The History of Knitting
with an Eye for the Male Knitters
By Frank H. Jernigan
While exploring the history of knitting throughout the world, one must wonder why it has largely been an activity of women. Obviously there is nothing inherent in the process that requires a feminine hand, yet time and again we see that almost all knitters everywhere, with only a few exceptions, were girls and women. Through most of the 20th century, male knitters were so rare due to rigidly defined gender roles that it was a challenge for any man to buck tradition and learn the craft. As one author put it, “My research has since validated my previous observations that in America, where knitting has been assigned to woman’s domain, adult knitting males are stared at, fussed over, almost petted as daring, even darling, adventurers or avoided for being too ‘feminine.’” [MacDonald, loc 111] As we quickly scan the origins and development of knitting throughout various cultures, it is interesting to note when men were included in the activity and to note particular ones who made a difference by advancing the state of the craft. In the process of exploring the history of knitting perhaps questions about how this prejudice against male knitters came about and why it persists even today will be answered.
Unfortunately, since this writer is not a trained historian, there will probably be mistakes made of the form Richard Rutt accuses James Norbury of making, when he says Norbury being “untrained as a historian drew broad conclusions from slender evidence.” [Rutt, 3] But at least there will be an attempt to understand when, where and why men were knitting along with the women...and maybe why not at other times as well.
It is generally agreed that the origins of knitting are obscured in history but probably originated in Egypt. [Rutt, 23] The oldest existing fragments of real knitting are blue and white so-called “Coptic socks” and fragments mostly known to have come from Islamic Egypt, which are generally dated to 1200 to 1500 C.E. [Rutt, 35 & Nargi, 12-13] but may have been as early as 1000 C.E. [Theaker] Earlier fragments of material often mislabeled as knitting are actually a different form of work called nålbinding, the earliest fragments being from excavations in Nehal Hemar, located in Israel today, dating from as early as the 6500 B.C.E. [Nargi, 120] Other fragments of nålbinding were found in Dura-Europos, on the border of Syria and Mesopotamia, which are perhaps several thousand years old [Rutt, 28 & Theaker] Though nålbinding continued to spread as far as Finland where it was still created up to the nineteenth century, it is assumed that nålbinding largely was replaced by knitting some time between 500 C.E. and 1200 C.E. [Rutt, 39] The earliest reported example of real knitting was a fragment, now lost except for a photograph, most likely dating between the seventh to ninth centuries. [Rutt, 33] Early examples of knitting were all done in the round and the oldest examples of back-and-forth knitting are as late as 1600. [Nargi, 17]
Development of Knitting in Europe before 1600
From these origins in Arab culture, knitting spread first to Moorish-occupied Spain from North Africa, possibly as early as the ninth century. [Norbury, 28, though the date is questioned by Nargi, 19] From Spain it then spread to Italy and continued throughout Europe, notably along trade routes. [Theaker, Norbury 51] The earliest examples of Spanish knitting are all liturgical garments, such as a pair of “finely knit liturgical gloves...often stitched with gold and silver threads.” The first occurrence of a purl stitch is found on a pair of stockings, c. 1562, owned by Eleanor of Toledo. [Nargi, 19] The Spanish were also the first to knit with silk as all prior specimens from Egypt are made of cotton. Wool would not be used until several centuries later. [Theaker]
Knitting guilds arose in Europe in the thirteenth (France) and fourteenth centuries (Netherlands and Spain) and then throughout western Europe by the sixteenth century, spreading farther eastward with the first guilds appearing in Hungary in the eighteenth century. The guilds were entirely made up of men who progressed from apprentice to journeyman to master knitter as they progressed through rigorous training, ultimately proving themselves true masters in the guild fashion by creating a masterwork such as the knitted carpets of Germany, each made with up to 20 colors of wool. The guilds formed out of economic necessity as the demand for knitted goods became too great to be met by domestic workers. Though largely ignored in the beginning, the guilds grew in stature for a couple hundred years so that by the early sixteenth century the knitting guild of Paris was considered one of the six most important guilds in the city. [Turnau]
A number of paintings of “knitting madonnas” were produced by various artists during the fourteenth century in Italy and Germany, showing that knitting was known before 1350 in that region. These paintings also showed that knitting was done at home by women. [Nargi, 21]
Knitting in Europe between 1600 and 1900
