I've just started knitting again, for the first time since my schooldays. So far it's more like a fight to the death between me and my wool than a creative craft activity (and I'm not winning...). All the same, in honour of the couple of inches of wonky scarf I've managed so far, here are eight historical facts about knitting in Britain:
- Because knitted items are perishable, nobody knows when knitting began. Estimates range from millennia ago to the 11th century (while knitting-like work certainly dates back to the 5th century).
- Since knitted stockings were a major export industry in Elizabethan Britain, knitting schools were set up to teach the poor a marketable skill.
- During the Second World War, people were encouraged to knit balaclavas, gloves, etc for soldiers, using wool unravelled from old clothes. See some of the patterns on the V&A website: they include balaclavas with ear-flaps for telephone operators and mittens with one separate trigger finger.
- Knitted items were found on the wreck of the Mary Rose, including a jerkin, fragments of woollen hose, and several knitted beret-style hats.
- Fair Isle jumpers were knitted by whole families in the Scottish islands. They became fashionable in 1922 when the Prince of Wales wore one to play golf.
- The knitted fisherman's jumper was not unique to Scotland: Guernseys or 'ganseys' were knitted in many parts of the British Isles until recently, using 5-ply wool and five needles.
- Among the knitted items which have fallen out of fashion is the tea cosy, which fits over a teapot to keep the contents warm. Its first documented use was in 1867.
- Knitting is mentioned in Jane Austen's Persuasion.