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The oldest remnants of seemingly knitted pieces are those that were worn as socks. It is believed that socks and stockings were the first pieces to be produced by techniques similar to knitting as they had to be shaped in order to fit the foot, whereas woven cloth could be used for most other items of clothing. Today it is known that these early socks were worked in Nålebinding, an ancient craft which involves creating fabric from thread by making multiple knots or loops. It is done with a needle (originally of wood or bone). There exist numerous techniques of nalebinding, and some of them look very similar to true knitting. This craft was almost dead by the time archaeological excavations started except in some very remote areas, so no one thought about it. Some of the oldest textiles ever found are today believed to be a kind of nalebinding. It has been speculated that nalebinding or related techniques may have preceded the abillity to spin continuous thread, because nalebinding isn't worked with a continuous thread and so doesn't require one. Several other pieces done in now almost extinct techniques have been mistaken for knitting or crochet by archaeologists who had no training in the history of needlework.
The first references to true knitting in Europe were in the early 14th century, though the first knitted socks from Egypt might be slightly older. At these early times, the purl stitch was unknown; in order to produce plain knitting it was necessary to knit in the round and then cut it open. The first reference to purl stitch dates from the mid-16th century, but the knowledge may have slightly preceded that.
During this era the manufacture of stockings was of vast importance to many Britons, who knitted with fine wool and exported their wares. Knitting schools were established as a way of providing an income to the poor, and the stockings that were made sent to the Netherlands, Spain, and Germany. The fashion of the period for men to wear short trunks made the fitted stockings commonly used, a fashion necessity.
Queen Elizabeth the First herself favoured silk stockings, these were finer, softer and much more expensive. Actual examples of stockings that belonged to her still remain, showing the high quality and decorative nature of the items specifically knitted for her.
Men were also the first to knit for an occupation.
Knitting was such a vast occupation among those living on the Scottish Isles during the 17th and 18th centuries that the whole family would be involved in making sweaters, socks, stockings, etc. Fair Isle techniques were used to create elaborate colorful patterns. The sweaters were essential to the fishermen of these Isles, as the natural oils within the wool would provide some element of protection against the harsh weathers while out fishing.
Many elaborate designs were developed, such as cable stitch used on aran sweaters in Ireland.
Rudimentary knitting devices had been invented prior to this period, but were one-off creations. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution wool spinning, and cloth manufacture began to be done in factories. More women would be employed at operating machinery, rather than producing their home spun and knitted items.
The consistency of the factory spun wool was better in that it was more uniform, and the weight could be gauged better as a consequence.
Make do and mend was the title of a booklet produced by the British wartime government department, the Ministry of Information.
Wool was in very short supply, as were so many things. The booklet encouraged women to unpick any old, unwearable, woollen items in order to re-use the wool.
Knitting patterns were issued for people to make items for the Army and Navy to wear in winter, such as balaclavas and gloves. This had the effect of producing the required items, but also gave a positive sense of achievement towards the war effort, by being able to contribute in this way.