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Where would we be without knitwear? We take you on a journey through time, plotting the history of our love of wool and knitwear from 3rd Century to today.
Table of contents
In the beginning, there was wool…
Over the millennia, wool has provided wearers with garments that offer warmth, weatherproofing and, of course, style. Since the year dot, knitwear, one of the oldest form of clothes-making, has dressed humans around the world, proving that the natural fibre is so versatile it could be made into underwear, clothes and accessories with even the most basic of equipment.
The earliest forms of wool knitting, using needles and yarn, spread from Egypt and the Middle East throughout Europe. First examples of knitwear include those found in Egypt dating back to the 3rd-5th centuries. Over the course of the 3rd-5th centuries, ‘wool trade routes’ were developed, with Nomads taking knitting on their travels and sharing their skills.
Just who coined the term ‘knitting?’ The word appears to have come from the combination of a Dutch word ‘knutten’ and an old English verb ‘cynttan’ (to knot).
Knitwear becomes widespread
Importantly, the establishment of the Parisien Guild of Knitters in 1268, marked Europe’s love and demand for knitwear. In Britain, it became regular practice to make much-need heat insulating jumpers and sweaters, particularly for fishermen. Not surprisingly, it was common for the fishers themselves to be adept; their knotting skills making them a dab-hand at knitting. Perhaps more surprising, grim even, was that the pattern of their knits was used as a way of identifying bodies should they be lost at sea.
Knitting and the Industrial Revolution
When did knitting meet the mechanical age? The first knitting machines were reported in the 16th century and developed for small-scale use. In the outer Scottish Isles, it was common for residents to earn their living by knitting Fair Isle and Argyle patterns, which commanded a high price due to their warmth and style.
However, it was in the 18th century, when the popularity for hosiery meant that large-scale production became more common. Unlike today, where small-scale and professionally crafted knitwear is considered a luxury, there was a time in the 19th century where mass, machine-made underwear and other garments were deemed superior.
Manufacturers in the North of England and Scotland began establishing their place in the market; their location meaning that they had an abundance of local sheep to supply the highest quality wool.
The first circular knitting loom meant manufacturers could produce a stretchy, tubular fabric that was perfect for underwear; a development picked up by the European’s mounting interest in Fashion. As magazines touted the merits of designer undergarments and knitwear fashion, women began to pick-up knitting, so that they could create their clothes, as well as babywear and accessories.
As the popularity of knitting and knitwear escalated so too did the wool industry. By the end of the 19th Century, Scotland boasted more than 250 mills and knitwear began to emerge as a material that wasn’t just for underclothes but outerwear too. Popular with those playing sports or leisure time, knitwear was also fashionable, hygienic, warm and unique.
The knitwear dress takes to the catwalk
When it came to high fashion, it was Coco Chanel who put knitwear on the map or rather the catwalk. Channel introduced the fashion-focussed to the knitwear dress, knitwear cardigan and other knitwear designs. At one stage she worked alongside Eugene Rodier to produce exquisite garments that were the height of fashion.
Ecowool continues in Coco Chanel’s shoes today, in particular our neat-fitting knitwear cardigan styles, such as our Possum Merino Cropped cardigan herald a bygone era and a style that is still as on-trend today as it was when it first appeared.
As the years went by, the gap between knitwear being practical and fashionable began to close, with knitwear offering an efficient and affordable natural material for everyone.
As we know, knitwear today is very much part and parcel of our lives. With the development of wool mixes, such as our possum, merino and silk, wool continues its journey and is developing into a more luxurious fibre than ever before. We know that our knitwear gives wearers the luxury of being warm yet breathable, soft yet durable and that it is suitable for everyone to wear: from newborns to the mature.