Archive for the ‘Knitting History’ Category

A Lace Primer

It’s spring, and spring means lace! Mostly when I knit lace, I just think of it as lace. But from time to time I think about traditional Irish lace, or the fancy needle laces I watched little old ladies make in Venice, or how people wax poetic about Estonian lace on the boards of Ravelry.  Being a naturally curious person I always kind of wondered about the differences and the definitions of each type of lace, but an interesting recent thread on Ravelry finally inspired me to look into it properly. Unsurprisingly, many of these laces are just as tied to their cultures of origin as language or music. Read on if you’ve always wondered too!

Non-knitted Lace

Needle lace

Needle lace, By Unknown – Diacollectie Kunsthistorisch Instituut Universiteit van Amsterdam, CC BY 3.0

Since this is primarily a knitting blog, I’m going to keep this one short. There are actually quite a few ways to make lace that don’t involve knitting needles. Most of what we see in stores is some persuasion of needle lace, which would traditionally be made with only a needle and thread. Turkish knotted lace is technically also a form of needle lace, as opposed to other knotted laces like macrame that use only thread or yarn. Cutwork, which you often see on linens, is woven fabric with pretty holes cut out and then reinforced with embroidery thread. Bobbin lace is a rather complicated form of weaving involving a pillow and many bobbins (shocking, I know!) Interestingly, chemical lace also came into being just over 100 years ago. This uses a continuous motif of embroidery on a “sacrificial” woven background, which is then dissolved via water or heat, leaving only the embroidery behind.

Crochet Lace


Filet crochet by FranzJosef

There are a few forms of crochet lace, but I am a mediocre crocheter at best, so I won’t go into too much detail here either. Irish crochet was created in the mid-1800s to imitate expensive Venetian needle laces. Typically, it uses a very fine steel hook and similarly minuscule cotton or linen thread to crochet separate motifs which are then basted onto a mesh background in a pleasing arrangement. Filet crochet uses varying combinations of chain stitches and double crochet stitches, traditionally in fine mercerized cotton, to create interesting motifs on a mesh background.

Orenburg Lace (Russia)


Orenburg Shawl postage stamp, By Russian Post, Publishing and Trade Centre “Marka”

Orenburg lace originated in Russia in the 17oos and is most typically used for shawls. The ever popular “wedding ring shawl” (technically, any full-sized shawl that can be pulled through a wedding ring) is a well-known example of Orenburg lace. According to legend, the wives of soldiers stationed in the remote Ural steppes were so bored they began to create the most ornate, fine-gauge shawls they could imagine just to fill the long winters. Historically the shawls were made in various geometric shapes from very lightweight, undyed threads of Orenburg goat wool. Orenburg down is thought to be the thinnest, softest goat down in the world – 16-18 micrometers, as opposed to Angora’s 22-24. As Orenburg goats living outside of the harsh winters of the Urals often develop rougher wool, Angora is commonly substituted in the rest of the world. Common Orenburg motifs include honeycomb, peas, and strawberries.

Shetland Lace (Scotland)

shetland lace

While no one seems to be entirely clear on how or when Shetland lace started, the oldest known example was found on a body buried in the late 1600s. Shetland lace does not appear to have been popular outside the islands until it became a particular favorite of Queen Victoria, who commissioned many pieces for herself and as gifts. Eventually, Shetland lace also developed a “wedding ring shawl” tradition, although many decorative and occasionally practical items beyond shawls are also made from Shetland lace. Like Orenburg lace, it traditionally uses thread spun from the undercoat of a local animal, although in this case it is a breed of sheep and not goat. Shetland shawls are generally square, featuring knitted borders basted onto a knitted center square. Common Shetland motifs include cat’s paws, old shale, and distinctive versions of the almost universal shell and horseshoe stitch patterns.

Estonian Lace (Estonia)


Swallowtail uses several Estonian techniques, including nupps.

