News A brief history of knitting in America: read more at LoveKnitting

Published on July 1st, 2016 | by Angie


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

A brief history of knitting in America: learn more at LoveKnittingAbove: 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

A brief history of knitting in America: read more at LoveKnittingAbove: 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

A brief history of knitting in America: learn more at LoveKnittingAbove: 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.

A brief history of knitting in America: learn more at LoveKnitting

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.

A brief history of knitting in America: read more at LoveKnittingAbove: 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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About the Author

Jack of all trades, Master of Netflix and video games. A musician by passion, a gamer by choice, and a crafter by chance: I write about knitting and crochet and design fun patterns!

Last updated: August 26th, 2016.

6 Responses to The history of knitting in America

  1. Shirley says:

    We British did the same thing in both world wars. I was Born in 1946 and from the age of 4was taught by my nan to knit 66 yrs later I’m still knitting and recently took up crocheting. It’s relaxing keeps arthritis at bay just wish I could use my feet too. So come on knitters and crocheted keep calm and carry on

  2. WheelyBad says:

    Absolutely Shirley! I was told to do as much with my hands as I can manage, plus knitting and crochet staves off the boredom from being stuck in house or in bed. I enjoy all handicrafts and have done since potato printing as a tot! I really enjoyed this piece of American history and I’m a keen collector of both British and American patterns from the war era, there are so many available online courtesy of museums and re enactors. Its so interesting to see how some things have changed and how some has stayed the same.

    Plus I love that hand crafting is an international community. So much drives wedges between us all at times and it’s lovely we have these shared interests that bring us together.

  3. Ellen says:

    I doubt seriously that Kaffe was the reason knitting came back in fashion. It came back, as many things do, when people began to go back to making things from scratch. Cooking followed the same cycle, as did loads of other crafts. Yes, Kaffe makes some lovely designs, but no, he was not responsible for the resurgence of handknitting.

  4. Dianne Mulligan says:

    I love reading the “History of Knitting in America,” I suppose because I love knitting. After many years of having no time for knitting, I retired and started again. I love knitting groups and my dream is to one day attend one of the knitting trips sponsored by LoveKnitting. I honor all of you knitters for your creativity and talent. I have learned so much from so many of you.

  5. Vee P says:

    I think Ellen’s correct in doubting that Kaffe was the reason knitting came back into fashion, but I do think he was a prime mover in encouraging people to be more adventurous & experimental in their knitting, mixing up colours and textures, trying out different yarns, the idea that patterns and designs could just grow organically, etc.

    And now we live in a wonderful world of glorious coloured, gorgeous yarns, often produced by small independents to meet our desire to create special one-off items that are often artworks as much as garments. He might not have caused that, but he sure helped!

    My mum and I went to a talk by him in the mid-late 80s (at Worcester Race Course of all places) and it was absolutely fascinating. His approach was so refreshing at that time. I definitely think he was one of the reasons I kept knitting all through my teens and twenties when it was seriously not fashionable!

    • Claudia May says:

      Vee P, I just love the story of how you knitted even when it was not hot for a young woman to be knitting. I think you should have your own blog. Blessings, Claudia from Venetia PA

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