Even though the first knitting machine, which could only work flat stockinette stitch fabric, was invented by William Lee of Calverton in 1589, it was not until 1610 to 1614 that it was first used in manufacturing. Later Jedediah Strutt improved on the design, enabling the knitting of ribbing, and in the nineteenth century, Marc Brunel, developed a machine that could knit in the round. [del Vecchio, 8] Eventually machine knitting guilds emerged alongside but separate from the hand knitting guilds. In time the machine knitting guilds became the dominant method for general manufacturing of goods. Hand knitting declined, returning that role to the realm of domestic workers, hence back to the women. [Turnau] Knitting, however, was still viewed merely as a kind of work and was considered one of the few ways a woman could supplement the family’s meager income. [Nargi, 46]
It appears that the guilds were the last time that hand knitting was predominantly a male occupation. From that point on, it became an activity largely for women, with a few notable exceptions. One may speculate that the reasons for this are tied up with society’s assumption that it is the male’s responsibility to earn a living to support the household, where traditionally the woman’s role is predominantly “maintaining the household” or daily operations management of the household. When hand knitting was viewed as a manufacturing process of items for trade, men took up the task. Where it was no longer deemed profitable, it returned to the realm of “domestic duties.” When numbers of men are found knitting later in history, it is either because of local economic conditions that pushed them into it for the same reasons the guilds emerged, or because there was dire need, as in times of war, and men who could not contribute in other ways, such as wounded soldiers, once again learned to knit. Only when strict, arbitrary gender roles became questioned in the late twentieth century did large numbers of men begin to knit for simple enjoyment but they still remained only a fraction of the total population of knitters.
By 1600 knitting had spread throughout most of Europe. Each country where it spread adapted it somewhat to the local culture. For instance, the earliest examples of knitting from Spain all used cotton or silk thread. However, in England, where stockings became popular during Queen Elizabeth’s reign, by 1600 they were knitted in worsted wool from local breeds of English sheep. [Rutt, 75] Another example is in Denmark, where men, women, and children all knitted stockings for royalty, even though they were outlawed from wearing them in 1636 as they were considered proper only for the elite. For personal use, they also knitted undergarments for both men and women. [Nargi, 88] Many cultures also developed their own distinctive patterns and styles that were then passed down from generation to generation, such as the Sulbu star in Norway [Nargi, 105], entrelac designs in Scandinavia [Nargi, 125], twisted-stitch knitting in southern Germany and northern Austria [Nargi, 37], fishermen’s “jerseys or guernseys” from the Channel Islands between England and France [Nargi, 59] and, of course, Fair Isle knitting from the Shetland Island of the same name [Nargi, 78]. Apparently there was at least one male knitter on the island of Jersey, as Philip Picot was forbidden by the Jersey court to knit in public on June 22, 1615 “because of the scandal that had arisen.” He was however still allowed to knit at home alone. [Rutt, 186]
The spread to eastern Europe and Russia was slower, becoming popular in Russia perhaps as late as the early 17th century. This has been attributed to the fact that “the national male costume did not require stockings.” [Turnau, 28] It did not flourish there until the 18th century, when machine knitting became an important means of production. [Nargi, 161]
While most hand knitters in Europe were women, there were a few exceptions where men also participated in the craft. In the early 18th century, the shepherds of the Landes region in France, who herded their sheep while on stilts, were known to knit while watching their flocks that provided the wool. [Nargi, 23] In Selbu, Norway, when the local economy suffered from the “decline of the millstone industry” around 1900, both men and women participated in establishing a cottage industry producing first mittens and later socks and sweaters. [Nargi, 104] In Sweden, both men and women began knitting in the 17th century [Nargi, 109] just as they also did in Finland to produce the all-important knitted stockings both for sale and for home use. [Nargi, 118] The tradition of male knitters continued in Iceland where men, women, and also children participated in the commercial production of exported items by the 17th century. The tradition of including men in the craft has continued even to the current day as the Handknitting Association of Iceland employs both men and women today. [Nargi, 132-133] In Bosnia, men knit white stockings for their own use [Nargi, 168] and in the Dales of Yorkshire, England, men, women, and children created a cottage industry of knitted socks from yarn spun from the wool of the local sheep. [Nargi, 56] An interesting variant on the involvement of men in knitting is the production of fishermen’s sweaters in Sweden, where the women knitted the bodies of the sweaters and men and children knitted the sleeves. [Nargi, 63] One could speculate that somehow the sleeves were simpler or faster to work up, thus making them more suitable for children and men, who perhaps even in the 19th century were assumed to be less capable knitters than women.
