History of knitting from early times to 16th Century in Britain

NOTE: This is intended for use as a guide for people wishing to be authentic when placing knitted items in dolls houses.

We are often asked questions relating to these topics covered below. This is NOT a full history of knitting in Britain and many areas of the craft have not been covered. Other areas have been mentioned only briefly. Knitting is still evolving and will no doubt undergo many more changes during its history.
The patterns we offer in 1/12th and 1/24th scale are as accurate as we can manage in this scale, but for ease of knitting in such a small scale, many of our patterns only employ two needles.

Pre 15th Century – Male knitters

Although knitting has been around in many forms since early times, some is not ‘true’ knitting, but closely resembles knitting. Roman soldiers are said to have worn knitted socks when serving in the cold outposts of the Empire such as Britain. There is still much debate as to the form this early knitting took.

It should also be remembered that early on in the history of knitting that any form of fancy knitting would have been the secret preserve of Knitting Guilds. These were Male orientated and involved long and complicated apprenticeships. It would NOT have been common practice for women of the house to knit.

15th and 16th Century knitting in Britain

Prior to Tudor times knitting was not very common in England. But by Tudor times knitting was seen as an active industry with laws to protect it. For example: By law in Tudor times every male over the age of six had to wear a woollen cap on Sundays and Holy days. According to the Sumptuary Laws any man not wearing a cap on these days had to pay a strict fine. The laws were passed to protect the jobs of the ‘Cappers’ (cap makers). Tudor caps were generally felted after being knitted, to give the appearance of cloth. European knitting Guilds by this time had developed very intricate patterns, which showed distinct regional variations.

miniature knitting
© F H Powell 2015

Knitting by women became fashionable when Ladies in Waiting to Queen Elizabeth 1 started knitting silk stockings for pleasure. It is thought the lace knitting for these stockings originated in Spain. The majority of lower to middle classes would have worn woollen hose, with only the upper classes wearing silk hose. The hose were tied to the top of the leg with garters (hence garter stitch). Rib stitches were unknown at this time so top borders would have been worked in garter stitch. The garters did not show, as they would be tied under the breeches. The wool used would have been the natural un-dyed sheep colour.

When Elizabeth 1 set a new fashion by wearing hand knitted stockings demand increased, and in wool producing areas such as the Yorkshire Dales every family in the Dale – men, women and children – became involved in knitting woollen stockings.

It is interesting to note that in the early 16th century, licences were granted to the Channel Islands to import wool from England. The main exports of the Channel Islands were stockings, some of which were owned by Mary 1 and Elizabeth 1.
By the end of Elizabeth’s reign fisherman’s ganseys were also commonly being knitted and local patterns started to develop.

miniature gansey
© F H Powell 2007

Some of the local variations of knitting in Scotland are thought to date from the time of the aftermath of the Armada, when Spanish sailors were shipwrecked on the northern coasts and islands of Britain. For example many Fair Isle patterns are very similar to 15th and 16th Century Spanish designs. Many Spanish noblemen were amongst those shipwrecked and knitting was a common pastime amongst the nobility.
It is at this time that purl or ‘pearl’ stitches first started to be used for decoration or ‘clocking’ on stockings, prior to this time purl stitches were not needed as all knitting was done in the round. Shaping by increasing and decreasing stitches was also commonly used in Tudor knitting.

Other garments knitted at this time included waistcoats and vests.