First mankind tamed dogs. And once he had tamed dogs, he gathered flocks of sheep, controlling them with his dogs. And, for as long as man has kept sheep and goats, mankind has been wearing woollen garments. In wool, ancient tribes and nomad people had discovered a fabric whose durability and versatility kept them cool in the day and warm at night. In the rain, it absorbed moisture without the wearer feeling wet. In the wind it protected them yet was light enough to allow them to keep moving. And whether you call it a jumper, a jersey or a sweater, the knitted outer garment remains as relevant today as it ever has been.
Whether knitted or woven, it was wool that allowed men to keep warm and to explore the far reaches of the planet. Whether heading across polar ice, sailing uncharted waters, or climbing mountains simply because they are there, it was woollen garments that kept explorers insulated. Most importantly, it was freedom given to them by knitted garments, which stretched and twisted without hindering the movement of their limbs, and were essential to their efforts. And, even in this age of technology and manmade fibres, knitted woollen clothing still accompanies astronauts into space. It is truly a garment for all seasons.
THE KNOTTED BEGINNINGS
For thousands of years wool has been at the centre of the clothing trade. By 10,000 BC there were basic wool weavers in Mesopotamia and among the Northern European tribes. Their tools were basic but it was the beginning of an important step in mankind’s development. With the rise of the Roman Empire, flocks of sheep could be easily moved around the continent to spread the trade. And to improve the quality of their wool, the Romans selectively bred their animals to produce finer and stronger wool.
Roman Britain became an important base for the Empire’s wool production, with the Romans valuing the skill of the local weavers. The richest cities of medieval Britain were those involved in the wool trade, with skilled Flemish weavers moving to eastern England to exploit their talents.
THE EUROPEAN KNIT
Knitting spread across the European continent by the 14th century. We know of a Guild of Knitters established in Paris in the 13th century, and of Muslim knitters employed by Spanish Christian royal families, that specialized in the craft. By the 15th century, knitting must have already been a popular practice, as there are paintings depicting Virgin Mary engaged in the activity, such as Madonna Knitting by Bertram of Minden, dated to 1400-1410.
KNITWEAR IN BRITAIN
The modern English verb to knit appears to have derived from the old English to knot - cnyttan and the Dutch knutten. In England, the manufacture of knitted caps was controlled by The Cappers Act of 1571, defining who and when should wear knitted caps, and requiring them to be made in England in order to sustain local production. It seems that the style was prevalent amongst the middle classes, as it provided an alternative for expensive silk headwear. However, by the 17th century, the technique evolved to include expensive yarns, such as silk and silver thread, in order to produce more luxurious garments, such as jackets.
Cap, 1500 – 50, England, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Jacket, 1600 – 1620, Italy, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The first knitting machine, a stocking frame, was invented by William Lee of Calverton, near Nottingham, in 1589. The first machine was basic, relying on the operator to lay the yarn onto the frame by hand. In these early days the machinery was primarily used in the manufacture of the woollen stockings worn by men and women alike. However, records show that Lee’s machine was also used to produce other garments such as knitted waistcoats. By the end of the 18th century the machinery had advanced to allow the yarn to be threaded into the machine with foot operated treadles and for ribbed stockings to be produced.
Finely knitted stockings were exported from England all across Europe, making Leicestershire and neighboring counties famous for their hosiery industry. Although the hand knitting industry started to decline as the technological development progressed, the rural practice remained popular in the poorer regions of the country.
By the late seventeenth century, two-thirds of England's foreign commerce was based on the export of woollen textile. Shepherding, shearing, teasing, carding, spinning, weaving and knitting were the skills at the heart of this trade.
In the 18th century, hand-knitting remained popular amongst wealthy ladies as a pastime activity. Women would wear knitted petticoats and accessories, and knitted tapestries or covers were used to decorate the house. Since then, hand knitting was a craft associated mostly with women, whereas popular 19th century lifestyle & fashion magazines that featured knitting, sewing and embroidery patterns have established it as a common activity amongst different social classes. Knitting could be an elegant craft for a society lady to entertain herself in a salon, but also a practical way to contribute to family’s budget and wardrobe for the representatives of the quickly growing middle class.
