Boys Knitted Wear

Figure 1.--This American boy at the turn of the century wears a knit suit and poses before his beloved hobby horse. Note the patent leather strap shoes.

Knitting is a form of weaving. Historians disagree as to its origins. Knitting may have begun when primitive man sought to make webs out of roots and tendrils. Knitting is the formation of fabric, such as jersey cloth or hose, by interlacing loops of yarn with hand needles. Major advances in commercialknitting with powered machienery occurred in the 19th century. Knitwear has become increasingly popular for the modern casual life style. Children have always worn knitwear more than adults. One interesting aspect of knitwear is that mothers liked knitwer sets for children.


Hand knitting

Knitting is a form of weaving. Historians disagree as to its origins. Knitting may have begun when primitive man sought to make webs out of roots and tendrils. Crossed knitting examples data back to Peru (Mazca culture) about 100BC-700AD. Other examples of early work: 200AD -Dura-European site, Euphrates River. Eqyptian burials (4th and 5th century) Saudia Arabia (4th century), Europe (5th century). Richard Rutt atributes it to Egypt in the early middle ages. (I don't recall the exact dates that Rutt advocated, but I think about the 5th Century). Another historian dates knitting to about the year 200, some men were tending their flocks of sheep and talking while twisting some sheep's hair and found that they could make twine from the wool. Knitting came from the Arabian peninsula and was carried to the Meditterranean ports by Arabs. The Egyptians learned knitting from the Arabs. Egyptian knittings have been found from the 4th and 5th centuries. No one knows at what date this artform originated, but it has been estimated at approximately the year 200. Another historian claims knitting developed in Scotland during the 15th Century. While knitting may not have originated in Scotland, it certainly became an important craft there in the 14th and 15th centuries.

When there were Guilds, craft groups, men served as apprentices for 6 years before becoming Masters. This entailed 3 years of learning and 3 years of travel. At which time the apprrentice had to make a carpet, a beret (type of hat), a woolen shirt and a pair of stockings. A process called felting made the knitted pieces seem like solid fabric. This was done by soaking the pieces for 4 or 5 days and after the wool had thickened, the pieces were then blocked (shaped) and combed with a special brush. The object of felting was to produce a rainproof fabric. Knitting was a highly regarded profession. It was considered as a female accomplishment and was part of the brides dowry. The homely occupation of knitting was revered and encouraged by nuns.

England in the Middle ages raised sheep and exported the wool to Flanders. A major weaving indudtry developed there, Europe's first major industry and in many ways the beginnng of the industrial development of Europe. The woven cloth was then shipped back to England at very high prices. The English wanted to develop their own cloth industry. A major inovation in making knitting more practical was the 1589 invention of the knitting or stocking frame by William Lee (1550-1610) in England (Woodborough, Nothinghamshire). This was the beginning of the English cloth industry and at first used extensively for stockings. Hand knitting was extremely labor intensive and generally replaced by machine knitting. As an English minister, Lee made little money, so his wife supplemented their income by knitting and to make it easier for her he made the machine.

During the English-French Nepoleanic wars, ladies got together to knit socks and mittens for the soldiers. This practice continued through World War I and World War II. They also knitted garments for the poor of the parish, usually in drab colors of grey and beige--neutral colors. Color was considered a status symbol and was more expensive. The negative term "colorless" dates from nthis period as a disparaging remark.

Used by the Arabs, the earliest knitting needle was made from copper wire with a hook at one end. Much like the crochet hooks of today. Others made them from wood, ivory, bone, bamboo, amber, iron as well as a few other materials. These were made by the knitters themselves and were called knitted woods, needles, skewers or wires. The invention of the smooth pointed needles may have been European, but the date it superseded the hook is unknown. Point guards & needle cases for storage were used for protection when the needles were not in use.

Hand knitting continues, however, as a popular craft activity, particularly suited to certain garments such as mittens and sweaters. Hand knitting is little changed from its development in Scotland. It is done by long straight slender needles or rods, now usually steel, with rounded ends.

Figure 2.--Older boys rarely wore knitted shorts, however, knitted sweaters were commonly worn with short pants--more in Britain than America. This photograph, though comes from an American clothing magazine from the 1970s. Turtle necks were popular sweater styles.

