Boys Knitted Wear

Figure 1.--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.

Knitting is the formation of fabric, such as jersey cloth or hose, by interlacing loops of yarn with hand needles or commercially with powered machinery. Knitwear has become increasingly popular for the modern casual life style. Children have always worn knitwear more than adults. Knitted sweaters are of course the most popular knit garment for boys. Younger boys wear a mucg wider assortment of garments and outfits.


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 attributes 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 Mediterranean ports by Arabs. The Egyptians learned knitting from the Arabs. Egyptian knits have been found from the 4th & 5th centuries. No one knows at what date this art form 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.

Machine knitting

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.

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.

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.
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 purchasedf 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.

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.


Details on the type of knitted wear available for boys includes:
Baby suits: Warm baby suits for thewnter appeared in the late 19th Century.
Sweaters: By far the most popular knitted garment for boys were sweaters ("jumpers" in Britspeak). Sweaters were made for boys of all age groups. British boys often could not wear knitted sweaters to school as there were often school uniforms. American boys, however, did wear them t school.
Tams: Floppy Tam O'Sganter caps were knitted, appearing in the late 19th Century.
Romper suits: A variety of one piece romers or other outfits for small boys were often knitted by adoring mothers and other femal relatives. These garments were made for only very young boys.
Other suits: Other knit suits were made for older boys. They were not suits in the sence of formal suits, but only in the sence of having the shirts and pants, almost always short pants, of matching materials and colors.
Short pants: Although sweaters were the more common garment, pants were also knitted. Almost always these were short pants. The most common sizes were for boys up to about 8 years. Knitted shorts for older boys were much less common. In part this was because of the complications of adding a fly. The sinple styles uually without pockets and belt loops were only suitable for younger boys.
Socks: Socks in many colors and patterns were knitted. This reduced there usefulness in England where the sc hools generally insisted on grey kneesocks and the boys general ly preferred them.
Other: Many other warm weather garments such as caps, mittens, and scarves were also knitted.


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 Industries

Details on the knitting industries in specific countries are as follows:




Shetland Islands

The Shetlands are remote, and often cold and windswept islands located off the coast of Scotland. The inhabitants have made their living over the centuries through fishing, crofting and knitting, both for themselves and to exchange or sell. It was the Norse settlers in the 9th Century who brought the native sheep to the Shetlands. The sheep were a hardy breed which could survive on the Shetland's sparse vegetation and seaweed. The wool was woven into a cloth called Wadmal. But the texture of Shetland wool - soft, light and warm was more suited to knitting than weaving. As a result, so knitting became the main craft of the Islands and a significant part of the economy.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, a trade in stockings, another garment suitable for knitting, developed. The trade was established with the Hanseatic merchan ts and Dutch fishermen. The Bishop Holar of Iceland received part of his rents in knitted stockings, so these became the mainstay of the Shetland hosiery trade. Women who ran the croft and home, knitted whenever time allowed. It was not an uncommon sight to see a woman knitting as she carried peats in a 'kishie or basket from the peat bank to her croft house.

Fine, delicate Shetland lace was popular with the Victorians. Even Queen Victoria herself wore lace stockings made in Shetland. Lace shawls became world-famous for their quality and were much sought after by ladies of society. I am not sure about lace collars.

The Islands' other form of traditional knitting developed during the 19th century. By 1850 the knitters on Fair Isle were famous for their brightly colored, patterned knitwear, reputedly influenced by Spaniards shipwrecked on Fair Isle in 1588. Originally Fair Isle knitting used the natural colours of the Shetland sheep, whilst local plants and lichens were used to create soft but intense shades of yellow, orange and green. Indigo dye produced blue and madder added red to the mix. Fair Isle knitting has only two colours in any one row and the stranded knitting provides great warmth. Traditionally the patterns are bands of octagons and crosses, called OXO patterns, with bands of small or peerie patterns in between.

This tradition and skill has been handed down from generation to generation and still today the garments produced are of the highest quality. This quality is now guaranteed by the 'Shetland Lady' trademark which you will find on all real Shetland knitwear.

United States

Figure 3.--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. We have noticed a variety of different companies producung catalogs and patterns, but we still have only limited information on these comopanues.


We notice knitting patterns by P&B Wools in the 1950s.



United States

Knitwear was most popular for babies, but a great deal of patterns existed for boys and girls of all ages. We think most of these companies are American, but are not yet sure. We have very little information about the companies that have published these different catalogs and patterns.


A 1940s Pattern


Richard Rutt, The History of Hand-Knitting

???, 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.

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


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Created: May 20, 1999
Last updated: 7:50 PM 7/5/2010