IT TOOK a long time for knitting to accelerate to its current speed.
For thousands of years, the only way to I knit was with your fingers. You wrapped the string around each finger once, then twice, and then you pulled the first wrap over the second and you had a row of stitches. It must have been as tedious as it sounds.
Then some smart guy (or more likely a harrassed mother) thought of using sticks instead of fingers. That way she could chase supper -- or the kids -- without losing the knitting. The idea of using two sticks caught on and spread, and after a few minor improvements, the classic methods of knitting were all there. And for centuries that was that.
Once it became part of a money economy, knitting became a man's job. It was all right for the little women to make the odd muffler or the family socks, but the really fancy work was done by the menfolk. And they were very proud of their craftsmanship.
Eventually another improvement was made. Someone invented a framework, using a separate peg to hold each stitch, which made knitting much faster and more even. This was an uncle of the knitting machine and a direct ancestor of the little "nobby," which is still popular as a children's toy. Of course, the craftsmen fought the new methods tooth and nail. But this time they were unsuccessful, and the frame knitters took over the main commercial knitting.
These were the men who set up the knitting guilds. In order to become a master knitter and a full member of the guild, an apprentice had to perform various tasks. He trained for three years at home, traveled another three and then set to knitting the required masterpieces: a carpet, approximately 6 feet by 5 feet, containing flowers, foliage, birds and animals in their natural colors; a beret; a woolen shirt; and a pair of hose with "Spanish clocks" or perhaps "in the English style." The requirements varied from place to place, but until they were completed (in only 13 weeks!) and accepted, he could not join the guild or set up in business.
Again, there were improvements. For awhile, the frame knitters were successful in fighting off the new methods, but after a time they too were drowned in the new waves of progress.
New technology had been stirring for years. Here and there it would pop up and be stamped out. But the beginning of the end for the frame knitters came in 1589, when the Rev. William Lee invented the stocking machine. Unfortunately for him, all sorts of exciting things were happening in the world, and his invention was rejected in England.
He persevered and left England for France, where he hoped to get a more favorable hearing. He got there in time for the Huguenot massacres, and no one had much time for his new invention. He died unsuccessful. But others carried on. His invention was the forerunner of the great Jacquard looms, which were putting out knit goods in a seemingly effortless pile in France by 1790, and the Heatcote machines, which started up in England in 1809.
This meant that knitting became an industry. The craftsmen and their frame knitting became obsolete. The Industrial Revolution arrived, and the textile industry erupted with new ways to make cloth. Mechanized knitting, mechanized weaving. There was no need for craftsmen anymore. But they did not die out. There were pockets of them in little villages all over England, for instance, knitting socks to sell to travelers.
And knitting became suitable for ladies. One writer suggested that it was an excellent pasttime for small children and the retarded. It seemed that knitting had seen its day.
And then came the great craft revival. William Morris did it with embroideries and wallpaper and textiles. Enlightened ladies knitted and wove. Everything was done "purely." The home loom escaped the curse of being called a machine. But the knitting machine and frames were damned as machinery and as such relegated to factories and not allowed to enter the parlor.
Things haven't changed much in the last hundred years. The weaving machines sit in our homes as welcome visitors -- perhaps because they dropped "machine" and were called looms. But knitting machines were not ladylike. The stitches were too "even." They stayed around anyway.
Here and there a household welcomed them. It would start with an urge to make socks, sweaters and such for the family and perhaps the hope of earning extra money by knitting for the neighbors. But once you start with them, they eat up yarn and keep asking for more. So then there are shirts, coats and other practical things. And then you start thinking -- can it do this, or this? And creativity starts.
The pot is just simmering now. There are plenty of people out there who still think the knitting machine is impure. But their numbers are dwindling.
For the enlightened, "machine" is no longer the derogatory word it used to be, and technology no longer seems incompatible with art. "Call it a machine," not a loom, says Lilo Markevich, who writes books on needlework and manages the bookstore at the Textile Museum. "The knitting machine is a tool; we must relate to it, the way we relate to our cars. Different people will like different models, but most people can find a type that they can relate to instinctively. After that, and some good basic instruction, all you need is a willingness to experiment with color, textures and stitch patterns. Younger women -- younger designers -- seem to be able to find relaxation in using the machine."