The History of the Knitting Needle

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Basic knitting is so simple – “two sticks and a string”– it seems like it could have been the first way to make fabric.  In fact, knitting is quite a late invention in the arena of needlework, but its simplicity of action means that it has always been easy to learn and to transport.  Even today it enjoys far wider participation as a leisure craft than many erstwhile competitors such as embroidery, tatting, crochet, or lace making.

Below is a brief history of the development of knitting and knitting tools, followed by some reference notes on where to find out more.

Chronology

Early Christian era

Two-needle knitting was developed in the middle East – then the current centre for technological innovation -- from earlier single-needle or hooked tools.

 

 

European “Dark Ages”

Knitting skills moved into Spain, Italy, and Eastern Europe via trade, migration, and conquest.

 

 

C. 12th Century

A technology innovation – use of four or five needles – allowed knitters to knit in the round – perfect for hose, caps and mittens or gloves.  Several late Middle Ages paintings, known as the “Knitting Madonnas”,  depict this new technology.

 

 

C. 13th Century

Parisian Knitters Guild was founded, followed in later years by similar organisations in France, Netherlands, and Italy.

 

 

15th Century

Knitting reached Britain and continued to develop in two streams – peasant knitting for family use and some income, and luxury knitting – most knitted items recovered from these times were worn by their wealthy owners when buried.  And such items were very fine gauge.

 

 

16th Century

Knitting grew vigorously in Britain in parallel with several social developments :

  • Enclosure of common land began – more sheep could be better cared for
  • First wire mill was built – knitting pins became cheaper and more plentiful, and were carried throughout the land by peddlers or “petty chapmen”.
  • The spinning wheel replaced the distaff or drop spindle – more yarn could be produced more easily
  • Fashion changed, and men began to wear short trunks with knitted hose – previously hose were made from woven cloth cut on the bias.  Is this fashion following technology?  Or, technology re-inforcing fashion?

 

Also in the 16th century the knitting machine was invented.  At first hand knitters easily kept up with the clumsy but capital-intensive machines.  Inevitably, over the next two centuries, the machines drove commercial hand knitting to the margins of society – evidenced in Britain by economic contribution which hand-knitting continued to make in Yorkshire, Scotland, and Wales into the early 20th century.

 

 

17th Century

The Company of Framework Knitters was chartered in England by King Charles II.

The “need for speed” when competing with machine knitters and knitting for income – and the fact that poor people knitted while walking or standing –  brought the knitting sheath into its own.  Use of the sheath may have started centuries earlier, but it also moved during this period into the hands and waistbands of wealthy and middle-class women, often with elaborate carved decoration and messages.  In Holland the earliest dated sheath is 1588, while some British sheathes are dated in the early 1600’s.

 


The Stocking Knitter by Annibale Carracci in the V&A Museum

 

 

What did knitting needles cost in those days? 

In 1728 Richard Latham, an English farmer and the father of a young family, noted in his account payments book that he paid one-half penny for a pair of knitting needles.  This seems to be a pretty steady price, for he noted in 1735 that he paid 1-1/2 pence for three pair of needles (“one pr stolen”). 

 

 

Mid-18th Century

A more urbanised middle-class developed in Britain, Europe and America.  Fine needlework became a social occupation for such women.  Knitting followed other needlework into very fine coloured patterns for hose, gloves, reticules, and covers of all types.  Delicate silk yarns  and bead knitting required very fine needles, and also tip guards to hold stitches on the needles when at rest. 

The earliest dated tip guards I have found are hallmarked for 1791 in Holland.  Knitted, beaded tip guards reflect the beading fashion from about 1790-1820.

 

 

Late 18th to Early 19th Centuries

Light-coloured prints and muslins from the East contributed to a fashion for white knitting in cotton thread or yarn.  Even finer needles were required – sometimes almost as fine as sewing needles.  Knitters and needlewomen wore white gloves while at work to prevent sweaty palms from discolouring the white work.

 

 

1830’s

Knitting recipes and patterns appeared.  The earliest English booklet I have found is Knitting Teacher’s Assistant, first published in 1817, and reprinted regularly from the 1830’s to the 1870’s.  

 

 

1840’s

First branding on needle gauges.  Miss Lambert branded her ivory standard filiere with her name in 1842; in the same year Mrs Cornelia Mee went a bit further, including her address as well as her name on her metal sizing disc. 

