[This article was originally published by Dharma Trading Company (https://dharmatrading.com) and is republished with their kind permission. My husband, Bill Laubenheimer, enjoyed knitting.]
Earlier this year the topic of men who knit was spotlighted by the viral image of Louis Boria knitting on the NY Subway. It got us thinking about the idea that men who knit are like rare mythological creatures, because nothing could be further from the truth. While men may not have knit quite so socially or publically in the past as women, who use knitting and quilting groups as a way to pass time with friends, historically men have knit for themselves and for others.
Prior to industrial/mechanical knitting production, knitting used to be something that everyone learned, either at home or school. It was just considered an essential life skill. Everyone needed socks, hats and sweaters, so anyone with free hands was expected to be working on something. Professional knitting guilds had many male members, as did many other textile professions.
Knitting, along with basic sewing skills, was considered a needed skill for sailors (and pirates!) as well. Many sailors wore heavily lanolined sweaters to keep them dry and warm. These include the well known Aran sweaters, Guernsey and Jersey sweaters, each named for the islands the styles originated from. The sweaters were often knit by the women in the fishing village but there is no one to mend or make things for you out at sea so you had to know how to do it yourself for repair work, and many knit their own sweaters and socks as well.
All of these types of sweaters featured heavily textured stitching in many different patterns. Villages became known for certain patterns and it is said that these stitch patterns helped identify men if they went overboard.
Marketing for fancier patterns and other needle work was published for middle and upper class women as they had the money and time for making items that were decorative vs. functional.This really is what lead to the “feminization” of modern knit and crochet work. There were even songs about ladies knitting.
Charity knitting drives for the Red Cross resulted in campaigns to “Knit Your bit” and while many of these targeted the women on the home front, no one with free fingers was exempt, like this class of young men, taking a stitch for victory.
Even the local firemen knit while they waited for the next call.
Knitting was a popular form of occupational therapy during WWI and WWII. Here is an eight page booklet produced during the second World War to encourage the wounded among the armed forces to take up knitting as therapy. Source.
Today knitting is a popular therapy to help stroke patients re-develop fine motor skills in their hands. One article asks Is Knitting the new yoga?”. The relaxing process of making something with your hands works no matter your gender.
The Manly Art of Knitting is a fun intro to knitting book, with projects such as a horse blanket and hammock; it was one of the few post war books for men about knitting vs. books that assumed it was a woman knitting for a man. Meanwhile many learned to knit from fathers and grandfathers that had learned in the service or from female relatives that wanted to keep young kids busy.
Tyler is a US Marine, he learned to knit after watching his girlfriend and wanted to give it try. Other Vets, like Kevin of Warrior Woven, are using dyeing and knitting as a way to create after hard tours of duty that have left them dealing with the effects of PTSD, providing an outlet along with some income.
The biggest change for men and knitting, since WWII, really is the increased visibility and a greater social acceptance of both men and women doing activities that were once more associated with the other gender.
There are many famous male knit designers including Kaffe Fasset, Jared Flood, Stephen West just to name a few. Men’s knitting groups are growing and more gents can be found at the bigger conventions like Stitches. More than ever, knitting (and crochet!) are for everyone who wants to pick up some needles and yarn.