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A Short History of Knitting

Updated on December 6, 2019
PAINTDRIPS profile image

Denise was taught to knit by her grandmother, age10. She has been knitting and creating her own patterns ever since, and loving it.

4th Century Egyptian Sock

An Egyptian knitted sock found in 1800 year old tomb.
An Egyptian knitted sock found in 1800 year old tomb.

Stone Age

You would have to be a great knitter or a history buff to even care really, but I find this fascinating. If you have ever had problems reading a pattern and can’t figure out why one is understandable and another seems to be beyond you, well, I have the reason. The History of Knitting!

It is believed that knitting goes all the way back to the Stone Age. All one would need are two sticks and some twisted fiber like wool to create a knit. But since fibers deteriorate and don’t stand the test of the centuries very well, it is hard to prove this. However there is some proof that knitting goes back a long way as the remnants of ancient knitted socks were found in several Egyptian tombs, some dating back to 1500 B.C. Even then, the great Pharaohs were suffering from cold feet, and knitting is the thing for cold feet.

As the centuries progressed, knitting guilds were formed and most knitting was performed by men. Often men would knit while walking in the market or on trips because it was a mindless repetitious act that could be performed while doing a number of other things. Later as the population expanded in Europe and men were needed for other activities, women were the ones to pick up knitting, mostly for the benefit of their families. Patterns were memorized and passed down by mouth because very little reading and writing was available to the poorer working classes. These same women brought knitting to the colonies; as they moved knitting moved with them. In the 1800s literacy became more prevalent even for the poorer working people and women, so patterns began to be written so that they could be passed to people beyond their immediate families. This is probably where England and America should have gotten together to create a uniform measuring system and code system, but that didn’t happen. On the separate continents, knitting codes and stitches evolved independently and we have never come together on this.

Red Heart Brand Yarn Online

Red Heart offers free patterns and yarns plus booklets and coupons online. They also offer a “learn” section with videos to watch in case you forgot how to cast on, knit, purl, or bind off.

Baby Booties


Knitting Language

This is why a knitter from America can pick up a magazine published in England or Australia unknowingly and not be able to decipher what the pattern is saying. You may think you are incompetent or the pattern is just too hard for you, when in fact, the pattern is using a different “language” than you are used to. Stay calm. It isn’t a disaster. There is a way of decoding the message or translating it to American (and vise versa).

During the World Wars (both of them) patterns were abbreviated even more to save paper, which was rationed. There began to form a sort of understanding among knitters that certain things were done whether or not the pattern stated it. Turning the work over at the end of a row, for instance, is understood and is not mentioned.

Knitting in Novels

In The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs (2008), the chapters are divided by knitting terms and uses. The author does this so cleverly, that it explains knitting terms and adds amusing analogies to everyday life as well. The book is a really heartwarming novel about a single mother and her dream store, a yarn shop, where people come to knit and work out their personal problems. Women come here from all walks of life and skill levels to learn or re-learn knitting or just join in the camaraderie. The book has two sequels so far, Knit Two, and The Knit Session. Beautifully written and well worth the effort to find.

Knitting Language


The following are some of the more common inconsistencies in pattern barriers:

UK vs. American

Yarn forward (which means to pull the yarn forward but then knit the stitch with the yarn behind and makes a yarn over. Why didn’t they just say that?)
YO (yarn over)
Cast off
BO (bind off)
Work straight
Work even
Top shaping (of a sleeve)
cap shaping
All alike
continue in kind
Every other (row)
Making up
Right side
front side
Make a stitch
inc (increase a stitch)
Turtle neck
Mock turtle neck
Knit up
pick up and knit
pick up stitches along an edge
Moss stitch
Seed stitch
Miss a stitch
skip a stitch
How can you tell which terminology a particular pattern is using? Besides the obvious checking for copyright and publication location, one of the ways is metric vs. Imperial measurements. Another obvious give away is the American gauge is a UK tens

“Properly practiced, knitting soothes the troubled spirit. And it doesn’t hurt the untroubled spirit either.”

-Elizabeth Zimmerman

Circular Knitting

I love knitting lace shawls.
I love knitting lace shawls. | Source

Knit one Purl two

Did you know there were so many different ways to say the same thing in knitting?

