For years I’ve wanted to find solid historical information about knitting that could help me understand who and what came before me. Few if any books broached the subject in anything more than a cursory manner.
One exception is this painstakingly researched book by Richard Rutt, the former Bishop of Leicester and a knitter since the age of seven.
Returning to the Fold
First published in 1987 and long since out of print, the book has recently been republished in an attractive hardbound format by Interweave Press. Intended to be informative and historically accurate, Rutt describes his work as, “the first monograph on handknitting history.”
This means you won’t find flowery prose on the spiritual benefits of knitting. There are no lively personal anecdotes, no mention of celeb knitters Julia Roberts or Cameron Diaz, and no trendy knitted bikini patterns.
Instead, you’ll find a bounty of information about how the knitted stitch, fabric, and garment evolved throughout history. You’ll also learn how knitting has been influenced over the years by politics, economics, and gender roles, and how we fit into the picture today.
No Light Reading
Rutt takes an in-depth, almost scientific approach to his subject, sifting through thousands of books, pamphlets, and historical documents to provide a comprehensive view of the craft (including a discussion about the word “craft” itself).
Along the way he attempts to debunk longstanding myths. For example, he claims that chain mail is notknitted, that knitting did not evolve from crochet, and that Fair Isle knitting did not come from Spaniards shiprecked on the Shetland Islands.
Rutt gives extensive documentation from varying sources to back up each claim.
A Look at History
The book proceeds in a chronological fashion from the pre-1500s to Henry VIII, the Commonwealth, the Restoration, the Victorian age, and the first World War to the early 1980s. There is a decidedly British tone and perspective throughout.
I found his discussion of 20th century knitters and designers to be the most illuminating. He gives more biographical information about Mary Thomas than you’ll read on any of her book jackets. For example, did you know she was a member of the London Buddhist Society for the last 10 years of her life?
Rutt also introduces us to several other lesser-known figures, such as Jane Koster and Margaret Murray, whose books include Practical Knitting Illustrated and The Weekend Knitting Book; and James Norbury, whose popular BBC television program rivaled that of Elizabeth Zimmermann.
The book then explores various local traditions of the British isles, which — as Meg Swansen notes in her foreword to the book — can be excellent inspiration when you decide to tackle a new knitting technique.
For Historians Only?
As a knitter by profession and passion, I feel that this book is an essential addition to my collection. It may be best valued by history-minded individuals or, at a minimum, people who aren’t intimidated by black and white illustrations and densely factual writing.