Machine knitting

18th century

Knitting continued little changed for two centuries. The first important improvement on Lee's machine and the begging of machine knitting was the ribbing apparatus invented by Jedediah Strutt in 1758. Warp knitting was introduced in 1775.There are two types of knitting machines, weft knitting and warp knitting. Each produces a different knitted fabric. These machines vary in size and structure. Most WEFT MACHINES are circular- the needles are in a circle on a rotating cylinder and knit crosswise.

19th century

The pace of improvement in knitting techmology quickened in the 19th Century. Another important inovation was a circular knitting frame fashioned by Marc I. Brunel in 1816 which he gave the name tricoteur. This proved extremely useful in knitting underwear. Towsend invented a tumbler or latch needle, patentened by him in 1858. William Cotton of loughborough, England introduced an improvement in power machines known as the Cotton system. W.C. Gist took out an English patent for a circular machine with which striped work could be done in 16 colors. About 1830 a French inventor introduced a machine for circular knitting with beared needles radiating outward from a revolving ring, the loops being formed by sinkers which also revolved. An improvement was the adoption in 1848 of a self-acying or "latch" needle which formed a loop without the aid of sinkers and pressers indispensible to the beared needle. The machine produced circular fabrics much more cleapley than could any other type. An American automatic machime called the Griswold knitter, was introduced in England about 1870. Because of their greater speed and capacity, circular machines have replaced all linear designed equiopment. Kntting machines use a large number of needles which can knit from 100,000 to more than 7 million stitches per minute. The fabrics they make range from delicate lace to heavy rugs.

20th century

Sock knitting became increasingly common in the early 20th century. Sock knitting machines date back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, but the ones usually found today date from World War I (1914-18). The US government needed socks fast, and commissioned patriotic American women to keep the doughboys' feet dry and warm. If a knitter would agree to knit 12 lbs. of yarn into socks for the Army, she would be given a sock knitting machine and another 12 lbs. of yarn for free. Machines were mass produced and sent to all the corners of the nation. Many are still in their original boxes today, sometimes even with a moth-eaten sample sock from the factory hanging from their needles. The fact is, they aren't all that easy to run. A HBC reader tells us, "I am writing a book on the circular knitters and have not run across this before. Can you tell me your source?" Unfortunately, HBC did not note the source. If any reader has a source of informatiion on this, we would appreciatr hearing from you. Our reader does tell us, "I do know that Gearhart Knitting Machine Co. later claimed to have provided 15,000 machines to the Red Cross for WWI knitting and the Auto-Knitter Hosiery Co. made much the same machine in England and Canada as well as here. All these helped War work, but (I think) primarily through the Red Cross. The 12 pounds of wool [yarn?] sounds like later Gearhart machine ads for contract workers after the war." [Candee]

Knitted Wear

Knitwear is extremely popular in the modern fashion scene. In both women's and childrens fashions there has been a revolution in knitted clothes. Modern design has had a major impact on knitwear and made it an exciting area of modern fashion trends. The range of styles that can be purchased or hand made is constantly expanding. Children have always worn knitted comments more commonly than adults. Past styles had children dressed from head to toe in knitted garments. Knitted wear has been especially common for infants. In the days before rubber pants, expectant mothers would knit up a batch of aptly-named soakers to go over baby's diapers. But every conceievable baby garment was made in knits. Older children of course also wear knitted clothes. Woolen sweaters would be matches with knitted trousers, shorts, or skirts. Knitted caps, gloves, and socks might complete the outfit. British royals have influenced modern knit wear as they have influenced other styles. Prince Charles as a child commonly wore knitted outfits, such as patterned sweaters with matching plain trousers or shorts. They were a popular look in the 1950s and the prince's outfits may have been some of the first to be knitted on a machine. The advaning technology of modern knittng machiner has been the primary factor in the virtual explosion in availability of high-quality knitwear. Both modern and classic designs are available in a wide range of colors. Fashion eperts report a trend toward a rougher and chunkier look in knitwear. This is in esence a return to the handmade look as opposed to the plainer sweaters of a few years ago. The classic British styles, however, remain the most popular styles--the fairisles, guernseys, and arans. The British royals continue to wear these styles and they continue popular for British and American children. Children commonly wear ski-style cardigans toncable knit pullovers. An increasingly common modern trend is the picture sweaters or motif knits.

Boys' Knitted Wear

The 18th Century

Knitted goods were very expensive before machiery was adoted to mass produce knitted fabrics and garments. There were no knitted garments for boys in the 18th Century as the fashion of specialized children's garments was just developing.