The National Society's Instructions on Needlework and Knitting published in 1838 was the first British manual on hand knitting, used in orphanages and schools for less affluent children, showing them a way to support themselves financially through handcrafts.
Knitwear was also promoted on the 1851 Great Exhibition, showcasing the development of both machine and hand knitting techniques in Britain.
With the industrial revolution, a rapid change in the use of card systems allowed for patterned knits to be created. As hand-knitters were put out of work they revolted against the new machinery, rioting and smashing the technology that was putting them out of work. Despite their best efforts they couldn’t prevent progress and the first half of the 19th century saw rapid progress courtesy of two Frenchmen, Pierre Jeandeau and Marc Brunel, who designed a machine with a circular, rather than flat arrangement. Next came Matthew Leo Townsend who, in 1849, patented an upright circular machine complete with latch needles. Townsend was from the English city of Leicester, in the East Midlands, which was to become one the UK’s major knitting centres, home to companies such as Wolsey which started out hand knitting and went on to provide the woollen underwear used by both Amundsen’s and Scott’s teams as they raced to the South Pole. Others areas of the East Midlands also became important knitting centres, such as Nottingham and Matlock in Derbyshire, where the John Smedley company still operate the world’s longest continuously operating factory, which has been making knitwear since 1784.
Matthew Townsend later emigrated from Leicester to America, taking his designs with him. With the coming of American Civil War his machines were prized for their ability to create high quality socks for the Union army. Machinery swiftly improved to allow shaping and the adding of ribbed cuffs. The American engineer Henry Griswold patented a number of improvements to knitting machines, many of which are believed to still be in commercial use. Realising the potential of his new machines, he soon patented his designs in Europe: The age of mass produced knitwear had truly arrived.
For fancy designs, it was the hand knitters who still dominated the trade. Coloured patterns and textured designs were the preserve of individual groups of knitters. One of the most recognizable knitwear styles, Fair Isle, originated on the remote island under the same name, located between the Orkney and Shetland Islands to the north of Scotland. It is difficult to trace its history, however as the Fair Isle designs bear some similarity to Moorish patterns, many people believe that the style originated after a Spanish Armada ship, El Gran Grifon, was shipwrecked at Fair Isle in 1588. What we know for sure is that the Fair Isle style that we know today must have fully developed in the 19th century, as that was the time when the islanders started trading their characteristic knitwear.
The most typical Fair Isle patterns are crosses and lozenge shaped hexagons containing symbols, forming the basic OXO pattern, followed by smaller ones, such as anchors, ram's horns, hearts, ferns and flowers. The traditional method of hand-knitting Fair Isle ‘in the round’ using double-pointed needles. At each knit stitch, there are two available "active" colours of yarn; one is drawn through to make the knit stitch, and the other is simply held behind the piece, carried as a loose strand of yarn behind the just-made stitch. Traditional Fair Isle patterns normally had no more than two or three consecutive stitches of any given colour.
On the Aran Islands the traditional patterns were designed to represent individual clans, allowing the bodies of fishermen lost at sea to be identified if they washed ashore. They also used heavily oiled wool which helped to keep the fishermen dry whilst at sea. Similarly distinctive patterns were used in the Channel islands where the island of Jersey gave its name to the generic term for a knitted garment and Guernsey produced the ‘Gansey’, a cable knit fishing jumper that is traditionally produced in blue wool. One distinctive feature of the Gansey design was that both front and back are knitted identically, allowing the jumper to be worn either way round, thus helping to minimise wear at stress points such as the elbows. Elsewhere, Norway developed the selburose pattern of snowflake like stars which is widely imitated worldwide and remains instantly recognisable as Nordic knitwear.
