"Not only we’ll be warm and cozy, we’ll also be very in style, so it’s really the ultimate best of both worlds"
Now that we’re officially well into winter - or sweater weather - I’m sure you’ve busted out your knits at this point. And you’re absolutely right for doing so, specially as the trend has come back once again - as if it has ever gone out of style. During the colder months of the year we can all be found wearing layers and layers of knit, being it a sweater - or more than one - a hat, mittens or scarfs. And not only we’ll be warm and cozy, we’ll also be very in style, so it’s really the ultimate best of both worlds. But how did knitwear become ubiquitous in fashion? How did it become a piece that can be found in both the most elite fashion houses and everyone’s grandma closet?
If our main goal here was to trace the art of knitting back to its origin, then we would have a very hard, almost impossible mission in our hands. No one knows exactly when and why humanity decided to pick up a pair of needles and start to knit. Actually, we don’t even know how it became a thing - but we’re very thankful it did. The first ancient fragments and garments of clothing that looked like knit were discovered to be something different: a technique called nålbinding, that is believed to have existed in the 2-400 AD’s. It is true that this technique results in something that looks almost identical to what we now know as knit, so the confusion is valid, but the mechanics are way too different for us to call it the same thing - one might have come from the other, but we’ll probably never know. So let’s just appreciate the fact that we’re living at the same time as knit.
Even though we can’t know for sure some crucial information about the history of knitting, we have some pretty good idea about the location where it first started, and it would be the Middle East and Northern Africa. The first true knitted pieces we know of were found in Egypt, over 1000-1400 AD, and even though they’re very beautiful and have a very well done, complex work with patterns - and maybe even for that reason - they’re believed not to be the first knitted pieces ever done in history, so we’re back at where we started in this topic. But one thing we do know for sure is the time when it came to Europe.
In the old continent, the first known knitted pieces were discovered in Spain as a tomb was being excavated. That tomb was sealed in 1275, so it’s not absurd to assume that the piece found in there is from the time when Spain was occupied by Arabic people - which makes perfect sense when you think about the first place we found the craft in. Also, as if we analyze the decorative Arabic script found in Europe, we can see how knitted inscriptions seemed to be very popular to the Arabic culture at the time.
Once the knit technique was created and perfected with time, all the artisans, crafters and designers from all over the globe couldn’t wait to explore its potential and have their own take on knitting. All the way from the Middle East to Spain to all places in the world, knit became a phenomenon - one that has been popular ever since. We now have pieces and garments in France and Germany that are dated from the late years of the 1200’s, and just a century after that, by the middle of the 1300’s, it was worldwide spread - so much that it even had its own influence on the visual arts with the knitting Madonnas, found in Germany and Italy.
Some innovations and improvements have been done to the technique and mechanics of the craft, such as the purl stitch - it was responsible for making it possible to have neater finishes and more complex patterns and fabrics. Also, by the 1500s, knitwear started to expand into more complex, intricate garments, like the jackets patterned in gilt thread and knitted undershirts. As everything else does, the technique spread and the different regions and cultures that adopted it started to have their own take on the making of the pieces, some of them even incorporating some of those takes deep into their shared culture. South America, for example, has a very distinct and recognizable style of colorwork on their knit pieces, particularly in Peru and Bolivia.
As time passed, technology became a big deal in society and many crafts became mechanized, all due to the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, and even though knitting was a very popular manual craft, it was no exception here. The first knitting machine was invented in 1585, and it eventually led to the industrialization of knitting as it mainly happens now. But even in a time where mass production became the standard, there was still space for hand knitting - just as we continue to value a good, old hand knitted piece today. At the time, it was more than a piece of clothing, it was a way of showing affection as women would knit for soldiers abroad, or as a leisurely pastime.
But it was not until the late 1920’s that knitwear really became a part of fashion design - and that’s my personal favorite topic. A lot of it is thanks to the one and only Elsa Schiaparelli and her famous bow knot sweaters, same with her focus on knit sportswear. Another big name in fashion that is a big part of knit history is, of course, Coco Chanel and her dresses cut from jersey, as well as her knit cardigans and sweaters - and the knitted Chanel suits goes without saying here. It was really all the fashion pack from the time - and from all of the coming times after that, really - needed to incorporate jersey, and both hand and machine knits into their collections.
Knitwear was absolutely unstoppable from there, and that explains why we have never gone too much time without seeing it around. Every trend comes and goes from time to time, but I think it’s not too bold to say that knit is absolutely timeless. The 40s were the decade of figure hugging sweaters, the 50s were for twinsets, the 60s were the time of the iconic zig-zag pattern, the mini skirts and dresses, and the 80s was all about sportswear - so what can we expect to see back on the spotlight as the trend comes back in 2023? A lot can be expected as knitwear is popular in both the high fashion and the diy scenario, but as we’re living in a time of nostalgic feelings, maybe we’ll see a combination of classic plus modern? All we can do is wait to see what is coming, but being in knit, I’m sure we’ll love it.