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A History of Knitting For Clothing and Occupational Therapy

Updated on September 13, 2012

Little Girl Knitting - so Young...

"Little Girl Knitting" by Albert Anker, 1831-1910
"Little Girl Knitting" by Albert Anker, 1831-1910 | Source

Practical and Cultural Aspects of Knitting

Since the ancient art of knitting was introduced to Europe and the Americas, shepherds and shepherdesses spent long hours knitting material while watching their sheep. Creative knitting techniques were born from these humble efforts. Bit by bit, new stitches, patterns and combinations were developed. Born of the necessity to produce clothing, the creative juices and applications have never stopped developing, although today's knitting is done more as a hobby than as a necessity.

The two most basic stitches, knit and purl, were used to create a variety of patterns. Purl stitch, which is the exact opposite of knit, was seen in the middle 16th century in Italy, but was probably used before. From these two originated checkered stitches, blocks, popcorn stitch, cables, seed (or rice) stitch; and many more. By twisting the fabric being created, a cable could be created by parking a number of stitches on a separate wand and knitting the ones only to return to the parked stitches, thus creating an unusual and artistic look.

Knitting is "combining a piece of thread with two needles into a piece of fabric". No two homemade products are exactly the same, a testament of largely feminine attribute of making something meaningful and useful out of practically nothing.

Occupational Therapy with Knitting

Here, yarn is given to bedridden soldiers as a form of occupational therapy.  Date unknown - probably early 20th century.
Here, yarn is given to bedridden soldiers as a form of occupational therapy. Date unknown - probably early 20th century. | Source

Knitting Can Compare To Aromatherapy

Knitting a handmade sweater, can be a sensory experience. The yarn, particularly if it's a 50% or more natural blend, calms the nerves as it glides between the fingers. It soothes the spirit and is a pleasure to work with. The act of creating anything is recreational (the word create exists within recreation). Yarn and knitting requires concentration, at least in the beginning, helping the knitter to regulate breathing, focus on the work at hand and put other matters to the side.

As the fabric grows from the knitting needles, the knitter is encouraged to knit more. Soon, the body is half finished. A little more and it's time to fasten off the piece and begin on the front.

The knitter may follow a formal pattern or fashion their creation based on measurements taken at the outset. The joy of knitting is a combination of contemplative repetition, the peace of sitting still but still producing something worthwhile, and in being able to dictate a result based on the the colors and designs of your choice.

The Fate of The Lobster

Nowadays, nothing could be considered more folksy or ordinary than a home made knit sweater, though certainly well appreciated. In those days it was truly haute culture. A similar comparison can be made to the fate of the Lobster, which was considered a giant cockroach! Strict laws were passed in Boston disallowing the wealthy from feeding it to their servants more than once a week - too hideous! Once Queen Victoria decided that lobster was fashionable, people's minds changed, and it is today a great (and expensive) delicacy.

Knitting Timeline: From Ancient Times to the Middle Ages

After its development in the Middle East. The first traces of its influence were found in ancient Egypt.

Knitting was introduced to Europe much later, through the Mediterranean trade routes. It was seen in Spanish Christian homes from the Muslim housekeepers who knitted silk brocade in the stockinette stitch which consists only of straight knitting. The purl stitch, the exact opposite of the knit stitch, was invented later.

Queen Elizabeth loved to wear knit silk stockings. Wealthy Italian noblewomen were buried in red silk stockings made in the then-exclusive purl stitch around the mid 16th century. This was considered a matter of great status in those days.


Making Fabric for Clothing

The Knitting Woman, by William-Adolphe Bougureau.  "Knitting" comes from the Dutch word, knutten, meaning "knot".
The Knitting Woman, by William-Adolphe Bougureau. "Knitting" comes from the Dutch word, knutten, meaning "knot". | Source

Fabric Mills - Female Labor

When large fabric mills began pumping out material, women were recruited to come work in a central location instead of knitting at home.