Estonian lace began during the Russian rule of Estonia (early 1700s-early 1900s), when the town of Haapsalu became a popular resort town. Local women began creating ornate lace pieces to sell to the tourists. If you’ve ever heard of a nupp, you know about Estonian lace. This k-yo-k pattern, worked in a single stitch, creates a bump that is distinct from a bobble and is very characteristic of Estonian lace. Star stitches are also generally thought to be an Estonian creation. Like Shetland lace, Estonian lace pieces generally have borders. Unlike Shetland lace, Estonian borders are created by picking up stitches all the way around the project and knitting in the round.

Modern Lace

You’ll notice that many of the most well-known and beloved knitting styles originate in rather remote places. It takes a certain amount of isolation for unique styles to really develop. With the development of world travel and more recently the internet, all of the wonderful knitting traditions out there are rapidly blending to create a whole new sort of lace. I can’t wait to see what new styles evolve and separate in the coming centuries with access to so much information!


Knitting and Culture: Norway

If the post scheduler is working correctly, I am currently on vacation and absolutely nowhere near a computer. Since I plan to spend a good bit of my vacation in Norway, I thought I’d share with you a bit of info on the history and culture of knitting in Norway.


Map courtesy of Google

Did you know that Norway was actually one of the last European countries to adopt knitting? For as much as we overseas think “Scandinavia” every time we think “knitting”, the earliest known pieces of Norwegian knitting are from the 1600s. I guess it makes sense when you consider how far that knowledge had to travel just to get to Scandinavia at all.

Knitting didn’t really become common nationwide until the mid-1800s,when it became part of a growing movement toward nationalism. This is also when the first of what we tend to think of as the “traditional” two-color patterns began to appear. In particular, dot of darker color on a lighter background (unfortunately nicknamed “lice”) and borders of eight-petal flowers are now considered distinctly Norwegian.


Pattern: Norwegian Stockings to Knit by Terri Shea

After the Norwegian division from Sweden in 1905, there was a serious push to develop a national identity, and this included national styles of dress and handicraft. At that time people began to closely examine and make an effort to preserve the best regional and rural traditions from Norway, but they also began to borrow or modify ideas and designs that spoke to them from other cultures. For example, the Nordlandskofta style of sweater frequently includes borders inspired by Greek culture, but is a distinctly southwestern Norway creation from the 1940s.


In 1956 Dale of Norway created the now-iconic sweater for the Norwegian winter Olympics teams, which really cemented the idea of “Norwegian knitting” in the international world. It also transformed knitting in Norway from a rural tradition to a nationwide fashion statement. It had a wholesome, productive, and thoroughly feminine connotation that no doubt appealed to the “housewife culture” so common in the mid-century Western world. Knitting was not only a way to show national pride, but to show you loved your family and were skilled.

dale olympics 1956


Then in the 1970s there was an interesting phenomenon called “Hønsestrikk”, (“Chicken Knitting” or  “Hen Knitting”), which was actually a feminist movement. Take that, grandma stereotype. Danish writer Kirsten Hofstätter objected to tendency toward traditional knitting, much as other feminists of the time objected to traditional family structures. She felt it limited creativity and encouraged elitism. Hofstätter wrote a series of books encouraging use of bright colors, non-traditional designs, and saving money (and adding color!) by using scrap yarn whenever possible. Basically, she encouraged individuality. In fact it was not unusual to see hen knitters work their own names or personal stories and symbols into patterns. The trend became massively popular in Norway, where knitters not only began to buy patterns separately from yarn, but grew less inclined to use patterns at all.



No doubt the emergence of Ravelry in this generation has changed the face of knitting once again in Norway, as it is in so many other nations. I look forward to seeing what people will say about the next trend in another decade or two! I know some of my readers come from Norway or from Norwegian backgrounds; if you have more to add we’d love to hear it!

Knitting My (Eastern European) Heritage

Oh my goodness, I can’t believe how long it’s been since I did a Knitting History post! Here are my previous heritage posts on Ireland and Germany, for those (not so) new to the blog.

I can claim a significant amount of Eastern European heritage, from a number of different nations and cultures. Unfortunately, several centuries of political instability in Eastern Europe has limited the amount of written records available on “insignificant” things like knitting, particularly if I try to narrow it down to, say, just Czech knitting history or just Slovenian knitting history. So for the sake of practicality, I’m am doing a more generic “Eastern European knitting” post.


