Actually, I thought about felt quite a lot. However, we have good knowledge that it was not much used aboard square rigged, sailing ships. So the real question is why was felt not used more? The answer is that felt clothing does not suit the kind of work done on a (square rigged) ship. As a result, the great sea faring centers have museums devoted to knitting, not felting. Felt clothing was very practical and popular on steam ships starting in the Victorian Era.
Knitting for subsistence fishing could be performed by wives, sisters, mothers, and other family members. However, Great Britain was a great sea faring nation with a navy that pressed crews - no chance for a mother to knit for her son while he served in His Majesty’s’ Navy. So there was commercial knitting for seamen as early as there were navy press gangs – and in France that was um – 1380? Customs tax records suggest that the wool that those French navy sailors wore came from England and was knit in the Channel Islands. Knitting was such a large industry in the Channel Islands that for a while customs tax on British wool exported to the Channel Islands was the primary income for the British Crown. When the Tudor Wool Act was passed, (to protect the Yorkshire knitting Industry) the Channel Islands turned to piracy, which was only resolved when Sir Walter Raleigh reestablished knitting on the Channel Islands as an industry. In those days, knitting was big business.
In Victorian days, knitting became conspicuous consumption in the tradition of Thorstein Veblen, Gary Becker, and Kevin Murphy. Knitting loosely proved that a lady’s house had central heat. Ladies wrote new knitting manuals to teach their students how to knit slowly and elegantly. Another great virtue of knitting slowly and loosely is no stress on the wrists. Thus, the ladies were able to discard the distained knitting sheaths. The old professional knitters did not write their skills down, and subsequent generations of knitters from all walks of life looked to the knitting manuals written by Victorian ladies. However, later generations of knitters forgot that those Victorian ladies had a distain for practical professional knitting.
As Mary Thomas writing in 1938 said,
Knitting sheaths, or sticks, as they were sometimes called, are now a feature of museum interest, but at one time, when hand knitting was a vast and flourishing industry and speed a matter of pence, every knitter owned and used these implements. . . .
Mary Wright was one of the first to address the subject of knitting sheaths openly in her 1979 book, Cornish Guernseys & Knit frocks. (It is also worth noting that she damaged her wrists knitting a replica gansey on circular needles.)
In the old days, when knitting was an important technology, they were very, very good at it. One of the finest examples of knitting that we have is a fragment of silk hose with designs in gold filaments from the Arab world, knit in the Ninth Century. That was knit with the élan that separates the talented professional from the merely competent amateur. Yes, today we have people that do things like: http://www.ravelry.com/projects/dawn9163/whitby-gansey, but it took her more than a month and she had sore wrists afterward.
In the Victorian era, we lost much our heritage of these professional knitting tools and expertise. We no longer have cadres of talented professional hand knitters with trade secrets, advancing their craft generation by generation. We forgot how to knit ganseys without sore wrists. We have forgotten how to hand knit silk and gold at 30 stitches per inch. With a few exceptions, now, we do “hobby” knitting. Our professional knitters are designers that make a living doing designs for “hobby knitters”. I look to history, not for history per se, but for clues that can let me be a better knitter in the future.
Knitters that come to me for “history” are going to be disappointed. Knitters coming to me for ideas on how to knit better are going to be amazed and delighted. I have used rocks (Clovis blades) to cut my meat, but sometimes a steel knife is - just better. I have pounded nails with a rock, but sometimes a carpenter’s hammer is – just better. I have used Addi Turbos, but sometimes DPN with a knitting sheath is - just better.
He, who knows only his own generation, remains always a child.