See results

Fair Isle Baby Blanket "Grandparents Rock"



Patterns are written in a form of shorthand that takes a little practice and sometimes so looking at the shorthand guide to read.

Commas (,) separate a single stitch or step.

Asterisk (*) tells the start and end of a group of stitches that will be repeated. For example, K 1, *P2, K1, P2, rep from * means that you start the row with one knit stitch but you repeat the purl two, knit one, purl two, all the way across to the end of the row.

Brackets [] or parentheses () work somewhat like the asterisk except that you usually repeat what is inside the brackets or parentheses a number of times. For example, K 2, (P2, K2, P2) 3 more times, K2 means that you start the row with two knit stitches and then repeat what is inside the parenthesis 3 times before ending with a knit two at the end.

As you can see without this kind of shorthand, a simple repetitive pattern could take up pages and pages unnecessarily, and be tedious to read.

Knitting Guild

The first known knitting guild was in France in 1366 and was a “male only” guild. Another proof that knitting used to be a male-dominated activity, at least professionally. Privately, women have always helped out with a little side income.

My Cable Sweater

Yarn vomit.
Yarn vomit. | Source


Over the years a form of slang has also developed concerning knitting and crochet. Here are a few of the more common and funny ones:

Tink: to take out stitches one by one or to back up in knitting

Frog: to frog is to rip out stitches in knit and crochet because you rip-it, rip-it.

Yarn barf: a hopelessly tangled mess.

PIGS: Projects in Grocery Sacks.

TOAD: Trashed Object Abandoned in Disgust.

Skank: just a fun way of saying skein of yarn (skein+hank=skank)

SABLE: Stash Acquisition Beyond Life Expectancy, where you have more yarn that you could ever knit up in your lifetime. I think lots of us have SABLE.

Yarn vomit: some women refer to the pull-out skeins that make the end of the yarn hard to find and therefore have to pull out a whole hank of yarn to find the end as “yarn vomit”.

PITS: Project In Tote Sacks.

PHD: Project Half Done. If you are not careful you may be working on several PHDs at once.

The Magic Loop

More Knitting in Novels

Another series of murder mysteries set around women knitting is by Maggie Sefton. The first in the series is Knit One, Kill Two. A good read and there are a dozen more after that first one.

Knitting appears several times in The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. Wish Upon A Star by Olivia Goldsmith is another. The heroine is a very nice girl and a knitter, which becomes an important part of the storyline. Enjoyable book.


Historically knitted comments

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    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      5 years ago from Fresno CA

      Besarien, So glad you got something out of this short history on knitting. I really love knitting. If my grandmother were still around I'm sure she would tell me more I have forgotten about. It's too bad I wasn't paying much attention when she was here and could give me more pointers. That's life.



    • Besarien profile image


      5 years ago from South Florida

      Somebody at The History Channel is slacking off. They haven't used Ancient Egyptian socks as proof that alien hybrids built the pyramids yet. "Here we see proof that this one only had two toes on each foot." Dun-DUN!

      I enjoyed reading this as much as knitting. Not that I am accomplished. I have many PIGS and TOADS. In fact, which is which is debatable. I did not know most of the history, so thanks. I did read somewhere that the early Parisian fashion houses employed only male knitters. Counting was thought to be too much of a strain for ladies or something.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      5 years ago from Fresno CA

      Colleen, Thanks for the information. I will do some more research on this. I appreciate your input. Fellow knitters and crafters love to know things like this. Blessings.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Knitting has not been dated back past about 1000-1200 (CE, what used to be AD, before scholars choose a non-religious system). The earlier examples, like the toe socks pictured, are made with Nalbinding.

      The red toe socks in the V&A, similar to the ones at the top of this article, also aren't knitted, but nalbinded. has an article about knitting history, including photos of early knitted vs nalbinded artifacts, and links to how nalbinding is done:

      There used to be a few nalbinded artifacts mis labeled as knitted or twisted stitch knitted in museums, but they are gradually getting corrected, as curators are becoming more educated in handcraft techniques.

    • Ann1Az2 profile image


      5 years ago from Orange, Texas

      This is great information! I've been knitting for 52 years and still haven't got the hang of circular needles or 3 needles together - I've never made a pair of socks! I have made mittens but they were on two needles. One of these days, I'm going to get brave and try it again - maybe I'll get the hang of it just once! Thanks for the info.


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