A brief history of knitting in Britain
The use of knitted goods spread in Europe from the 14th century. Even the government got involved. By law, the Cappers Act of 1571 stated that everyone (except women and nobility) had to wear a cap made of wool on Sundays and holidays.
The stocking frame was the first mechanical knitting machine and was invented by William Lee of Calverton, near Nottingham, in 1589. As technology developed and knitting machines became better, factories opened and the rural knitting industry began to die out in Britain.
Over the 18th century, hand-knitting became something mainly done by wealthy women because they had the time to do it. By the middle of the 19th century, it had developed as an elegant drawing room occupation.
Knitting was also seen as an acceptable occupation for women to earn money and was taught to poorer members of society, in orphanages and poor houses. The first recorded knitting schools were established in York, Lincoln, and Leicester in the late 16th century. Hand-knitting for income continued well into the 19th century.
During the Second World War people were encouraged to pick up their knitting needles for the war effort. Special knitting patterns were issued for people to make socks, balaclavas, gloves, vests and scarves.
Not only were people producing useful garments for those serving in the war, it also gave them a sense of purpose and community whilst they were waiting for news from their loved ones.
During the 20th century, machine knitting became more prevalent and hand-knitting declined further. Wool production declined and acrylic yarns became more popular. Many yarn production companies went out of business.
Over the last decade there has been a revival, both for British wool production and for knitting. Social media has played a huge part in increasing the visibility of knitting and yarn, people showcasing what they can do and building a buzz around this wonderful traditional craft with such a long history.
British knitting traditions
Different areas of the British Isles have their own distinctive styles of knitting. These traditions have tended to survive longer in more remote areas where there is less outside influence. Think of Fair Isle in the Shetlands, or Aran in the islands off the west coast of Scotland.
Knitting in the Shetland Islands probably came from England originally. By the beginning of the 18th century, islanders were knitting and trading woollen stockings and blankets. Delicate lace knitting became their mainstay until the early 20th century. Some people still continue to produce beautiful lace knitting on the Shetland Isles today.
Fair Isle knitting is specific to one island of the Shetlands, called Fair Isle. It is the most remote inhabited island in the United Kingdom. The varied colours of Shetland wool have been a feature of this region since the 19th century. These different colours partly came from the different breeds of sheep, but also originally from natural dyes such as madder roots and lichen.
Early Fair Isle knitters produced caps, scarves and stockings. Fair Isle sweaters were not produced until the First World War. Sweaters have been in vogue at different times. Even Ralph Lauren has included Fair Isle in his collection. If you want to have a go at knitting Fair Isle, check out the instructions I've included on my Fair Isle page.
The Yorkshire Dales had their own domestic hand-knitting industry from the end of the 16th century to the beginning of the 20th century. People would carry their knitting around with them, on specially designed sheaths, so they could knit as they went about their daily tasks. They also had knitting parties in the evenings, where people told stories and sang whilst they knitted. Knitted items included stockings, gloves, caps and jackets. The knitter's name and date of manufacture were often knitted into the cuff of the garment.
The popular Aran jumper is a relatively recent invention from the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Scotland. It started in the 20th century and by the middle of the century it was known worldwide.
The cottage industry for making woollen stockings and waistcoats on the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey thrived through most of the 17th and 18th centuries. The fisherman's jersey was made out of thick wool, often knitted in the round, with a decorative knotted edge and a slit on either side of the bottom of the jersey to give greater movement.
Hello! I'm Helen from Freda Moss. I hope you found this article as interesting to read as I did to research it!
If you want to learn more about how to knit, check out https://www.fredamossdesigns.com/fredafacts