Tuesday, September 27, 2011


As sweater season approaches three designers who transformed knits into runway hits come to mind. Every fashionista is familiar with Missoni’s knock-em-dead zigzags and Ralph Lauren’s floor-length turtleneck dresses. Those of you who have been following fashion trends from the 60s will remember Sonia Rykiel of the snazzy striped sweaters and clingy dresses. Also designer of the Poor Boy Sweater, Rykiel was the first to put seams on the outside of garments. Love that look. Rykiel was dubbed the “queen of knits,” but it was Coco Chanel (above left) who created the turning point for knitwear when she used jersey to create suits for women way back in 1916. Prior to Mademoiselle Chanel’s stroke of genius, jersey was designated to the pedestrian role of men’s underwear.

As I delved into where and when knits originated, I realized I was diving in deep. Knits are a lot of ground to cover in one post. Knits existed as early as 300 BCE when the Paracas and Nazca cultures of Peru were knitting hats and shawls. Also among the oldest samples of single-needle knitting are the patterned sandal socks of the Coptic Christians of Egypt in the 4th century CE. The earliest knitted items in Europe we know of were made by Muslim knitters employed by Spanish Christian royal families. Among them is a pair of knitted gloves, which were found in the tomb of Prince Fernando de la Cerda, who died in 1275. Archaeological finds and tax lists from medieval cities in Europe and England show the spread of the popularity of knitted goods from the 14th century onwards. By the 1400s, there were knitting guilds all over Europe and by the mid-16th century, stockings had become somewhat of an undercover fashion statement for women. Eleanora de Toledo, wife of Cosimo de Medici, was buried in a pair of lacy, red silk stockings. Queen Elizabeth 1 of England (1533-1603) also favored silk stockings. Needless to say, Her Majesty’s were custom knitted for her.

I won’t linger on stockings, which were, incidentally, worn by both men and women during those times. So, let’s move onto the sweater, that garment we take so much for granted. The first information I found on sweaters was in the 17th and 18th centuries when knitting had become such a huge cottage industry in the Scottish Isles that entire families were involved in making sweaters among other forms of knitwear. It is the Scots to whom we owe the colorful and elaborately patterned Fair Isle sweater, which was a staple garment of Scottish fishermen. Off the west coast of Ireland, the wives of the fishermen of the Aran Islands were also knitting away to keep their men warm while at sea. If you own a genuine hand-knitted Aran sweater you know you paid considerably more than you would have for the manufactured version, because machines can’t reproduce many of the complex patterns found in the hand-knitted Aran sweaters. But did you know many of the traditional stitch patterns have a special meaning? For example, the honeycomb pattern is the symbol of the hard-working bee; the cable pattern is for safety and good luck and the diamond pattern is a wish for success and wealth. Nice to know if you’re planning on giving someone a sweater.

I have a navy blue cardigan, which I never gave more than a minute’s thought until writing this post. Next time I slip it on, I’ll think of James Thomas Brudenell 7th Earl of Cardigan who is remembered for two things, the first being his incompetence as a military officer. History buffs are no doubt aware it was Brudenell who led the doomed cavalry assault in the Crimean War, which Tennyson eulogized in his poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” During the Crimean campaign, Brudenell and his officers wore a buttoned-up sweater coat that became known as a cardigan. It's true the cardigan was around before then. During the 17th century, it was popular with fishermen of the British Isles and also in France. But it was the 7th Earl of Cardigan to whom we owe its lasting popularity. We can forgive old Tom a military blunder or two can’t we?

Hollywood stars Lana Turner “The Sweater Girl” and Jane Russell transformed the sweater into a sizzling hot fashion look in the 1940s and 50s.

Under it all, the bullet bra.

Check out Missoni's 2011 Fall Winter Collection plus a fashion show from the 50s.


Will be back mid month with the next post, so please drop by again.
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  1. Good post! I never knew there was so much history behind sweaters. And it's good to know "Charge of the Light Brigade" is based on real life; I thought it was just a story.

  2. Thanks for visiting, Chick Lit Guy. I didn't know "Charge of the Light Brigade" was based on fact either until I was doing research for this post.

  3. I love your Blog. Interesting and a lovely way to tell stories through the medium of fashion!

  4. Hi, have followed your link from Twitter - an interesting topic - my daughter is a fashion/textile designer, I shall pass this on to her to read too.
    The historical facts are great - however, I did know that The Charge of The Light Brigade really happened. I didn't realise shawls were being knitted in 300BC though! Hope you'll visit my blog when you get time - :-)

  5. Very nice blog! Interesting and CLASSY!

  6. Niamh and Jena, thanks for your comments.
    Deborah thanks too. Will jump on your blog right now.

  7. Great post! I had no clue the knit patterns had meanings...I will most likely be considering this when purchasing sweaters from now on.

  8. This was an interesting post, Joan. I would have thought that knitting began much earlier.

  9. This was fascinating. I really like it when I get to learn somethine, especially when it changes my view. Up until now, if you'd said "knitwear," I'd have winced and run for the exits.

  10. There's nothing like curling up with a good book and a cozy cardigan (and, of course, knowing where knits originated)!