The 19th Century

I know of only a few knitted children's fashions in the 19th Century, primarily available in the late 19th Century. Garments included underwear, stockings, mittens, Tams, sweaters, and baby sits. We have, however, very limited information. We have noted children wearing knitted garmenrs in some old photographic portraits.

The 20th Century

Knitted shirts and short pants, often a set, for little boys appeared in England and Europe during the 1920-60s. The style was less common in America. Knitted shorts could be bought in the finer children's shops, but were expensive. More commonly mothers purchased patterns in sewig shops and knitted them at home. The pattetns were available in America, but less commonly used. Except for wealthy cfamilies, this was possible only in homes wear the mother did not work and had plebty of free time available for knitting. The boys involved were infants to school age children through about 6 or seven years. occassionaly slightly older boys. Some knitted wear was also available for older boys. In most occasions this was knitted sweaters. Sewing stores throught Britain and America had many patterns for knitted sweaters. This style was particularly popular in Britain where boys continued to wear short pants (or short trousers as they refer to them) even during the winter. American boys after knickers based from the fashion sene in the early 1940s were more likely to wear long pants during the winter and thus with knitted seeaters.


Knitted clothes were especially popular for cold weather wear. Sweaters we especially popular. There were also cold weather snow or winter suits for bots and girls. In adittiion rgere were a variety of cold weather accessories such as mittens and scarves. There were a variety of knitted caps, some especially suitable for winter. Others like tams could be worn all winter long.Knitted socks were primarily wool socks for winter wear. We noted short pants outfits that could be worn even during the summer, but were also worn in the winter as well. Knit suits were popular for younger boys. These were not suits in the formal scene, of jacket and trousers. Rather they were matched tops and bottoms. Usually a sweater lile garment matched with knitted short or long pants. These were similar to snow suits, except the knit was much more tightly done and not so bulky. There were special winter rompers that were knitted with long sleeves. Boys through the 1940s in some counries, might have knitted bathing suits. We have collected the following details on the type of knitted wear available for boys.


Crocheting is in reality single-needle knitting. It is needle work done with a special needle with a special hoot fitted with a hook to draw thread or yarn into interwined loops. I haven't found much on crocheting yet. Crocheting was known as "Nun's" work in the Middle Ages since Nuns created clothing for the poor during this time using knitting and crochet. During the Renaissance, both peasant women and refined ladies had begun to crochet. Crochet lace began in Ireland about 1820. In America, older women crochet baby booties and bonnets. Today it is a well-developed craft from fine-thread lace-like garments and trim to heavy-weight afghans.

Country Trends

We note knitted garments being worn in many different countries. While we are just beginning to collect country information, some trends are emerging. Knit clothing seem the most popular in northern countries like England, Germnay, the Nerherlands, Scotland, and the Scandinavian countries. We have also noted knit wear being worn in more southerly countries such as Itkay and France. In all of these countyries, knitted garmenrs seem more popular after the turn of the 20th century. We have little information on the knitting industries in specific countries. We believe that until after World War I (1914-18) that most knotted garments such as sweaters were hand knitted by mothers and grandmothers. We are not yet sure on the development of readt to wear knitted garments.

Figure 4.--Patterns for knitted sweaters were particularly popular in Britishing knitting catalogs.


Some idea bout the types of knitwear available for boiys in different periods and countries can be assessed by looking at catalogs.




United States

Knitwear was most popular for babies, but a great deal of patterns existed for boys and girls of all ages.

Children's Classics from 4-14. #216. Chadwick's red heart. 4th edition. 23 pages. girls' and boy's: cardigans, pullovers, vest, hats, socks, mittens, gloves, scarves.

Bear Brand-Bucilla Baby Book, Vol. 328, 1940's, 47 pp. Infants: Knitted: sacques, booties, hats, leggings, cardigans, mittens, buntings, blankets, soakers, romper, pullovers Crocheted: blanket, sacques, booties, hats, soaker. Children's': Knitted: pants, cardigans, hats, dresses, pullovers, skirt, shorts, mittens, scarf. Crocheted: hats.

Bernat's Handicrafter: handknits for Infants, and Youngsters up to 14 yrs., Vol. 14 No. 4, 1945, 64 pp. Infants: Knitted: skirts, shorts, etc.

Bear Brand Hand knits for Children. #331. 1946. 37 pages. Pullovers, cardigans, jumpers, skirt, vests.

