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Knitting’s tangled history

Knitting’s tangled history

How the humble yarn spun its way through social revolution

How the humble yarn spun its way through social revolution

Matthew Sweet | February/March 2020

A 1950s swimming costume, sagging with brine; a Scandi noir detective in her workwear; a showbiz gossip column reporting Russell Crowe’s fondness for the needles. The history of knitting is a tangled yarn. Hipsters do it now but not, like their forebears, out of economic necessity: it’s more about self-care than self-sufficiency. In the 20th century, knitting was seen as women’s work and recreation – and therefore used against them. When President Jimmy Carter appointed Barbara Judge as a securities and exchange commissioner, she opened us capital markets to foreign companies and negotiated American entry to the Tokyo Stock Exchange. “I got hate mail,” she recalled. “‘Stick to your knitting.’” Its sender, doubtless, had never read of Madame Defarge, the Jacobin revolutionary in Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities”, who encoded the names of her enemies into the pattern of her work.

 

The Buxtehude Altar c.1400-10
Knitting, like numerals, came to Europe from the Islamic world. (No “knit one” without the Ottomans.) So what should we make of this 15th-century Madonna from the altarpiece of a Benedictine monastery, clicking away while first-grader Jesus flips languidly through his RE homework? Her skill signifies nobility: Europe’s earliest surviving knitwear is fancy stuff preserved in the tombs of the Spanish aristocracy. And her technique will produce sleeves and body in one piece. This garment will be seamless, like the join between one culture and another.

Get wool soon
Nylon shirt, £460/$600, Sankuanz. Cotton jumper, £840/$1,100, and gloves, POA, both Acne Studios. Black boots, POA, Alexandre Vauthier

Fair Isle knitwear 1926
The origin story of the Fair Isle sweater involves crafty alumni of the Spanish Armada, shipwrecked on a spot between Orkney and Shetland, who thanked their rescuers with the gift of woolly polychromy. Best not to pull too hard at the threads of that one. Led by the example of the Prince of Wales of the time, 1920s golfers deserve the credit for its modern form. They wore Fair Isle wool above the waist and below the knee, giving the impression that it had also colonised the territory beneath their plus fours.

Herring girls 1929
These are the gutter girls, economic migrants who once travelled the coast of Britain, from Scotland to Great Yarmouth, following the progress of the herring fleet. They knitted as they walked, converting dead time into money, influencing the textile traditions of the towns through which they passed, and keeping their fingers in training for dirtier work to come. Once the boats arrived, the women would down needles and take up sharper tools – to unstitch strands of inedible matter from great silver streams of fish.

Counting sheep
Turban made from lambskin coat, £1,260/$1,650, Isabelle Marant and polyester jumper, POA, Acne Studios. Long shearling caban coat, £5,280/$6,900, Celine by Hedi Slimane

Joan Fontaine 1940
This is the star of Hitchcock’s “Rebecca”, but she’s not playing the title role. All we know is that she’s the second wife of Maxim de Winter, and that her predecessor is still a powerful presence in the marital home. The neat little twinset is a code: it tells us that Fontaine’s heroine is conservative, modest and sensible. Rebecca, however, has a posthumous archive of lingerie and furs, lovingly curated by the sinister housekeeper. Mrs Danvers is given to rubbing her face in her dead mistress’s mink. Wool would conduct no such perverse charge.

Norwegian wool 1962
The Scandi jumper. Time-tested proof against Arctic chill, beloved of Bergman heroines, taciturn eel-fishers and the après-ski crowd. Talismanic garment of the British liberal middle classes, hungry for hygge, twisty-turny detective dramas and a well-funded state education system. This early 1960s example isn’t quite what it seems. It’s 100% nylon. No sheep were worried during its manufacture. But if we could put it under the microscope, we’d see its thermoplastic fibres looped and linked, as if by needles too small for human hand.

Tangled ever after
Cotton shirt, POA, Christian Dior. Recycled T-shirt dress, POA, Stella McCartney. Brass bracelet, POA, Acne Studios.

Sammy Davis Jnr 1955
In the sweat and ferocity of Vegas, the Rat Pack dressed like FBI agents. But here, away from his friends, Sammy Davis Jnr has slipped into his Easy Listening knitwear – the cardigans and Christmas jumpers worn by a generation of crooners when they wanted to spend some quality time with you by the fireside. Remember Val Doonican in his rocking chair, and Perry Como in his Alpine ski lodge? Warm soft voices in warm soft clothes, willing us not to wonder about the TV studio lights above them.

Punk 1977
Punk fashion loved slashing denim, tearing plastic bin bags and penetrating human cartilage with studs and pins. Knitwear, though, is already full of holes. This cobweb of mohair was sold at Seditionaries, Vivienne Westwood’s store at 430 King’s Road in London, where Sid Vicious worked behind the counter before graduating to the Sex Pistols. It wouldn’t have survived the mosh pit. Even in this pristine state, fresh from the shelf, it seems ready to stage its own destruction and expose the angry flesh beneath.

Heading to come
Nylon shirt, £460/$600, Sankuanz. Wool jumper, £500/$650, Y/Project



PHOTOGRAPHs Coco Amardeil
STYLIST Joana Dacheville