WORKWEAR AND SPORTSWEAR
However, with the arrival of mass production courtesy of knitting machines, the industry was able to rival the intricacies of the traditional hand knitter’s art. Industrialisation meant that a pattern, that had once been the preserve of a handful of women in remote island cottages, could now been copied by factories around the world. What might take the hand knitter days of intensive labour could now be produced in minutes. Extremely heavy knits were developed in the USA and Canada where thick woollen cardigans allowed workmen to move freely even in the cold of winter. They were worn long on the body, preventing them from riding up allowing the body to get cold, thus earning themselves the name ‘Sweater Coats’. Some of these heavy knits mimicked the stylings of the popular fashion for Norfolk jackets, complete with belts, straps and multiple pockets. Shawl collars were popular on these styles as they allowed the collar to be turned up to increase protection against the elements.
These garments could be worn around the home, giving the wearer both warmth and comfort as he replaced his jacket after a hard day’s work. They also retained a degree of formality, allowing a man to feel both adequately dressed and suitably relaxed.
The late 19th and early 20th Century saw the development of another enduring style of cardigan, the Cowichan. Also made long and featuring a shawl collar, the Cowichan was originally produced by member the Cowichan people, a First Nations tribe from Vancouver Island.
In the 1890s
, European and American societies experienced a growing interest in sports and outdoor activities, popular amongst men and women. The new pursuits required comfortable clothing, warm and breathable, suitable for different kinds of weather. That was the moment when knitwear entered ‘mainstream’ fashion, promoted in numerous magazines and worn by the rich and famous. Knitted jumpers and cardigans were considered perfect for cycling, skiing, ice skating, hiking and other activities - forming both outerwear as ‘thermal’ undergarments. The designs followed the fashionable silhouettes, especially in women’s fashion, from leg-o-mutton sleeves and high necks of the mid 1890s to ‘pigeon breast’, narrow waisted cardigans of the 1900s.
Machines could easily knit designs in garments, allowing sports teams to show off their colours or for dark garments to be livened up with contrast cuffs, collars and waistbands.
A CENTURY OF KNITWEAR
In 1916, Gabriel ‘Coco’ Chanel introduced jersey to women’s fashion, launching a collection of jersey dresses, cardigans and jumpers. The long lines of loose cardigans fitted the new, ‘modern’ silhouette and provided a comfortable addition to a casual everyday look. During World War I, men, women, and children knitted large quantities of clothing and accessories to help the war effort on the Allied side, producing socks, hats, scarves, sweaters, mufflers, and balaclavas. Popular magazines and Red Cross pamphlets promoted knitting as a way to support the military forces.
During the 1920s, knitwear moved from being simply practical garments designed to keep people warm. Instead it was launched into the world of fashion and caught the attention of a world bored by the drab colours of wartime. The increased use of worsted yarns meant that knitted garments were no longer rough and best suited to winter; instead they could be made with a smooth texture meaning they could be worn in all seasons and introduced a new elegance to knitted garments.
Legend has it that the Prince of Wales’s choice of a Fair Isle jumper to play golf helped to spread the fashion for Fair Isle patterns to a wide audience. The future King was also thought responsible for the spread of popularity of the distinctive Argyle diamond pattern that was derived from the traditional tartan of Clan Campbell.
To meet such fashion trends it was only the mass output of knitting machines that could meet the surge in demand. Companies such as Wolsey cashed in on this fashion and the boom for leisure, mass producing patterned golfing jumpers, cricket and tennis jumpers and patterned golfing socks.
Suddenly knitwear was everywhere: In a look first attributed to the undergraduates of Oxford University, fashionable young men cast off their collared shirts and ties in favour of roll neck jumpers in elegantly fine cashmere in a variety of eye-catching colours that appalled traditionalists. Factories turned out patterned cardigans and slipovers that were more comfortable than the constrictions of traditional waistcoats, or offered knitted waistcoats complete with four pockets and pointed fronts to recreate the stylings of a suit waistcoat in the comfort of a knit. Contrast cuffs and trim added a blast of colour to otherwise drab garments. Bold art deco patterns could be woven into jumpers for those wanting to be on the cutting edge of fashion. Sleeveless sweaters, some even with roll necks, became a firm favourite for those who needed their arms to remain free and their bodies to keep warm. Car drivers, weekend sailors and motorcyclists all understood the need for wool.