Jack Frost. Sweaters and mittens for boys and girls. Pullovers. cardigans, vest, and mittens. #46. 1947. 29 pages

Doreen Baby Book by Nell Armstrong, No. 95, vol. 95, 1947, 3rd ed, 15 pp. Knitted: cardigan, hat, sacque, bonnets, pullovers, cardigans, blankets, snowsuit. Crocheted: sacques, hats, bonnets, booties, cardigan.

Doreen for Tiny Tots by Nell Armstrong, No. 700, vol. 97, 1948, 15 pp. 1st & 4th editions. Kids: Knitted: coat, hat, cardigans, pullovers, pants. Crocheted: cardigan.

Playtime Sweaters for Children by Gretchen Baum: Knitting Instruction for twelve Cardigans and Pullovers for ages three to twelve, complete with graphs, Vol. 21, 1948, Nomis Yarn Co., 30 pp.

Baby Hand Knits #71. Polar yarns and Rembrant. 1949. 21 pages. Infant blankets, hats, jackets, soakers, pants, booties, buntings, sunsuits, jumpers, mittens, sun suits.

Lacey's Children's Book. 2-4 and 6 yrs. #21. 1949. 15 pages. Pullovers, cardigans and vests for boy's and girls.

Doreen Baby Book. #92. by Nell Armstrong. 1949. 5th, 22th edition. Easy to make crochet and knitted baby items. Knitted: hats, bootees, sweaters, mittens. Crochet: hats, bootees, sweater sets.

Bear Brand Baby Book. Infants to 4 yrs. revised Vol. 339. 1950. 55 pages. Knitted: blankets, booties, caps, sacques, soakers, buntings, leg warmers, mittens, scarf, pullovers, coats, vests, cardigans, pants. Crocheted: blankets, booties, caps, sacques, mittens.

The 2 & 4 ply raglan designs for 2 to 5 year olds. 1950s 12 pages.

Nylon, Star Book No. 99, 1953, American Thread Co., 15 pp. Women's knitted cardigan, pullover and crocheted shawl, cardigan, pullover and bedjacket. Men's knitted sleeveless pullover and socks. Kids crocheted cardigan and bedjacket. Infants' crocheted sacque, hat, booties and mitts.

Star Baby Book #153. 1950s.- Crocheted and knitted: booties, sacques, bathrobes, toys, mittens, carriage covers up to 2 years. 31 pages.

Star Crochet for your baby and knit too! #130. 1950s. 31 pages. Bathrobes, sweaters, bootee/saque/bonnet sets, toys, jumpers, blankets.

Knit-o-graph 209 Sailboat slipover for boys sizes 6-12. 1954.

Knit-o-graph 870 clowns and balloons cardigan. sizes 4-10. 1950.

Knit-o-Graph 930 dog and dog house cardigan. sizes 4-10. 1951.

Beehive Chieftain/canadiana 32/ Sailor boy sweater 2-4-6

Mary Maxim 8373 snowflake ski pullover. no date 8-10-12

Bear Brand Hand Knits for Young America for Boys and Girls, sizes 6 to 14, vol. 348, 1955, Bernhard Ulmann Co. Inc., 47 pp. Knitted: cardigans, skirt, jumper, pullovers, vests, hat, socks. Crocheted: pullover, cardigan.

Fleisher's Hand Knits for Boys and Girls, 6 to 14, vol. 100, 1956, 51 pp. Knitted: pullovers, cardigans, vest, skirt suit, socks, mittens, scarves, jacket, jumper, ice skating outfit, hats and Crocheted: vest, jacket.

Jack Frost Baby book. #61. 1958. 14 pages. knitted: Hats, cardigans, sacques, leggings, mittens, blankets, bootees. many matching sets.

Botany hand knit bulkies for children. sizes 2 -16. Vol 14. 1960. 39 pages. Cardigan, pullovers, 3 piece sets, coats.

Spinnerin Boys Will Be Boys, ages 4 to 14, Vol. 189, 1960's, 47 pp. Knitted: Cardigans, pullovers and vest.

Spinnerin 101 Ideas Lesson #2, Vol. 2, 1962, 31 pp. Kids: Knitted: pullovers, cardigans. Women's': Knitted: pullovers, cardigans. Men's Knitted: pullovers and cardigans.

Spinnerin #152. 1963. 54 pages. Classic Manual Part 2 - casual fashions for the younger set. from 8-14 years. boys and girls sweaters. No infant patterns.