Dubrovnik, Croatia

First, like English and Continental style knitting, there is a style of knitting generally referred to as “Eastern European”. There are really several sub-styles here, just as English and Continental are both sub-styles of Western knitting. Eastern European knitting is distinct from Western styles because of the angle of the stitch. The side of the loop facing the knitter leans left on the needle, rather than right as in Western styles. You also insert your needle in the back of the stitch rather than the front.

eastern kntting

Photo by Maja via Cloopco

One of the earliest examples of advanced knitting techniques was found in Estonia – a partial Votic mitten with beautiful color work. Archaeologists have determined that it was knit in the Eastern style, and while it was found in the 1940s it was most likely knit in the 13th century. The fragment was found in a Votic woman’s grave. Charmingly, they even found one teeny little mistake in it – a twisted stitch.

votic mitten

Votic Mitten Fragment via

Elsewhere in the Baltic region, plenty more mittens and eventually gloves have been found which date between the 12th and 15th centuries. Tradition in the Baltic region stated that a young woman would be judged by the quality and beauty of the family’s worth of mittens she brought with her dowry, so mittens were often one of the first things a girl would learn to knit. It makes sense that so many of them, then, have survived til today.

baltic mittens

Kids’ mittens photo: Estonian National Museum fund number ERM A556:23//ab

The Balkans can also lay claim to very early examples of knitting, which makes sense if you consider that many scholars believe knitting originated in the Middle East. The Balkans were invaded by the Ottoman Empire well before most of Europe had regular interaction with the Muslim world. Bosnian sock knitting is a more recent trend inspired by the traditional patterns of the Balkans. These were traditionally knit in black and white and used more like slippers than boot socks. After all, why would you want to hide all that color work?!

bosnian socks

Bosnian Socks by Donna Druchunas via Knitty

You could tell a lot about an Eastern European by the socks they wore. Muslim men in the Balkans and Southeast Europe knit their own white stockings, whereas the fashion among Christians in Slavic parts of the Balkans leaned toward elaborately floral stockings. Bridal socks from Macedonia and other parts of Southeastern Europe showed a strong Turkish influence with bands of horizontal color work. Kind of makes me wonder what my socks say about me.

This is just a small collection of info I managed to piece together from various books and websites. If you have more info or clarifications, I would absolutely love to hear it. Please share!

Knitting My (German) Heritage

In my last Knitting History post, we talked about the history and culture of knitting in Ireland. In addition to my Irish heritage, I can claim a similar proportion of ancestry from Germany. So what’s the deal with knitting in Germany?

visit angels

The Visit of the Angels, Master Bertram von Minden

Bavaria was one of the first places to use 4-5 needles (dpns) for knitting in the round rather than seaming. This painting from Munich, circa 1400, shows the Madonna doing what a fairly typical housewife of the time would be doing – knitting a shirt on dpns. Circular needles, of course, are a much more recent invention.

Plauen lace

Plauen lace-making, 1980

By the early 1500s Germans (and specifically Plauens), like many people of the era, had developed a distinctive style of lace knitting. What started primarily as a luxury for clerical robes and the linens of nobility became available to the masses with the help of German engineering and early knitting machines in the late 19th century. Lace manufacturing continues to be  a significant source of income today in Plauen, Germany.

continental knitting

Continental Knitting

In the early 1800s, Germans revolutionized knitting again with the new German, or Continental, style of knitting. For those of you who are not Continental knitters, this style is accomplished by carrying the yarn in the left hand, and “picking”, rather than “throwing” the yarn. Some claim that the smaller movements of Continental knitting are better for avoiding Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI) and enable faster knitting.

During WWII, Continental knitting fell out of fashion in the Allied nations. Elizabeth Zimmermann, the English wife of a German,  is credited with restoring its popularity in the English-speaking world after immigrating to Wisconsin, USA in the 1950s.

In the next Knitting My Heritage post, we travel to Eastern Europe, to see the history of my Czech and Slovenian ancestors.