The bright colours and over-the-top patterns inspired the new term ‘jazz knits’, related to the emerging jazz music scene and the post-war lifestyle. Women’s jumpers and pullovers were often loose and oversized to create a fashionable androgynous silhouette. Designers such as Jean Patou and Elsa Schiaparelli included it in their haute couture collections, establishing knitwear a staple of a fashionable, modern wardrobe. The new style of swimming costumes, more revealing and sporty, was also made of jersey. Man-made viscose and rayon fibres begin to enter knitwear fashion and textiles. Just as the tracksuits of the 21st Century are commonly worn as casual day wear, in the 1920s and 1930s cream cricket and tennis jumpers were the mark of the casual young man, regardless of whether he actually engaged in those sports. Indeed, brands like Champion in the USA started out as Champion Knitting Mills, producing high quality knitted jerseys that were favoured by sports teams. It was their efforts to refine knitted sportswear that helped develop reverse weave fabrics leading to the creation of lighter weight sports clothing and eventually to invent the ubiquitous hooded sweatshirt, or ‘hoodie’. In addition, early 20th Century knitwear included garments in woollen curl-cloth, a textile that was warm and light and would eventually be reproduced in manmade fibres as the ubiquitous ‘fleece’, that is so popular in modern leisurewear.
During the 1930s and 1940s, knitwear once more became a necessity as much as a choice. Due to the Economic Depression and the struggles of the Second World War, the ability to produce affordable and warm garments became an essential survival skill. Women’s magazines - when still issued - continued to publish knitting patterns, and the technique allowed to reuse old yarn in order to produce new pieces. It was also the time when knitwear designs reached the peak of their innovativeness, introducing many new styles and forms. Knitted hats, scarves, gloves, dresses and jumpers became a necessity in a fashionable woman’s wardrobe; men sported fair isle style pullovers and sweaters with turtleneck or shawl collars. The designs, especially in post-war America, became avant garde as never before; they paved the path for the innovative styles of decades to come.
The cycle of fashion may have seen knitwear be replaced by lighter weight garments as the choice for sportswear, but knitwear retains its appeal for a mass market which understands and appreciates wool’s versatility. The continued selective breeding of sheep and goats, a practice originally used to create thick and hardwearing wools, means that lighter and finer wools continue to be created for the luxury market. The refinements in manmade fibres – which were first used in knitwear in the early years of the 20th Century - means that pure wool can be blended with fabrics that help wool to retain its shape and prevent garments from losing their shape after multiple washes. Where once garments were pulled on over the head, technology has seen first buttons and now zips allow for a choice of fastenings.
Now, in the early years of the 21st Century, knitwear can be found in every style for every market: Crew necks, polo necks, shawl collars, roll necks, v necks, round necks … sleeved or sleeveless … heavy or smooth … every choice can be found: Cricketers and submariners still wear their traditionally styled garments, which look as iconic now as they did ninety years ago; Men still wear luxurious turtleneck jumpers under a jacket, a look that first emerged in the 1920s among British students; Fisherman’s jumpers are now as likely to be seen worn by a suburban housewife as by a man sailing the seas in search of cod; 21st Century rockers can recreate the 1950s look with roll neck cream coloured jumpers under their leather jackets; And an endless variety of Fair Isle styles – whether mass produced in the Far East, or hand knitted or remote Scottish islands – can be found for a traditional and perpetually stylish look.
SJC's Winter Collection includes a selection of knitted items inspired by Britain’s knitwear heritage and the timeless designs of Fair Isle. From classic high neck jumpers made in finer woor to warm Shawl Shakers, a style recalling men’s 1920s wide collared designs, our knitwear is a perfect choice for anyone who enjoys comfort and quality, while maintaining and effortlessly elegant look.
One of our most special pieces to date is a Prince of Wales inspired Fair Isle style V-neck jumper in warm colours, typical for traditional knitwear of the Shetlands. Find out more about our knitwear collection here.