Knitting in the Americas before 1900
Knitting came to the Americas with the earliest settlers from Europe. Indigenous peoples of South and Central America have been knitting in the Portuguese style for centuries, apparently as it was learned from the earliest Portuguese explorers. [Rutt, 203] It is known that the earliest women colonizers of New England were knitting caps and stockings within a few years of their settlement. [MacDonald, loc 289] It was common throughout the colonies to send young boys to school to learn “Arithmetick, Geometry, Algebra, Surveying, [etc.]” while girls were taught “Reading, Knitting, and all sorts of Needlework,” [MacDonald, loc 564] thus continuing the traditional gender roles brought from the Old World. This gender differentiation was then propagated in the New World throughout the next few centuries.
During the Revolutionary War with England, women rallied to support the troops in a variety of ways, including knitting socks and other garments to be sent to the battlefields. This tradition was to be repeated in other wars after that, notably both the First and the Second World Wars. In all these cases the knittings were done in “military colors,” usually blue or gray or beige, and were purely utilitarian designs. In each case, after the wars, the women were relieved to be able to return to knitting in a variety of colors and styles of garments. Rather than ceasing to knit after each war, a surge in interest in knitting took place.
In the 1830’s the first popular magazine for women appeared. Continuing publication through the 19th century, in addition to essays, poetry and short stories of particular interest to women, it also “contained a regular needlework department, headed by ‘Mlle. DuFour’... [which] offered instructions for everything from a knitted muff and ‘Victorine’...to knitted artificial flowers, holly, berries with fruit, and all shapes and sizes of ‘chatelaines’”. [MacDonald, loc 1116] Clearly, the craft of knitting had progressed far beyond the perfunctory stockings and caps for utilitarian ware.
Throughout the 19th century many needlework books and pamphlets were published, often plagiarizing patterns without acknowledgement from each other. Florence Hartley, however, acknowledged in the introduction to her book that she derived her patterns from sources in England, France, and Germany and also accredited some to “Miss Lambert’s ‘Guide’” and “Mrs. Pullams’ Lady’s Manual of Fancy Work.” Actually Miss Lambert’s Guide, a publication in England, was the most widely used of all the needlework books through unauthorized American reprints. [MacDonald, loc 1207]
With the discovery of gold in California in 1849, the westward expansion exploded across the continent. Pioneers ventured across the plains and mountains in wagon trains. While the men drove and the boys walked alongside, the women and girls were often in the back of the wagon “knitting to provide necessary clothing, facilitate relaxation during friendly encounters with other travelers and relieve the tedium of long days on the trail.” [MacDonald, loc 1448]
After they settled, whether in Kentucky, or the Midwest, or the west coast, often children were called upon to assist in the production of goods for domestic use. Both boys and girls were often taught to spin and knit, “indicating no gender differentiation at the more tender ages,” producing socks, stockings, caps, mufflers, and suspenders. [MacDonald, 1753]
But all of that was about to change as the 20th century approached. As early as 1880 or at least by 1890 and continuing up until the First World War, a “fear of feminization” swept across America. Because school teachers were all women, it was argued, people became concerned the education system would produce “effeminate and weak young men.” [Badinter, 18]
The “specter of the sissy” was everywhere threatening in the 1890s and 1900s to fill the nation with what one writer called “flabby, feeble, mawkish .. chicken-hearted, cold and fearful” men. Doctors, educators, clergy, reformers and politicians alike displayed pressing concern that men become more active, strong, athletic, and virile—what they call “manly” and “masculine.” [Wise, 37]
During this time, feminized men were considered even more threatening as effeminacy became increasingly associated with homosexuality. [Wise, 37] So boys were pushed into vigorous sports, like the newly popular football, and were ridiculed and shamed for any evidence of interest in “women’s work” such as knitting.