Knitting My (Irish) Heritage

My father tends to refer to my ancestry as “European mutt”, but there are a few nations of origin that stand out more than others. The one people tend to guess most often (I suppose because of the red hair and freckles) is Ireland. I’ve always had an interest in genealogy and in culture, which luckily go together nicely. For this post and maybe a few more, I’ve decided to combine them with my other great love – fiber! Below, a bit of the history and cultural background of fiber arts in Ireland:

Cliffs of Moher

Tucked away in Galway Bay, not far from the Cliffs of Moher, is perhaps the most iconic symbol of Irish fiber arts – the Aran Islands. The rough, rocky trio of islands are a difficult place to grow crops and raise livestock, so traditionally the locals made their living fishing and raising hardy species like sheep. Life on a cold, windy island necessitates warm, dry clothing, but counter to common belief, the Aran people did not turn to sweaters until the early 20th century.  Ganseys had grown popular in Britain and the Aran islanders decided to adapt them to their own needs and fashions.  So the Aran sweater was born. Aran sweaters are traditionally heavily cabled, which creates a thicker fabric and traps pockets of air for extra warmth. They are traditionally also undyed and retain some of their natural oils, which makes them slightly water resistant – perfect for life as a fisherman. The intricate and often varied combinations of cables are also a way for knitters and wearers to show family and cultural pride, and differentiate themselves from “the pack”.

Pattern “Aran Sweater” by Suzanna Bascuchea

Other parts of the western seaboard (more rural than its eastern counterpart) have also maintained their shepherding and fiber arts traditions. The west is where most of Ireland’s cottage industries call home. In addition to knitting, you’ll find cottage industries for weaving, spinning, and of course the world-famous (and traditionally crocheted) Irish lace. Irish lace developed as a rather ingenious response to the loss of many Irish livelihoods during the Potato Famine. Inspired by equally famous Venetian laces, literally crafty women began creating and marketing “Irish lace” as a way to earn money and feed their families until the potato crop recovered. Irish linen is also popular for those who can’t or don’t use wool. Linen is particularly dear to many an Irish history lover because it is a truly Irish fiber which the English tried and failed to control the use of in the 16th century.

Blarney Castle

Modern Ireland has maintained it’s respect for handcrafts and while it still hosts many small cottage industries, it is also known for its larger, more industrial mills like Blarney Woollen Mills. In the last century most Irish mills have transitioned from simply mass-producing textiles to serving as brick and mortar temptations for tourists and major exporters of all things traditionally Irish. In case you’re curious, the wool in the above sweater was my particular irresistible temptation when I visited. 😉

In the next Knitting My Heritage post…knitting in Germany!

Military Knitting Part 2

This post is pre-fab. I am currently out of the country and probably not checking my blog, but I promise to share vacation details once I’m home!

Last post I gave a brief history of knitting in the military up through World War I. The next documentation of servicemen knitting is in Russia, immediately following WWI.

Russian Civil Wars
Soldiers from the failed White Army fled into China, where they were seen teaching local traders to spin and knit readily available camel fiber. Considering the main routes to China from Russia go through Siberia, I can’t imagine why anyone in the area wouldn’t want to know how to knit. This was almost certainly not the first time Asia had seen knitting (Middle Easterners traded here as frequently as Europe), but may have been the first these particular nomads had encountered it or seen it as immediately useful.

white army

White Army Retreat By Неизвестен – ru:Участник:Vikiped, via Wikimedia Commons

World War II
Knitting became more of a civilian job as organizations like the American Red Cross pushed it as a way for those on the homefront to contribute to the war effort. Many civilians formed groups like the Little Norway Knitting Club in Butte, Montana (pictured below) to create socks and sweaters for soldiers. However, there are also records of soldiers held prisoner in Germany unraveling their own sweaters and reknitting them into socks with improvised barbed wire “needles” – knitting was not demilitarized yet.

little norway knitting club

The Little Norway Knitting Club in Butte, Montana. Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress) ca. 1942

Korean War
After WWII, manufactured goods were more readily available than ever. Knitting was still seen as a useful skill, but no longer a necessity. New, easy wash synthetic fibers were available in a variety of bright colors which made knitting quite fashionable. The entre of knitting into the fashion world solidified knitting as “women’s work” and likely sounded what appeared to be a death knell for knitting in the military. Can’t imagine why – I mean, nothing says “battle ready” like a twinset and pearls, right?

