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How knitwear came to be part of our lives.

Knitting: a human story

People and clothing

Over and above their functional aspects (protection, warmth), textiles have been used throughout the ages as a means of communicating social and cultural identity, beliefs and aesthetic ideals.

While the modern history of knitting is relatively well documented, giving us an understanding of the development of craft practices in Europe from the XIIIth to the XIXth century, the prehistory of knitting remains largely unknown.

With knitting, we’re entering a world that’s as popular as it is elitist, and which has evolved over the ages with the same objective in mind: to cover up and embellish.

Opposite: Hand-knit petticoat with extreme detailing depicting natural elements and wild animals. 1700-1750. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Knitwear properties

from yarn to meta-material

Knitting is a textile work made up of a single thread which is wound around itself to form a network of intertwined loops: the stitches.

From a mechanical point of view, knitwear is considered to be a meta-material*.

Knitted together, fibres with low elasticity become a ‘whole’ with extraordinary physical behaviour: a structure of extreme elasticity and strength.

The infinite variation in interlacing patterns means that a single yarn can be used to create different designs.

Knitwear seduces not only for its rich textures and colour patterns, but also for its extraordinary mechanical properties.

*Metamaterial: A synthetic material whose structure demonstrates properties not normally found in nature.
Opposite: Detail of an alternation between the front and back of a jersey stitch, creating variations in texture known as “ribs”.
French wool richelieu rib knit.
Detail of the wool of a French sheep.

History of Knitting

A recent manufacturing technique

It is impossible to date the beginning of knitting – in the form we know it today.

The oldest knitting artefacts found date from between the 20th and 13th centuries AD. Much older relics, made using the Nalebinding* technique, the ancestor of knitting, have been estimated to be around 6,500 years old.

The objects used by humans to make textiles also allow us to trace a much earlier history.

Needles used to make clothes – much more durable over time than textiles – have been found in abundance (France, Spain, China, Russia, Slovenia) – the oldest are dated to around 30,000 BC.

The first fibres found (linen) that could have belonged to clothing date back to 34,000 BC. Some studies suggest that clothing originated between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago.

Compared with this “prehistory of textiles”, knitting therefore seems to be a relatively recent technique, even if we lack the indicators to date its birth precisely.

*The ancestor of knitting is Nålebinding – a term created in the 1970s (literally: “needle-binding”). This method makes it possible to design garments with a single needle (where knitting requires at least two needles), and using short threads – a few metres long – (where knitting is done using a single continuous thread).

Knitting: an art craft

The expansion of knitting in Europe

Knitting is accepted to have originated in the Middle East and to have spread throughout Europe from the 13th century onwards.

Knitting guilds, created from the XVth century onwards, established knitting as a craft and artistic discipline in Western Europe. Knitting was one of the seven major medieval trades – known as hosiery.

The craftsmen make items that are marketed: gloves, socks and hats are the first to be created. Most of the time, it’s not wool that’s knitted, but silk.

*The guilds train companions, craftsmen who have acquired an exceptional level of technique. Examples of “masterpieces”, such as knitted tapestries, the result of several years’ work, attest to the exceptional level of mastery demanded by the French guilds.

Opposite: Hand-knitted carpet – Detail – Strasbourg, 1781.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Knitting: a popular story

Knitting in European farming society

Knitting developed widely in Europe from the 16th century onwards, becoming a highly popular activity.

Peasant families produced a large number of garments (stockings, socks, jumpers) for sale – often as a sideline, but sometimes as a real family business: at that time, all members of the family were employed to produce knitwear.

Certain places, patterns and colours have left their mark on the history of knitting.
Island and coastal societies in England, Scotland and France, as well as Scandinavian societies, developed identity motifs that have since crossed many borders: Marinière, Jersey Stitch, Cable Knit, Fair Isle, and so on.

Nature, the sea and the mountains have inspired rich, complex patterns that have become classics of knitwear design and continue to influence major fashion collections to this day.

Opposite: Montage based on the photograph “Thin Welsh Girl” by photographer John Thomas (circa 1875).

Many photographs from the late 19th century show Welsh women knitting. Not without a certain amount of folklore, these photographs are proof of a
disappearing rural life and also bear witness to a real knitting culture in northern Europe.

Mechanisation of knitting

The birth of the knitting industry

La première machine à tricotée a été inventée à la fin du XVIeme siècle en Angleterre.

A une époque où le tricotage à la main était établi en Europe, pratiqué par des personnes de tout âge, une telle invention ne parvient pas à s’imposer comme un alternative viable au travail manuel des « tricoteurs » – notamment à cause de son coût élevé.

Ce n’est donc qu’une siècle plus tard, en parallèle du développement de la machine à vapeur, que les premières usines à tricoter sont apparues.

*The first knitting machine was invented by William Lee in 1589 to produce stockings.
It was not until the end of the 17th century that this improved machine began to be used in Europe.
Maison Douillet - Detail du bonnet côtelé en laine Mérinos Française peignée, couleur Parme

Modern knitwear

How knitting is adapting to modern times

Contemporary knitwear is developing with new materials, new techniques – and sometimes with a return to manual creation.

The automation of knitting meant that items could be produced at competitive prices – and knitwear became an essential part of the contemporary wardrobe. Research into design – coupled with advanced techniques (integral knitting, jacquard knitting, intarsia) – has given rise to designs that were previously unthought of.

Nevertheless, as an accessible manual technique, many contemporary companies are returning to hand knitting.

Today, a global reflection is underway on the impact of the fashion industry on the planet and its inhabitants. Some contemporary brands are rethinking the origin of their raw materials, and the places and methods of manufacture, to offer more respectful knitwear.

Reconnecting with quality knitting

Knitting, as a simple manufacturing technique, has survived the millennia. It has enabled us to be more inventive, while at the same time adapting to material constraints – in France and Europe, a real art craft has developed, and we are the inheritors of that craft today.

Contemporary knitwear, guided by a heightened environmental awareness, invites us to design better: choosing materials meticulously, opting for sustainable construction and designs.

At Douillet, we’ve been committed to designing beautiful knitwear that respects the planet and human beings.

Maison Douillet