Knitting Hasn’t Always Been “Just a Hobby”

Knitting is just a hobby, right? A way to pass the time. Maybe a reason to get together with other crafty friends. Perhaps just a harmless and inexpensive thing you do while watching television. 

Knitting hasn’t always held such a frivolous place in human lives. At many points in human history, knitting was serious business. If you were poor and needed money to feed yourself, you knitted. And you knitted socks, lots of them. You might knit every night until you couldn’t see the wool in front of you. You might knit every spare moment you found in your difficult and dreary life. Because you had to. Knitting was how you got by.

This past month, I’ve done a deep dive into the history of knitting. In preparing to write a new novel in the Prayer Shawl Chronicles series, I’m looking at why people – mostly women – knitted over the last decades and centuries. What exactly did they knit? How did they learn to knit? What did they use for needles? How did they get access to patterns? And my big question has been, what place did knitting have in the average woman’s life?

Several of the answers surprised me. Knitting used to be all about socks. The oldest found knitted garment was an ancient Egyptian sock. Up until the 1920’s, knitting continued to be a way to provide high quality socks to the aristocracy and others who could afford them. In more recent years, soldiers fighting one war or another (with wet, dirty, sore, and blistered feet) went through socks like there was no tomorrow. They needed the womenfolk back home to keep them supplied. 

When you think of “handknitted garments,” the first items to come to the 21st century mind might be “scarves” or “sweaters.” Socks are difficult and advanced projects for most of us. We’re just knitting to pass the time, remember. Up until Coco Chanel introduced us all to “sportswear” in the early part of the 20th century, people generally did not wear sweaters – with the noted exceptions of British fishermen. Hard to imagine, right? 

Enjoy your knitting. You’re very blessed to live in a time when you probably don’t have to knit. You don’t have to crank out a zillion pairs of socks just to put food in your children’s tummy. You probably aren’t knitting essential items for the military. You can afford to just knit because you want to. Sure, you may knit to economize and make an all-wool sweater that would cost a lot at your local department store. But you have that option. (And I bet you thoroughly enjoy making that sweater, too.)

But give a thought to those women who don’t have the option of “free time.” Give a thought to women who are working very hard, doing something with their hands, for the same reasons our foremothers knitted long into the night by candlelight to keep the soup bowl filled. Because, but for the grace of God, we all could have lived in a place and time when we knitted not for fun, but for survival. 

Here’s my recommended books on the history of knitting in Britain and the United States. Both are beautifully researched and a pleasure to read. 

This Golden Fleece: A Journey Through Britain’s Knitted History by Esther Rutter (2021)

No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting by Anne L. Macdonald (1990)

Happy Knitting, Cindy

Cynthia Coe is the author of The Prayer Shawl Chronicles, interrelated stories about knitters and those for whom they knit and love. The sequel to this book, The Knitting Guild of All Saints, has just been released! Available in paperback and on Kindle, included in Kindle Unlimited. 

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