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Asian Knitting History

Early in 2020, I was gifted the book 250 Japanese Knitting Stitches: The Original Pattern Bible by Hitomi Shida. It contains many gorgeous stitch patterns that embody fluidity, movement, and nature. At first, I found their intricacy overwhelming and the different style of charting intimidating. However, as the uncertainty of Covid began and an unknown number of days in lock-down loomed ahead, I needed an intriguing challenge. I spent many hours working on swatches of different stitch patterns, never with a garment in mind. I just enjoyed the act of trying something new and creating something beautiful.

There is a rich tradition of stunning woven and embroidered textiles in Asia. However, knitting was not as impactful as it was in Europe.


Due to the Japanese government’s policy of isolation, Japan only had a minimal amount of contact through trade with European influences. Knitting still did manage to make its way into Japan in the mid-1500s but it did not gain widespread popularity until the late 1800s. At the beginning of its introduction, samurai were the group who mostly learned to knit. As in many other countries, their knitting was mostly utilitarian leaning toward military usefulness, such as sword hilt bags, sword bags, split-toes socks, gloves, and underwear. Samurai knit not just for themselves but also as a cottage industry, providing additional income. Since wool is not native to Japan, it either needs to be imported or plant based options used. Cotton, bamboo, and soy yarn are some of the options available. It wasn’t until after WWII, that knitting began to move from utilitarian to becoming fashionable.

One thing to note is how Japanese knitting patterns are written. It is quite different than typical western knitting patterns. The Japanese rely heavily on charted patterns. Chart symbols are standardized and are meant to resemble the stitch they represent. For instance, a left-leaning stitch will have a corresponding left-leaning symbol. Each chart has a key indicating the number of stitches within the repeat and what stitch is represented in the blank stitches. Each pattern also includes detailed schematics that provide information regarding the size and shape of the garment.


Very little is known about the introduction of knitting in China. There appears to have been a small cottage industry in the early 1910s. While gaining some popularity, it was not until the end of WWII that knitting became more common. Patterns are written in the Japanese style.


Here again, knitting was not very popular. It is believed that missionaries were the first to introduce knitting to the native peoples.

Next month I will explore how knitting came to North America and its influences there.


Knitting Around the World: A multistranded history of a time-honored tradition by Lela Nargi

250 Japanese Knitting Stitches: The Original Pattern Bible by Hitomi Shida

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