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Knitting in the New World—North America

During the Age of Exploration, Europeans sailed around the globe to areas that they previously hadn’t explored. They created settlements, bringing with them their beliefs, cultural norms, native animals, and even their knitting. In North America, this meant a mixing of the native peoples with those from many different countries across the ocean. By nature, humans are curious, innovative, and prone to improvement. For knitting, this meant “…merging the textile crafts of one people with the skills of another to emerge as something new and unexpected, in ways great and small.” (Nargi, p217).

Thrummed baby mittens surrounded by colorful seaglass

Native American Knitting

The Pueblo tribes of the American Southwest have a great tradition of weaving. When the Spanish arrived in the Southwest they brought with them their Churro sheep and their knitting knowledge. Both became assimilated into the Pueblo tribes’ traditions. Materials for their textile arts changed from native found cotton to wool and knit stockings were introduced. As with the evolution of knitting in European nations, other utilitarian items such as gloves, mittens, bags, and leggings became commonplace soon after knit stockings.

The First Nations of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska are famous for their Cowichan sweaters. Native weavers were introduced to the art of knitting in the mid-nineteenth century. Their newfound knitting knowledge merged with Fair Isle patterning and traditional weaving patterns and motifs to create a wholly unique style of weather-proof sweater. Sweaters were commonly knit in naturally dyed yarns and featured designs “…place(d) horizontally on the mid-portion of the body of the sweater.” (Nargi, p.222).

New Knitting Techniques

The concept of thrumming was created on Canada’s northeast coast. As with many peoples who live in cold climates, they are consistently looking for ways to improve their warm clothing. Thrumming is a technique that is used to add an additional layer of warmth to mittens. Originally, knitters used the leftover yarn cut when the woven cloth was produced. In modern times, small bits of roving is used. These tufts are knit into the mittens, leaving the fluffy ends exposed inside the mitten. Over time and wear, the ends felt together, creating a soft and warm inner layer.

Closeup picture of woman wearing a mosaic knit cowl in dark pink and olive green with buttons running vertically.

Barbara G. Walker is well known in the knitting world for her popular knitting pattern books. Being bored with the abundance of plain stockinette stitch garments that were available at the time, she decided to write her own pattern books. Walker believed that knitting should be beautiful and creative. One of her books, Mosaic Knitting features the mosaic technique. It uses two colors and a series of slipped and knit or purled stitches to create a pattern. It is considered one of the easiest types of colorwork and creates knitting patterns that very much resemble mosaic tiles.

Back view of a woman wearing a white pi or circular knit lace shawl.

Elizabeth Zimmerman

One of the most well-known knit designers, Elizabeth Zimmermann encouraged a new way of thinking about knitting. She proposed to “unvent” patterns, forget the rules and see what new techniques can be used to create something unique. Her innovative approach opened up a whole new way of thinking about knitting and gave much-needed freedom to those who struggled with the precise nature of some knitting patterns.

With the influx of people from all over the world, it would have been impossible for each cultural group to remain distinct. The mixing of techniques and ideas has blended together to create innovative and beautiful knitting. Next month join me as I explore how knitting developed in South and Central America.


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

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