During Victorian times, middle-class women used bone, whalebone, tortoiseshell and wood needles.  None of these could match the fine gauge of steel “wires”.  Poor women continued to use steel needles and continued to knit as fast as possible.

 

 

1851

W. Carter’s The Royal Victoria Knitting Book recommended Walkers needles, English size 22, and Manlove’s crochet thread for Pattern 80 for a baby’s cap.  This is the earliest reference I have found to a brand of knitting needles.   And note, English size 22 is an extremely fine gauge of needle.

 

 

1850’s

For some projects, pattern books now urged knitters to select needles with knobs or stoppers on the ends – obviously, this great innovation was still so new, it rated a special mention !

 

 

1860’s

Novelty Rubber Co in the USA sold hard rubber (vulcanite) knitting needles – the earliest “synthesised” needles I have been able to trace.  These needles were stamped on the stopper N.R.Co  Goodyear PT 1851  (a reference to use of Charles Goodyear’s 1851 patent for vulcanising rubber).  Novelty Rubber stopped reference to this patent when it went out of force in 1871.

Other natural moulded products soon followed – celluloid in 1870’s, casein in 1890, bakelite in 1909, etc.

 

 

1888

British wholesaler Olney Amsden & Son pictured in their catalogue a set of Crescent Mills’ (OA & Son owned this firm) steel 4xDP needles in a cream paper packet.

From this time on, there was lots of marketing of inter-related, branded tools in pattern books and newspapers.

In addition to paper packaging, unbranded double-pointed needles were sold in pressed metal tins, wooden tubes, and metal clasps – dates for this packaging are unestablished.

 

 

Early 20th Century

Luxury knitting tools moved from Europe to the USA.  Silver tip guards and yarn holders, common among their upper middle classes and aristocracy in Europe (not Britain) were followed up in the US with silver knitting needles and other luxury needlework items.  Silver was an inexpensive metal in the US at this time, and very inexpensive silver tools were sold in the catalogues of mail order jewellers like Baird-North and Daniel Lowe.

Post-WWI

Circular needle (branded later by Aero as the “Twin Pin”) invented.  US patent exists from 1918, but may be earlier in Europe.

 

 

1920’s

Jarrett, Rainsford and Laughton Ltd in Britain and Australia stamped their metal single-point needles with the brand name Stratnoid.  Many other metal needles were branded from this time (and possibly a little before).

All knitting tools were becoming more standardised and utilitarian.

 

 

1930’s

Aero marketing still offered their commercially-made knitting sheath(I’ve never seen one.)

 

 

Post-WWII

Needle manufacture dies out in “Western” countries, and moves to Asia.  Knitting acquires a rather daggy, homebody image.

 

 

1980’s

Knitting is revived as a leisure and creative activity.  Handcrafting of tools and implements also revives.  Many handcraft tools and implements are later available through the new distribution channel of the internet.  Everything old is new again !

More Information

Most of these books will be well known to needlework tool enthusiasts.  I’ve omitted many other texts on knitting which deal more with social aspects but with little specific information on tools. 

Groves, Silvia, The History of Needlework Tools and Accessories, first published in the UK in 1966 but with many later re-publications, has a chapter on knitting tools, with very useful comments on 17th and 18th century tools.

Hartley, Marie, and Ingliby, Joan, The Old Handknitters of the Dales , first printed in 1951 but reprinted in various editions. 

Rutt, Richard, A History of Hand Knitting, London, 1987 and many reprints.  A first attempt to cover all aspects of the history of knitting, mainly in the UK but also with brief summaries of easily available knowledge of other countries.  The author apologies for “the weaknesses to which pioneer writing is liable”.  But no apology is needed – terrific reading. 

Sullivan, Kay, Needlework Tools and Accessories – a Dutch Tradition, published in 2006 by the Antique Collectors’ Club, has extensive information on Dutch tools for knitting and related disciplines.

Turnau, Irena, History of Knitting before Mass Production, first published in Poland in 1991 and then translated into English.  Packed with information about knitting all over Europe, but very dense – has a “doctoral thesis” air.

Williams, Sheila, The History of Knitting Pin Gauges, Cambridgeshire, 2006.  A great reference book for manufacturers as well as the gauges themselves – I keep it next to my desk.

 

 



© Susan Webster