17th to 20th Century Knitting in Britain

With the arrival of the knitting machines in the Stuart period more knitwear was produced, but the demand for hand knitting continued, although by this time it was done mainly by women and children. Women were also able to combine knitting with other jobs, as it was easily portable. Children in workhouses were also taught to knit along with other things such as spinning and lace making.

Stockings and gloves became the mainstay of the knitters in the late 17th and 18th Centuries, but by the late 18th Century rural hand knitting was in decline as the knitting frames took over.

By Victorian times hand knitting was making a comeback amongst the middle and upper classes with the introduction of knitting patterns. Prior to this time very few patterns were written down, most were passed down verbally through families and were closely guarded secrets. The one group still knitting were the fishing folk, the fishermen travelled around the coasts following the fish their womenfolk migrated with them and brought their knitting to do in between gutting and packing fish. Regional variations grew up amongst the ganseys knitted by these women and it was even possible to say which port a fisherman had sailed from by the design on his gansey.

pattern for dolls jumper
© F H Powell 2010

By mid and late Victorian times many Ladies magazines were printing knitting patterns, although these would hardly seem like patterns to us today, much of the actual instruction is left to the imagination and detailed patterns only appeared during the late 19th and early 20th Century, gradually evolving into the patterns we are used to today.

Pattern for dolls Victorian drawers
© F H Powell 2014

The techniques used to make garments also evolved rapidly during this period reaching its height in the 1930’s and 1940’s when garments were shaped to contour the body. The knitting was also more likely to be made of several pieces which were then joined, rather than knitted in one piece as was common prior to this time. Some beautiful patterns were designed at this time including Wedding Gowns such as the one shown below.

pattern for dolls dress
© F H Powell 2011