1960s knitting

Photo via Infrogmation and Wikimedia Commons

The Knitting Dark Ages
As Western economies flourished and convenience ruled over all, knitting became the “poor relation” of the art world. It was now overwhelmingly cheaper and easier to buy a sweater than to make one, and knitting for pleasure was seen as an “old lady” pastime. Yarn became cheaper and lower quality as fiber businesses tried to keep from failing. Almost no soldiers knit because fewer and fewer people overall knit.


Ethnic kniting, however, continued unabated. Photo by Bcasterline, via Wikimedia Commons

The Modern Day
Ironically, the continued improvement of manufacturing and farming technology has made more luxurious and exotic fibers more readily available to knitters around the world. While no longer a necessary skill, knitting is once again a skill many are entering the military with. As noted at the beginning of this series, it is also a skill many are learning while deployed. The combination of more women in the military and ever-blurring gender roles, as well as the increased availability of supplies and information (thanks to the internet) means knitting in the military now has the potential to reach heights never imagined before.

Did I miss anything? If you know anything more about knitting and military history, I’d love to hear about it! In particular I’d love to hear more about soldiers knitting outside Europe and the English-speaking world. I know there must be info out there, but my Google-fu is just not up to it.

Military Knitting Part 1

This post is pre-fab. I am currently out of the country and probably not checking my blog, but I promise to share vacation details once I’m home!

Regular readers know that my husband is in the military. Several other members of my family are as well, so I’ve always had a bit of an interest in the history of the military, if not in military history (yes, there is a difference). While searching for care package ideas during  Hubby’s last deployment I stumbled across quite a few stories of servicemen learning to knit to pass the time while deployed, or occasionally as a form of physical therapy.

People made such a fuss about how surprising it was to see soldiers knitting that it got me thinking about the history of knitting in the military. I know sailors used to knit; why not warriors? Sure enough, there is a long history of not just the women at home knitting for servicemen, but the men on the front lines knitting their own as well.

Middle Ages
Crusading knights return to Europe with a multitude of new things, including the first knitted goods the Western world had seen. It is thought that they may also have brought back the knowledge of knitting as a skill. While many think Spanish conquistadors spread knitting to the Americas, there is evidence that it was already there in the Andes as early as 1100 B.C.E.

egyptian sock

Sock on display at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. Thought to be circa 1000-1200 C.E.

The Renaissance 
While there was no shortage of wars  during the Renaissance, and knitters were almost exclusively male,  knitting was strictly controlled by the guilds. As merchants rarely became soldiers and vice versa, it is unlikely many warriors knit during this period.

mercenary camp

No knitters here. 😦 Photo by BrokenSphere via Wikimedia Commons

Crimean War
James Thomas Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan (of the famous “Charge of the Light Brigade”) wore a unique knitted sweater into battle which became an instant hit in the fashion world. The same battle also popularized the use of balaclavas to keep British soldiers warm.

Earl of Cardigan

7th Earl of Cardigan by Francis Grant via Wikimedia Commons

World War I
The heyday of knitting by and for soldiers.  In Britain, Lord Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl of Kitchener, devised a method of grafting sock toes which did not irritate his soldiers’ feet. More on this in a future post. Meanwhile, physicians at Camp Dix (in New Jersey) declared that knitting was beneficial to men as a “mental stimulus” and Americans set to work teaching their soldiers to knit. Soon after, someone had the brilliant idea to use knitting as occupational therapy as well. Combine this with the efforts to encourage all civilians, including small children, to knit for the war effort, and pretty near everyone was knitting.

walter reed knitters

Bed-ridden wounded, knitting. Walter Reed Hospital, near Washington, D.C. Harris & Ewing., ca. 1918 – ca. 1919 [National Archives’ Flickr]

All right, I think that’s enough history today. I think we’ll pick up with the Bolsheviks next time!

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