Knitting in the United Kingdom

Different cultures from around the world have their own distinct style or have a particular type of garment they’re known for. The UK is no exception.

Let's take a look at the contributions the United Kingdom has made to the craft of knitting.

Knitting and crochet has been a staple in cultures where making money with sticks, string and a little skill could feed and provide for an entire family. Both men and women designed, knitted and sold a variety of garments, then passed their skills down throughout the family so young nimble fingers could contribute.

Things have certainly changed and improved, but there are still areas where knitting and crochet are necessary skills used to provide for families.

When you purchase a pattern or skein of hand spun or hand dyed wool; remember that these skilled artisans are feeding and providing for their families. Their time and talent are more than worth the few dollars we pay to make something beautiful.

Technology has also changed the way we perceive the handmade arts. Mass produced products are now cheaper and faster to produce. But, there’s a makers renaissance that still values the skills required to produce a beautiful handcrafted item. 

Let’s take a look at the impact the United Kingdom has had on the craft of Knitting.

Knitting Machines:

One major contribution of the UK was the Knitting Machine.

The knitting machine was invented in 1589, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, by William Lee, a clergyman. Lee created the machine because his fiance' was more interested in her knitting than him. He thought giving her a faster way to knit would free up a little time she could spend with him.

The Industrial Revolution, which started in the late 18th century in Britain and spread throughout the world, played a key role in spreading factory yarn spinning, knitting and fabric manufacturing. 

The city of Nottingham dominated the production of machine knit lace during and after the Industrial Revolution. In the 19th century, electrical power was applied to knitting machines and shortly after, circular-knitting machines appeared in the market.

In our era of mass production, knitting machines have advanced to the point of using 4,000 needles to make a completed blazer in 90 minutes.

The latest evolution of the knitting machine comes from Japan. Mitsuhiro Shima, who took over his dad’s knitting-machine company is in talks with auto makers to make car parts to develop lighter, non-steel components, all with a knitting machine. 

Shetland Lace

Shetland is famous for its craggy coastline, its dramatic weather, its hardy ponies and sheep. How could such a wild and rugged place produce some of the world's most delicate lace?

For more than 500 years the knitters of the Shetland Islands have produced some of the finest garments. Shetland sheep grow fiber that's soft and light, producing a wonderful yarn for lace knitting. A well known example of Shetland lace include the Wedding Ring Shawl, a shawl so fine that it can be drawn through a wedding ring.  

Shetland fine lace requires two complimentary skills: first the yarn must be spun very fine, then knitted into intricate patterns. Spinning is done on the traditional small spinning wheel using wool of native sheep.

Spinners traditionally gather wool from the throat of the animal, because this is considered the finest, and isn't mixed with coarser fibers. The wool isn’t washed because the natural lanolin acts as a lubricant to make fine spinning easier. The gossamer thread is then doubled to make it stronger for knitting.

Shetland knitted lace became extremely popular in Victorian England when Queen Victoria became an enthusiast. Soon lace shawl patterns were popping up in English women’s magazines.

Lace spinning and knitting continue on the Shetland Islands. Christening shawls are still made and become family heirlooms. 

Aran Stitch Patterns

The most famous aspect of the Aran Island is the Aran Sweater. Knitted from sheep’s wool, they’re worn by fishermen and farmers because of their natural heat retention and water resistant properties. 

Aran sweaters are very distinctive not just because of their thick and untreated wool, but because of their unique textured stitch patterns. 

Contrary to popular belief, the typical cable patterned Aran sweater is a 20th century invention. In 1891, the government set up the Congested District Board to help families survive unemployment and a potato shortage. The board encouraged the locals to weave and knit garments to sell. This is similar to the Bohus Knitting Movement

The Aran style of knitting is made up of complex, intertwined, textured stitch patterns in columns down the length of the sweater, usually with the back and front mirroring each other. 

The intricate cables might be in reference to the ropes and nets that are vital to the fisherman's livelihood, or may have religious significance as they carry a strong resemblance to the designs found on Celtic crosses and in the illustrations of The Book of Kells

Each family supposedly has their own stitch patterns with specific meanings that are passed down through generations. Regardless, it takes a significant amount of skill to knit an Aran sweater, with some sweaters needing up to 60 days and 100,000 stitches to complete.

Some Aran stitch pattern meanings include:

  • The Honeycomb pattern which is symbolic of the hard-working bee 
  • A Diamond is a reference to wealth and treasure, and the 
  • The Basket stitch represents the fisherman's basket and the hope of a plentiful catch
  • The Tree of Life, which represents the stages of life or a particular life journey

There’s also a popular belief that Aran sweaters were given such specific stitches to identify men that drowned at sea, but there's no proof to back this up. Whatever the meaning or reason behind these intricate sweaters, they remain extremely popular today and are sold all over the world and still knitted by native island women.

Fair Isle Technique

Fair Isle is a traditional knitting technique used to create patterns with multiple colors. It’s named after a tiny island in the north of Scotland.

The oldest piece of Fair Isle clothing is in the Shetland Museum & Archives and dates from around 1850. It's dyed with madder and indigo. 

Fair Isle is distinguished by intricate patterns knit in various colors. Traditional patterns are limited to a palette of about five colors, using only two colors per row and worked in the round. 

The colors in a traditional garment are very unique because the dyes were made from local lichens, leaves, and grasses, which provided bright and distinctive colors. These were mixed with the muted wools from local Shetland sheep.

Much of its popularity is due to the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII) who often wore sweater vests knit with the Fair Isle pattern. After World War II ended many soldiers brought home Fair Isle garments, helping to spread the popularity of this knitting style. 

As the popularity grew, knitters turned away from the traditional styles and focused on modern patterns in an effort to continue the growth of this new cottage industry. These days Fair Isle refers more to a two stranded method of knitting than it does to a distinctive area tradition.

As you can see, the UK has a very rich and diverse knitting history which continues to this day. The Virginia & Albert (V&A) Museum has a wealth of information on the subject including information on the Channel Islands and Yorkshire Dales. 

Sticks & String,
Lori