indicate they’re absolutely not the first of their kind, and the art form had been just about perfected by that time, around A.D. 1000.
European knitting came around by 1275 or so, and it was something for the upper class. Knitted items were found in the tombs of Spanish royalty, and they’ve also been a huge part of religious regalia for Spain as well. Knitted garments weren’t just worn: They held the relics of saints. By the 1400s, it was such a divine skill that the Virgin Mary was often portrayed as knitting.
Also in the 1400s was the establishment of guilds to teach the craft and art of knitting, to control quality and to control pricing. The guilds were exclusively male, and the process that was required to join them was no less rigorous than the one needed to, say, join a blacksmith’s guild.
Teenage boys who were destined for the knitters’ guild had six years of training ahead of them before they could even think about becoming an official knitter. The first half of their training was an apprenticeship with one of the masters of the guild, while the last half would be spent traveling. It was necessary for a master knitter to learn not only from the knitters of his own country, but to learn stitches and patterns from other countries and their masters as well.
Men would then need to complete a sort of entrance exam for the guild. They would be required to create a series of finished products that would often include stockings, a shirt, a hat, and, most often, a knitted carpet. The carpets weren’t simple, single-color pieces, either; the examples of knitted carpets and wall hangings that are at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London are exquisite pieces of repeating patterns and often scenes, sometimes drawn from the Bible.
And, if he was really, really talented, a master could end up the dedicated, favorite knitter of his country’s royal family.
The shift in knitting from a male-only occupation to a female-dominated hobby came in the Victorian era. With the invention of knitting machines, it was no longer necessary for tradesmen to go through all the years of training that were once necessary to turn out amazing goods. By 1880, the idea of women knitting scarves, socks, and gloves for a lover was a notion romanticized in poetry, along with being a domestic skill that increased a woman’s wifely value.
Show Me The Proof
Knitting America: A Glorious Heritage from Warm Socks to High Art, by Susan M. Strawn
History of knitting, from knotted nets and knitted socks to knitting guilds
Sheep & Stitch: Madonnas, Stockings and Guilds, Oh My!