Knitting was used to help support both the first and second World Wars. Women and young girls were expected to create victory blankets by knitting a 10x10 inch square. These were stitched together as emotional and practical support for the boys fighting overseas. It served a purpose - women doing their part - and perhaps encouraged the men, as well.

The Industrial Revolution

Nothing much changed until the Industrial Revolution. Large textile factories encouraged women to come work in the factories, whereas before they had knitted at home. Knitting machine and woven fabrics took the place of workers' sticks and balls of yarn.

Aran Sweaters - A Specialty of the British Isles

Beautiful Aran sweaters from Scotland show a lot of intricate pattern and stitches, which made it all the more fun to complete.
Beautiful Aran sweaters from Scotland show a lot of intricate pattern and stitches, which made it all the more fun to complete. | Source

Sticks used to create fabric and warm clothing

SInce knitting needles were portable, they provided a flexible machine to create clothing. Nowadays it is more of a hobby in making specialty items. Whole families got in on the process of knitting in order to create clothing for the whole clan.

Particularly Scotland, where the weather is extremely cold, a number of knitted items were produced and developed. Knitting was a lifesaver, protecting the fishermen, sailors and common worker from the extreme weather conditions and stormy elements of the British Isles. Socks, caps, and especially Aran Sweaters became an important part of British Isle culture and many tourists consider them collectible. The lanolin in the sheep wool provided a source of warmth and protection against the constant cold, raging sea and foggy dampness.

The Dreaded Sweater Curse

It's happened enough times to enough knitters to begin to be called a curse. What is this, you ask. Based on the love and care of a knitter (let's call her the girlfriend) who lovingly creates and spends thousands of hours knitting the perfect creative masterpiece of a gift to her dearly beloved (let's call him the boyfriend!). Long story short, after you give someone a hand made sweater, there is a good chance that they will be saying "So Long!"

Why is this? A sweater is such an intimate gift. It warms the body, the soul, and no two (unless they are mass produced and manufactured) are exactly the same. Those who aren't sure they will marry may feel uncomfortable with such an intimate gift and end up pulling the plug on the relationship.

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    • EuroCafeAuLait profile image
      Author

      Anastasia Kingsley 5 years ago from Croatia, Europe

      I know what you mean... but don't worry, your brain can absorb the new info. Hope you keep learning and improving your art forms, which are recreational - allowing re-creation. Best to you, ECAL

    • ESPeck1919 profile image

      ESPeck1919 5 years ago from Minneapolis, MN

      Great Hub! Before I picked up knitting and crochet, I was constantly braiding, finger weaving or knotting things to calm my mind down. Very good to see this subject addressed, and the history is very interesting.

      Now that I've learned something new, I need to forget something old to make room for it. ;)

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 5 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      Yup, I'm proudly Pinoy. The Philippines experiences an average of 24 typhoons per year. A third of them are actually destructive. But I guess knitted sweaters provide warmth when needed. :)

    • EuroCafeAuLait profile image
      Author

      Anastasia Kingsley 5 years ago from Croatia, Europe

      Hi JPCMC! You must be from the Philippines, right? Actually a tiny lacy shawl would be good in the rainy season. I live in the Mediterranean, and when the rain stops, there are cool breezes to watch out for. That's what we wear to stabilize body heat and not get sick (plus take vitamins, of course). Thanks for your comments, glad you enjoyed!

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 5 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      The emotional aspect of knitting - that's a fresh point of view. Enjoyed it!

      I've never gotten a sweater as a gift. Probably it's because I live in a tropical country where there are only two seasons - really really wet and very very dry and hot.

    • EuroCafeAuLait profile image
      Author

      Anastasia Kingsley 5 years ago from Croatia, Europe

      So you know how soothing this can be! One morning I crocheted a potholder - I was just too keyed up. The yarn really helps. Thanks for making a nice comment, appreciate it!

    • Kalmiya profile image

      Kalmiya 5 years ago from North America

      Sometimes I knit a 'therapy scarf'. I just cast on a bunch of stitches and just knit for the sake of the soothing repetitiveness of it when I get really stressed. A very useful and fun hobby!

    working

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