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Bros and Rows: The Real History Of Men Who Knit

09/10/2013 06:01 am ET | Updated Nov 10, 2013

True or false: The multi-million dollar knitting industry is the domain of grandmas and craft circles with names like Stitch 'n' Bitch.

Right? Boy, are you wrong. Macho men -- not women -- dominate the history of the craft.

Today, U.S. and U.K. news stories pop up about men who knit while in maximum-security prison. Men who knit while riding public transportation to work. Elementary schools that teach knitting to all students -- male and female.

But the birds-eye view reveals that men ruled knitting for centuries, got side-tracked, and now are finding their way back to the knitting needles.

Here's one story -- or at least a close approximation of it.

About 200 A.D., Arabian men were fishing for food but they had no way to catch several fish at once. They caught one fish. Then a second fish. And it was like, Geeze, this is slow as a camel. Then one day, perhaps down by the dock, one of the guys was messing with yarn, forming loops in it, and bam! Fishing net. (Other cultures likely invented knitting elsewhere around the world.)

They stuck the net it in the water and caught a boatload of fish. And someone said, "We just invented the fishing net." And someone else said, "Let's invent sweaters."

This was a very big deal because clothing back then was woven and wearing woven clothes is like wearing a bed sheet. They don't stretch. Try wearing a hat or yoga pants made out of a bed sheet.

Soon, Arabian men were wearing gorgeous, handmade sweaters. When they traded goods with neighboring lands, the neighbors were like, "That is the most amazing piece of clothing. Teach me."

Then the Middle Ages came and knitting spread like the plague. There were knitting guilds, which were labor unions--and again this is men we're talking about. The guild's head honcho would say, "Join us. We'll protect your income. We'll give you insurance. We'll give you benefits. If your wife dies, we'll help you with the funeral ceremony." Nice stuff like that.

But they were also businessmen and so they controlled quality, quantity, and pricing of knitted goods. If you were a super popular knitter and wanted to monopolize the industry, the guild would get in your face and be like, "Stop it! We don't let anyone dominate because it would hurt the other members."

Teenage boys who wanted to become knitters would become apprentices and leave their families to live with master knitters. The master knitter's family would say, "We'll give you food and a place to live while you knit jackets, stockings and felted caps."

In maybe six years the young man would take the equivalent of a knitting SAT test. Part one was a business test and he'd had to prove he knew the trade inside and out. Part two was a skills test. He'd have to knit a really complicated thing and do a fantastic job in order to pass.

Enter the 16th century, a new era of invention and -- long-story short -- the end of male domination in knitting. People started inventing all kinds of stuff, like flush toilets and bottled beer. In 1589, an English minister named William Lee invented a knitting frame and then two other people invented knitting machines. These machines cranked at about 7 million stitches per minute. No one could knit that fast.

So men quit knitting, which is kind of sad. (But in pioneer days in America, boys still had to knit stuff because there were no machines and no malls and they needed stockings and stuff.)

Then came World Wars I and II, and boys in schools started to knit for the troops because U.S. and British governments asked everyone to knit. Schools would have contests, like who could make the most noise with their knitting needles, which of course the boys just loved. Socks, bandages, helmet liners and mittens with no fingers (because soldiers needed their fingers to fire guns and open cans of Spam). These are some of the things made out of the squares that students knit. The soldiers would get the handmade items and be like, "Oh, thank you for the handmade socks. I feel loved and cared for even though standing I'm in a trench."

So here we are today, inventing yet crazier stuff like powdered beer and spray-on-caffeine. Meanwhile, according to several reports, more men than ever are knitting in the U.S. and the U.K. (In the U.S., the Craft Yarn Council estimates 2 million boys and men now knit). These are college students, doctors, musicians, stockbrokers, Hollywood stars, inner-city youth, snowboarders -- all who are taking up the 1,800-year-old craft not out of necessity but because they find it meditative, restorative, creative, or an avenue to connect with others. And such pastimes, no matter their history, are pure gems.

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