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Knitting: Where it all began

Pink yarn with knitting needles sticking out sits on top of a map showing Egypt and the Mediterranian Sea.

As with many handicrafts, knitting began as a utilitarian way to keep family members warm and clothed. Over time people began to make their clothing more decorative, developing many techniques specific to the region of the world in which they lived. In modern times, knitting has become a beloved hobby and social activity.

Historians believe that modern knitting may be a descendant of nalbinding. Nalbinding is found in many different areas of the world. It is different from modern knitting because its interconnected loops are created using only one needle. It also does not unravel as knitting is prone to do when a thread is broken. Nalbinding produces a dense, warm, knotless fabric that is excellent for socks, mittens, and hats. As with knitting, there are many stitches and techniques available to learn. I choose to try the techniques taught by Ylva the Red on YouTube. It was really interesting to try a different and historical way of manipulating yarn. I enjoyed how the fabric grew in spirals and how the loops are interconnected. Historians suggest that knitting eventually replaced nalbinding because it was considered easier but still allowed the creator the ease of working anywhere and at any time.

Ancient knit blue and white sock from Eygpt missing parts due to age.

The first known knitted sock was discovered in Egypt and dates from the twelfth century. Its thoughtful colorwork and clear construction indicate that knitting had been a practiced skill for some time in that region. Historians believe that the knitting done during this time was done using a type of knitting frame. It was either circular or oblong and had nails protruding from the top, similar to knitting looms today. The yarn was looped around the nails and then passed over another length of yarn that was wound around the frame. This action produces a succession of twisted loops thus creating the knit fabric. By about the 1600s, the use of knitting frames evolved to the use of knitting needles.

The Crusades of the Middle Ages helped spread the practice of knitting to Spain and eventually throughout Europe. It was embraced as an easier and more portable way to create fabric, unlike weaving which requires large heavy equipment. At this time, most knitting was practical and done in the home. Eventually, knitting became a way for women and girls to add to the family income. By 1268 knitting guilds were being set up in France. These highly skilled and rigorously vetted craftsmen began creating more intricate garments such as liturgical gloves, pillows, and relic purses for the saints.

As the popularity of knitting spread, each region added its own techniques and style. Sometimes these developments were a result of necessity to a region. Others were simply the preferred way to embellish a garment. All, however, make the garment distinct to a particular region of the world. Next month I will be exploring the Scandinavian and Nordic styles of knitting.


Knitting Around the World: A Multistranded History of a Time-honored Tradition by Lela Nargi

Nalbinding for Beginners: Part 1 Getting Started by Ylva the Red


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