Knitting in the 20th Century
The First World War ended the period of panicky fear of feminization as young men were vigorously trained and sent off the battle, though the gender differentiation that resulted remained a constant throughout the 20th century. Meanwhile, women supported the war, as always, by using their domestic skills to produce useful goods for the battlefield. Knitting especially became identified as one way women could support the war effort by providing military colored sweaters, socks, and scarves to be sent to the men in battle. The knitting effort was deemed so important that often wounded soldiers took up the craft during their recovery period in infirmaries. They presumably escaped the stigma of feminization because they had already proved their manliness by going to war. But they were not the only men who started to knit. For instance, in 1918, the Navy League Comforts Committee sponsored a three-day knitting bee in Central Park to raise money to provide yarn to knitters for the war effort. Pictures of the event show several men participating. People gathered around Patrolman Patrick Fitzgibbons who was both knitting and singing, and rooted for I. R. Seelye, a Civil War veteran. The winners of a speed knitting contest, in addition to four blind women and four children under the age of 11, included two men. [MacDonald, loc 3656]
However knitting for the war effort did not entirely remove the stigma of feminization now associated with the craft. Men were subjected to being made fun of in spite of the nobility of their efforts. When reporters wrote about them, they continually had to emphasize the masculinity of their subjects. One such reference to male knitters called them “husky firefighters who are not idle between alarms'' and another referenced “‘athletic’ trolley conductors who knit ‘unostentatiously between stations’ and ‘hardy’ members of that city’s Chauffeurs Union were absolved of effeminacy.” Governor Hunt of Arizona was an unapologetic knitter of socks for the soldiers, declaring, “Of course, I can get more done at home in the evenings, but I find I have quite a lot of spare time that I can use on knitting at the office,” as he was quoted in the New York Times. Apparently being a governor of a State absolved one of the dreaded effeminate stigma, even though he had learned to knit as a boy from his mother. [MacDonald, loc 3864]
A more common reaction to men knitting was described by one writer, who told of a commuter “knitting openly and shamelessly” on public transportation while others took a derisive view of him, “winking at each other, and shaking their heads, as if he were some kind of curious freak.” [MacDonald, loc 3876]
As the war continued, more and more men began to participate in the effort to provide warm knits for the soldiers. Whole fire departments learned and knitted together. A picture from 1917 shows a roomful of male “stenographers” knitting during their lunch break. Men living in almshouses and tuberculosis and mental hospitals were taught to knit. Even convicts in prison participated in providing knitwear to the soldiers using yarn donated by the Red Cross. [MacDonald, loc 3907]
After the war, women did not quit their knitting, but rather changed the focus of their efforts to produce more fashionable items for themselves and for others. As hemlines were raised and the flapper craze of the 1920s emerged, women thankfully turned from the utilitarian colors and styles for soldiers, to exciting new fashions and colors. Enthusiasm for knitting continued through the 20’s and 30’s, the flames fanned in part by knitting contests promoted by women’s magazines. In the late 1920s Argyle stockings and sweaters became the vogue, especially for golfers wearing their knickerbockers. [MacDonald, chapter 12]
When the Great Depression hit in the 1930’s, knitting became more than just a fashion craze. It became a way for women to provide fashionable garments inexpensively. Both knitting and sewing became extremely popular activities. In 1935, for instance, yarn sales in department stores doubled the sales of 1932. As Vogue wrote in its instruction book, “Knitting is no longer a fad--it’s a national institution.” The knitting craze grew to as many as 10 million knitters at its peak, with college girls leading the pack. The New York Times called the craze “an ‘enthusiasm’ unequaled since wartime.” [MacDonald, loc 4615] Another publication said, “These are knitting days. Everywhere we go we see women knitting, old ladies, middle-aged mothers, young brides and 16 year olds.” [MacDonald, loc 4627] It’s interesting to note that only women seemed to be included in this movement, though it never failed that in every contest there would be a few male contestants. One writer who was reporting on the male participants titled his article “MAN CAN KNIT AS GOOD AS WOMAN.” [MacDonald, loc 4703 & ff.]
As in the First World War, when the world was again drawn into another global war, knitting once again became an act of support for the troops. Sometimes soldiers passed the time at camp by knitting. One, while a prisoner of war, even showed his fellow prisoners how to unravel sweaters from the Red Cross to rework the yarn into badly needed socks using straightened barbed wire pieces as needles. [MacDonald, loc 4814]
When the war ended and the knitting efforts once again turned to fashion and color, Argyle became all the rage during the remainder of the 40’s and into the 50’s. One company promoted twenty-one different Argyle patterns for a variety of items, including the right amount of yarn of each color in each pack. [MacDonald, loc 5145]
As the world recovered from war in the 1950’s, women once again turned to domestic duties, taking pride in providing a pleasant home for the family, including sewing, crochet and knitting. Gender roles once again solidified as exemplified by marketing blurbs like “‘Knit for the Man in Your Life’; ‘He’ll love you more if you knit for him’; … ‘Stitchers are Bewitchers’” [MacDonald, loc 5276] and the like, always assuming it was the women who knit and the men were merely the recipients of their products. In that environment few, if any, boys were taught the craft and, as in the case of this writer, any who showed interest felt too ashamed by the stigma of feminization to take it up.
