Very, very few people can make a living from knitting today. But it didn’t used to be so. Knitting used to be an industry, a trade that kept people fed and housed and living nice middle class lives. But that was back before knitting machines. When every single sock, cap, and glove had to be knitted by hand, knitting was lucrative. Most knitters worked in their homes and made lots of socks. But highly skilled knitters joined guilds and studied for years under master knitters.
Earliest European Knitting
Knitting came to Europe by way of Egypt. How it came to Egypt no one knows. The earliest examples of knitting, knitting made with two or more needles, is a pair of white and indigo cotton socks which dates back to 1000 – 1200 AD.
All other fragments and socks before that (that we have found) were made by nålebinding. Nålebinding looks like knitting but its denser, works up faster, and does not unravel the way knitting does. Its also not as elastic as knit (stockinette) fabric which is why knitted socks, true knitted socks, swept through Europe. They were so much better than any other way to make socks.
The first European knitters were in Spain and Italy. They were, after all, closest to Egypt. The Islamic invasions of the Mediterranean and the crusades to the Holy Land resulted in all sorts of middle-eastern and African things being brought to southern Europe. One of those things was knitting. But there isn’t much information on medieval Spanish and Italian knitters, at least not that I can find. There is a silk pillow cover from the 1200’s that was found in the tomb of Prince Fernando de la Cerdo of Spain and these fantastic liturgical gloves for some Spanish bishop:
But the earliest organized knitting guild that I could find reference to was in France. That’s probably because
- I’m an American
- as such I rely on the British for my European history
- the British were far more interested in the goings on in France than any other part of Southern Europe. After all, the British Kings were calling themselves the King of France until Queen Elizabeth I put an end to that nonsense. (Instead of sending her men over to France to die for land they could never, ever hold onto, she put them to work as
piratesbuilding a great royal navy. She also decided that the Spanish knit stockings were far better that the sewn cloth ones the English were suffering with and put everyone to work knitting socks. Smart lady that Queen Bess.)
According to Irena Turnau (The Knitting Crafts in Europe From the Thirteenth to the Eighteenth Century), the first guild of knitters was around and active in Paris by 1268. They weren’t very important though. They were making complaints about cotton being spun on spinning wheels (instead of with a hand spindle?) and I doubt any one really paid them too much attention. But two hundred years later they were important and bad ass. By 1514 the knitters were one of the Six Corps, the six leading guilds of Paris. That meant they were making trade statues, setting prices, buying off politicians, and turning away applicants for membership. The guild masters were probably very wealthy and very snotty and probably had yarn stashes that you and I would kill for.
By the 16th century there were knitting guilds all over west and central Europe. Germany opened their first knitting guild in 1590. It was a pant knitting guild! Okay, so when I say pants I mean that they were making the fashionable tights that men were wearing.
Being in a Knitting Guild
Being in a guild meant that you were a highly skilled tradesmen. And yes, they were men. These weren’t the domestic knitters that made socks and caps in their spare time to help support the family. These were the professional knitters. If you could get into a guild, you started as an apprentice, aka slave. I imagine that meant you did laundry and washed the floors of the other “real” knitters. If you were lucky you got to make a hat. The apprentices of Paris had to spend three years in this drudgery and before moving up to journeyman. Lots of knitter journeymen had to go and journeys. They went to other towns, and guilds and studied their craft. I can find very few details about what they learned or how they studied but since guilds were formed to maintain high quality and high prices, I betcha all that traveling was not just to study under different masters and learn different patterns. I betcha they had to buy up the best wool, cotton, and silk for their own guild masters while making sure the other guilds weren’t undercutting the competition. Along they way they also had to knit their quota. Knitting guilds filled orders for the wealthiest in society (and sometimes the Church and the military). Those nobles needed their fancy-smancy stockings to wear to court didn’t they? According to sheepandsticth, after their journey, the journeyman underwent a 13 week-long exam. They had to produce a whole pile of knitted items and very quickly. These items were then judged by the master knitters. If your knitted was judged unworthy you were supposedly thrown out! But I doubt that. After all those years invested in the knitter I bet the guild simply extended their journeyman time and kept those guys working (and making money) for the guild.
If you passed your exam, you were a master knitter. To be a master knitter was a big deal. You got to have
slaves apprentices of your own; you got to train journeyman. You commanded respect and a nice income. But you had to be able to produce things most knitters back then (and today) couldn’t make in a lifetime. The master knitters in German-speaking parts of Europe had to prove themselves with knitted carpets. In 1605 a statute, a law, was issued for all the towns of upper Rhineland. In order to call yourself a master knitter, you had to make a knitted carpet. According to Irena Turnau these carpets were up to 9 feet long and used up to 20 colors of wool. The only example I can find is from France (not Germany). Its part of the collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Here is a detail of that stranded knit carpet showing Adam and Eve in the Garden:
Maybe if I spoke (and read) German I could find more. Being mono-lingual really puts a crimp in the amateur historian’s style, you know? But I did find this poor-quality image of a coffin shield from the knitting guild at Wroclaw (western Poland).
Machines Killed the Knitting Guilds
Then in 1589 William Lee invented the knitting frame. Knitting would eventually change forever because of those machines but it took awhile. Handknitters resisted the change. Queen Elizabeth rejected Lee’s application for a patent on his machine because she knew it would put handknitters out of business and her people would loose their income. (Queen was all about making money and restoring the wealth of England after her much-married father and her religiously-minded sister had driven the country into poverty.) But progress can’t be stopped, only slowed down. By the early 1700’s there was a knitting machine making socks in Pennsylvania.
Knitting guilds either moved on to incorporate knitting machines or they petered out. Handknit socks were held in higher esteem than machine knit ones (still are) but the demand for them was drastically reduced. Knitting went back to being a cottage industry and the master knitters went from being men who set prices and worked trade deals while making fantastic carpets to women who knit lace.
Machines can’t knit intricate lace. (Well, they can, but not on a massive and economically feasible basis.) By the 18th century, women all over Europe had developed intricate styles of lace and were making shawls to sell to rich noble ladies. They didn’t form guilds or pass laws or set up apprenticeship programs. They just knit and passed on their techniques to other ladies in their social circle. The world got more relaxed about their knitting and made a lot less money at it.