A brief history of handknitting in the British Isles from the 15th century. A general overview part 2.
During the 17th and 18th centuries knitting became a means of supplementing the income of subsistent farmers and was part of a vast occupation involving the whole family. So, as knitting spread down the east coast of Scotland and England men and women could be found not only knitting in fishing ports such as Whitby and Filey but also in the Yorkshire Dales and surrounding areas inland working more by feel than by eye when all light had disappeared. Co- incidentally Aran knitting was also to become a means of supplementing the income of the Irish farmers during the potato famine and to offset the high levels of unemployment there at this time.
By now, the Channel Islands who were amongst the first to export their woollen clothing via France, dating as far back as Queen Elizabeth the 1st were supplying the fishing industry with practical and warm clothing and the development of the Jersey was invented out of the necessity i.e. the wearing of unencumbered garments in which to work. Chunky indigo dyed woollen jumpers were knitted with their famous decorated edges and side slits for ease of movement. Similarly, Guernsey had its classic square shaped woollen sweater with straight neck knitted on four or five needles so that it could be reversed at any time in order to get further use out of the garment.
However it was to be not only the French and industrial revolutions which would cause the demise of the woollen trade between these islands and other countries as far away as Nova Scotia but two world wars would accelerate this decline in the hand knitting industry during the 19th century. In England yarn shortages also meant that during these wars knitting for the army and navy became more important than at any other time (even knitted bandages in cotton could be made as part of the war effort) so all other garments knitted for the family tended to be of recycled yarn and as a matter of course learning to unpick and steam crinkly yarn was something all family members learnt to do. Needles also were in short supply so bicycle spokes would be filed down or goose quills used as alternatives in fact anything that the general public could get their hands on and which could be identified as a needle would be used.
Post war influences such as those of the film industry in Hollywood and America as well as those influences from Scandinavia began to permeate not only the fashion industry but the interior design scene in Europe in general, about the 1950's which gave a huge boost to colours/yarns and altogether better designs not only in clothing but in interior design as well. This era also demanded strict adherence to knitting instruction manuals/books and magazines and was to have it's very own 'makeover' much later as the craft became modernised at the start of the millennium and although supplementing the income was no longer a necessity due to the low cost of imported and home manufactured goods, hand knitting was still being taught in school not only because it was a skill but it was now viewed much more as a hobby.
The popularity of knitting began to wane and showed a sharp decline in the 1980's due to the perception of the craft as being seen as old fashioned , that plus the increased availability of cheap machine manufactured garments were also having a marked effect on this terminal decline.
However by the start of the new millennium it is thanks to companies like Vogue focussing on the production of knitting patterns and designs almost straight off the catwalk and Rowan Yarns who at this time were also offering not only high quality knitting magazines suitable for the smartest coffee table but as well, yarns as yet undreamt of that a revival of the craft of handknitting began.
Just as textile guilds several centuries before allowed the initiated to practise their crafts on a professional level so Universities more recently have begun to recognise and offer more in the way of textile degrees that emphasise the importance of this line of education. The inference now being made through these degree courses is that the knowledge of textiles has a broader spectrum of skills to cover than was initially understood.
Celebrities have also had their chance to popularise knitting but credit however should go these days to the internet which is where the greatest resurgence has been made possible. This can quite clearly be seen and is evidenced through the involvement of entire countries globally in an exciting modernisation of this very ancient craft.
There's more on the history of knitting from the 15th century in History 1 and there's an introduction to knitted garments and household items from the 18th century in History 3.