Perhaps the most important figure in knitting in 20th century America was Elizabeth Zimmerman, who became widely known through books, TV, and her popular “knitting camps.” [Nargi, 235] Her book “Knitting Without Tears,” published in 1971, is as popular today as it ever was. Two other influential women were Barbara Walker, who published a several volume work of knitting patterns, and Mary Walker Phillips, a popular author and teacher. [MacDonald, loc 5509] Interestingly, their counterpart in Great Britain was a man named James Norbury, who was described as “the strongest single influence in British knitting during the 25 years after the Second World War, through his writings and designs.” He was a prolific writer of books and articles as well as a television knitting celebrity in the 50’s and 60’s. [Rutt, 151]
The social upheaval of the late 60’s, through the women’s liberation and gay rights movements, saw a softening of the rigid gender roles of the previous decades. In 1973, “Rosey Grier’s Needlepoint for Men” appeared with the football player pictured on the cover to the shock and amusement of many. Subsequent articles about him also revealed that he loved many needlecrafts, including macramé, knitting and crocheting. This writer was so liberated by the images of this man that he finally took up needles and yarn himself. Like many others, I’m quite sure, I thought, “If Rosey Grier can do it, it can’t be only for girls any longer!”
Also in the 1970’s an all-male group of knitters was created by a woman named Mindy Nix after she successfully taught her father and two brothers how to knit. The group ultimately “included an engineer, a lawyer, two United Nations translators, a graduate student in economics, a social worker, a writer and a real estate man.” [MacDonald, loc 5496] Men were finally coming out of the knitting closet.
Though interest in knitting appeared to be waning in the 1980’s, many local knitting groups joined together to form national organizations, “such as The Knitting Guild of America (TKGA), founded in 1985 as an umbrella organization for the rapidly growing number of groups open to anyone interested in sharing fellowship and knowledge with other knitters.” [MacDonald, loc 5660] TKGA, who has published “Cast On” magazine for decades, began offering certification in their Master of Hand Knitting Program. By 2016, however, a scan of the 300 names that have completed all three levels of the program shows that only two of them were male.
Knitting Since 2000
Today knitting clubs and guilds have multiplied. There are local festivals, like the Taos Wool Festival, and national conferences, like Stitches events sponsored by KnittingUniverse.com, held all around the country attracting thousands of women, and, yes, a small number of men. At Stitches West in February, 2016, this writer attended four classes and was the only man in each one with 30 to 40 women.
Interest in knitting by men is also on the increase. Men’s knitting clubs have sprung up around the country, many of which also attend knitting retreats for men, like the Great Lakes Men’s Knitting Retreat and others sponsored by mensknittingretreat.com. There is even a knitting group at Folsom State Prison, where the men knit “matching hats and scarves, blankets, Christmas stockings and their specialty, stuffed animals for children in need.” [Staff Report, SQ News]
The Internet and social media have been a huge boon to knitters everywhere. It is now easy to find instructions for almost any technique on YouTube and there are many excellent blogs written by and about knitting. There are also many resources online for male knitters, such as MenWhoKnit.com, and Facebook pages like SF Men Knit (facebook.com/groups/SFMenKnit) and Freemasons of Knitting (a private group at facebook.com/groups/FoKme).
It appears there is a surge of interest in knitting today as shown by a survey in 2014 by the Craft Yarn Council, who says that 20 and 30 year olds are joining the 38 million knitters and crocheters [Craft Yarn Council]. More and more men are being brought into the craft. Social stigma against male knitters remains, but is no longer harsh and threatening. Whenever a man is seen knitting in public, it is still considered unusual, prompting inquiries from curious observers. But the male knitter no longer needs to fear harassment from strangers and is welcomed with open hearts at conferences of mostly women and everywhere his fellow knitters encounter him.
[To be provided later.]