The history of knitting in America
America is a young country in comparison with our European cousins, but we are a huge, diverse, and very creative bunch. The history of knitting in America is a tale full of patriotism and innovation, topped up with artistic tendencies and a great love of yarn.
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The Boston Tea Party wasn’t the only subversive act in Colonial America
Above: artistic interpretation of the Daughters of Liberty holding a spinning bee
Knitting in America had early origins. We’ve all heard the story of Colonial Americans dumping British tea into Boston Harbor to protest unfair taxation. “No taxation without representation!” But while the Tea Party was the most sensational subversive act of defiance against the crown, women were protesting in an equally important way. They founded the Daughters of Liberty, a rebel group of over 90 women. The Daughters of Liberty held community “spinning and sewing bees,” where local women spun and dyed their own yarn. Their homespun fabrics and fibers released them from the oppressively taxed textiles that were sold by British merchants.
Rebels of both genders attended these events, and they became a hotbed of planning and community effort for independence. Informal community competitions were held for the fastest spinners and most beautiful fiber dyers. Women who succeeded in clothing their families completely in homespun and hand-dyed fibers were rewarded with the title “Free, Liberated, and Frugal.”
The Civil War called for thousands of hand-knitted socks
Above: Civil War era knitting needles and case (these needles probably weren’t used to knit socks, they are too big).
Letters from their beloved soldiers painted an unsettling and upsetting picture. Many wore through their military-issued, machine-knitted socks within the first few weeks of the war, and were dealing with blisters and foot rot as a result. During the years 1861-1865, a woman named Mary Chesnut from South Carolina recalls, “I do not know when I have seen a woman without knitting in her hand. In the North as well as the South, knitting needles clicked incessantly.”
However, not all socks were useful to the boys on the front lines: due to a lack of wool carders and spinning tools, many women were knitting socks with linen and cotton, which created loose, ill-fitting socks. A newspaper in Charleston, South Carolina stated, “The formation of some of the socks which they have produced does not indicate a very exact knowledge of human anatomy. I saw on last evening, which I am told, was intended for the foot of the entire Southern Confederacy. From its size, I judged it would make a rather loose fit.”
President Woodrow Wilson kept a flock of sheep at the White House
Above: sheep on the front lawn of the White House
In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson decided that he and the first lady would like to have sheep on the lawn of the White House. They raised over $52,000 (that’s over $897,000 in today’s currency) selling the wool – and the Red Cross received the profits to support the war effort.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing – the sheep were prone to illness caused by fear of passing automobiles and loud noises. By 1920, the growing flock had munched their way through most of the grass on the back lawn. Panicked White House groundskeepers and landscapers rushed to fence off the lovingly tended flower beds before relocating the flock to the front lawn.
A few months after SheepGate, President Wilson made the sad decision to relocate the sheep away from the White House. Perhaps the next president will bring them back?
Eleanor Roosevelt was the “First Lady of Knitting”
Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the most beloved first ladies in American history, founded the Knit for Defense organization during World War II. This organization encouraged knitters of all ages and skill sets to knit warm things for the men fighting abroad. They knitted socks, hats, and scarves, and their efforts were gratefully received. Men wrote back to their local newspapers, thanking the women who knitted for them.
And if you thought that knitting was only hobby for women back then, you’d be wrong: in the photograph below, you can see President Franklin Delano Roosevelt knitting with his wife.
The post-war knitting decline
After World War II, knitting faced a decline in popularity. Machine knitted garments were cheap and easily obtained; after decades of a “make do and mend” mentality, Americans wanted to buy things new. After the recession in the 1980s, large craft companies absorbed many smaller local yarn shops.
American born crafter Kaffe Fassett, who came on the scene in the late 1970s, brought knitting back to the fore with his colorful and inspired knitwear designs and innovations. He is known as a master of all textile art, including quilting, knitting, needlework, and more. He says, “Those of you who feel knitting has changed your life, welcome to the club. I can think of no better occupation to reveal your own creativity.” He continues to be a positive force in the knitting industry by creating stunningly colorful works of knitted art. He is credited with bringing many back to the knitting circle, and it’s not hard to see why.
Above: Kaffe Fassett at the American Museum
Knitting in the 21st century
The industry has grown in leaps and bounds in the 21st century, aided in part by the rise of bloggers in the early 2000s. The introduction of PDF pattern downloads in 2004 revolutionized the industry. We no longer have to wait for patterns to arrive in the mail, we can cast on as soon as we complete the download! Knitting circles began to reappear in churches, libraries, and community centers across America. Knitters and crafters of all ages picked up their needles again to create beautiful hand-knitted garments and accessories.
Only one question remains: is knitting in America here to stay?
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Last updated: August 26th, 2016.