Vogue knitting - Special issue for children. sizes 4-14. over 57 designs for all seasons. Cardigans, pullovers, coats, beach sweaters, nautical sweaters, country sweaters, classics, infants' Layettes. 82 pages.

Lacey's Speed knits for children #33. Sizes 4-6 & 8 yrs. 1965. 16 pages. mostly sweaters.

Handknits for Boys and Girls by Beehive, sizes 6-12, Book 92, 1960's, 29 pp. Knitted: pullovers, cardigans, vest, hats, mittens, briefs, skating set and coat.

The Toddlers Six from Bernat (sizes 2,3 and 4), Booklet #158, 1970's, 7 pp. Kids: Knitted: cardigans and pullovers.

Reynolds New Icelandic Fashions for the Young at Heart, Vol. 76, 1970's, 15 pp. Kids: Knitted: pullovers, hats and ponchos. Women's: Knitted: ponchos, pullover hat.

Brunswick Space Youth, Vol. 79, 1970's, 59 pp. Kids: knit dresses, pants, hats, gloves, socks, shorts, pullovers, swimsuits, leggings, bag, vest, skirt.

Lacey's Baby book #25. 1970. 1st edition and revised ed. 15 pages. crocheted: bootees, bonnets, blankets, sacques. Knitted: bootees, bonnets, blankets, sacques, soakers, shorts, cardigans, mittens.

Bucilla Babies, Vol. 10, 1977, 27 pp. Infants: Knitted: overalls, romper, cardigans, blankets. Crocheted: cardigans, blankets, hat and pullover.

Beehive Picture Knits sizes 4-12, #427, 1970's, Patons, 21 pp. Kids' knit cardigans.

Pre-School Fashions for sizes 1-6 by Beehive, Book 110, 1970's, Patons, 22 pp. Kids Knitted: pullovers, cardigans, leggings, mittens, hat.

Children's Cardigans, No. 457, 1980's, Bouquet Yarns, 2 pp. Two knitted cardigans. fold in half.

Children's Fashions for size 6-12 by Beehive. #7116. 1980's. 23 pages. Cardigans, pullover, suits for girls.

Elenka Icelandic Type Yarn Boys or Girls Cardigan, No. 2801, 1980's, White Buffalo Mills Ltd., 2 pp.

Delicate Dresses II. Annie's Attic. 1990. Toddler dresses, irish lace bow, dressy sock trims, pinafore, dress gloves, beret, purse. crochet.

Other good sources of patterns and knit styles in America includes paaten makers and magazines:
Advance: The 1930-40s, 50-60s with good attentiin to children and teans.
Anne Adams:
Burda/Style/New Look:
Butterick: 1930-70s, & up with good attention to children and teens.
Du Barry:
Fashion Hollywood: Good attention to children and teans.
McCall's: 1930s...1990s with good attention to children and teens,
New York Pictorial Review & Others:
Simplicity: 1930s...60s & up
Vogue: 1930-50's, 60's & up


Here there are various topics. We notice different color shades, depending somewhat on the type of knitted garment. The issue of folor-fast dyes and fading is another subject of interest. An English reader has provided us some information on colors in home knitted knitted garments, especially jumpers (pull-over) sweaters. "Our school sweaters were mostly grey and largely bought in the shops. Other swwaters were much more varied. Out of school we did have various coloured jumpers - hand-knitted. A few boys had grey hand-knitted jumpers for school too, but they wre not very common. Some even had hand-knitted socks which we always laughed at as they stood out. My Mum always hand-washed our jumpers and at a particular temperature and when we had some shop bought coloured clothing she always washed them seperately from "whites" for fear of the colours running. Maybe later on shop bought woolen clothes were more colour fast and so different coloured jumpers (more like acrylic than wool) were more feasible? I know that my Mum always bought the "best" (most expensive) wool for an elderly lady tht used to knit for us. I think that was because that wool was more colour fast. I remember the brand name too - "Emu" and they also sold knitting patterns. I am not sure if the name indicated that this was actually Australian wool or not."


A 1940s Pattern


Candee, Richard. Boston University, e-Mail, March 26, 2003.

Rutt, Richard. The History of Hand-Knitting.

Starmore. Alice. Alice Starmore's books have good histories on the evolution and development of specific styles.

???. No Idle Hands: an interesting social history. One warning, a lot of knitting (and other craft) historians tend to romanticize the history of their art.


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Created: May 20, 1999
Last updated: March 23, 2003