What do we know about early knitting in Western Europe? Given the nature of wool and knitting tools it is not surprising that we do not have archeological samples of the first knitting done in Western Europe. Let us then work backwards and see if knitting enabled some activity that we do know about, and which only knitting could have enabled.
We know from the “Pope’s Stocking” that the Arabs had highly developed knitting in the 9th Century. Who would have known about this and needed the technology?
Let us think about how people stay warm. Even today, the warmest material for clothing that we know of is reindeer pelts. We remember that all through the era of Viking raids on Great Britain, Norse traders were bringing reindeer pelts down to Great Britain. At that time, they had thatched roofs and plenty of wood for fires in the forests. Furs, stone huts with thatched roofs, and a bright wood fire is enough to keep a community warm all winter long. There were fish just off shore, so the fishermen could row out in the morning, back in the evening, and dry his furs by the fire that night. Knitting would be a nice luxury, but not a necessity.
By the mid-13th Century, fish had gotten scarcer and the Portuguese were making a profit by fishing for cod off the North Atlantic Banks and selling the cod across Europe. This involved weeks or months at sea without a chance to dry the sailor’s furs, and sailors working in the upper rigging of tall ships. Sailors using furs might have made the trip once or twice using furs as clothing, but they, and the captains, and the ship owners would have been desperate for another technology to keep the sailors warm.
One option would have been naalbinding. However, naalbinding is so labor intensive that a full set of garments for an entire crew would have been so expensive that it would have been impossible to make a profit on the fish.
A good fisherman's gansey can be knit by an amateur (i.e., a fisherman’s wife) in about 120 hours or 2 hours per day for two months. In contrast a talented professional could knit as many as 48 per year. Thus, a knit gansey required only a quarter or a fifth as much labor to produce as one made by naalbinding. Given the short, hard, life of a fisherman’s gansey, naalbinding was not economically practical.
The tools for producing a fisherman’s gansey include long, double pointed needles and a knitting sheath. The long needles provide the leverage to pack the yarn close together so that is weatherproof. The best material for such needles is steel. Thus, a set of such needles would have cost as much as a steel butcher knife, but less than a steel ax head. It would have been a significant outlay for a household but no worse than a modern household buying a computer, and with care such steel needles would have lasted for generations. However, less expensive needle sets could have been made from antler or whale bone. With some care, good seaman’s ganseys can even be knit on wooden needles.
This was fishing as a commercial venture. If there is no profit, there is no reason to go! And, they made a profit! By 1410, the industry had expanded until cod from the banks was being landed at Liverpool. When John Cabot got there 90 years later and “discovered” the banks, he estimated that there were a thousand ships there, all fishing for cod. That is thirty thousand men in wooden ships on those foggy, windswept, stormy seas. That is a lot of men to keep warm!
Let us pause, and consider, “Who else in Western Europe was cold at the beginning of the 13th Century?” Cistercian monks. The dress code of their order forbade anything but wool – no furs. Their structures were grand, but cold. (Despite the fact that some did have water powered central heat.) The monks spent hours and hours per day in those grand, but cold churches. I put forth the proposition that the Cistercians introduced knitting to Western Europe before the 13th Century.
Why? They had the need for warm woolen clothing. They had the resources. They had contact and communication with countries where knitting was known. They were the leading sheep breeder of the time, moving rams from country to country to systematically improve the quality of wool from the various abbeys’ flocks. And, their order’s mission included the accumulation and transfer of technology. Knitting is a technology, that requires a bit of learning. Let us remember that in the 14th Century, taxes on the wool trade were the single largest source of income for the British Crown and the Cistercians were critical to that trade.
Could knitting have really been known in Europe this early? By the 14th Century, France had a standing navy patrolling the Channel. I do not see any way to have a standing navy (with tall ships) without knitting. By the 15th Century, the establishment of “parks” that excluded commoners reduced availability of furs and wood for heating along with conversion of forest to pasture resulted in more of the population turning to knit wool for warmth, and at that point we see it documented in the popular literature.
Consider the Irish. When Ireland was forested with an economy based on cattle, no knitting was required. As there forests diminished they turned from wood to peat for fuel. A peat fire just does not warm a cottage like a wood or coal fire. And, less forest means fewer furs. Thus, over time knitting became more important to the comfort of the general population, which does not mean it was not known earlier; just that the earlier, more specialized knitting for sea men was as widely practiced.
How did the Portuguese fishermen/sailors on the Banks stay warm? How did the early French Navy stay warm? Their wives knit them ganseys, and it took a couple of hundred years for knitting to move into the popular culture.
That is my story and I am sticking to it. (Until I have a better one!)