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Like everything in fashion, knitwear has its ups and downs. It is always a part of fashion, though, and it can look good on people with all body shapes and sizes. There is also a wide range of styles to choose from and it is possible to find knitwear in most of your favourite shops.

It is no wonder, then, that knitwear is so popular. In this article, we will explore the origins of knitwear and why it is still a core part of most people’s wardrobes. We’ll also look at knitwear and the plus-size woman.

What is Knitwear?

Let’s start at the beginning, however, by defining knitwear. Knitwear is an item of clothing produced by knitting. This is different to the other main method of creating a fabric – weaving. Knitted fabrics are more flexible than woven fabrics and it is much easier to make small garments, like socks, by knitting. 

Different Types of Knitwear

It is possible to create just about any type of clothing out of knitted fabric, but items like t-shirts, jumpers, tops, dresses, socks, gloves and hats are among the most popular. The main difference between types of knitwear is the type of knit fabric that is used. Here are some of the main types:

  • Jersey - this is the most common knit type, used to make most t-shirts. It is not very stretchy compared to other types of knit, but it is versatile.
  • Ribbed - this is the type of knit used on things like necklines and cuffs as it is very stretchy. It is also often used for making figure-hugging garments.
  • Interlock - this is a heavier type of knit that is also more stable, so is used for more substantial items of clothing. It is usually soft, too, so is very comfortable to wear.

Knitwear is also made from a range of different materials. This includes wool, cotton and polyester. There are also more luxurious knitwear materials, such as cashmere.

The History of Knitwear – Where It All Began

Many historians believe people started knitting as far back as the third century. Not only that, they believe this took place on opposite sides of the globe, in Peru and Egypt. It is believed that they knitted socks and stockings in Egypt, and the skill then spread to other countries, eventually reaching Europe sometime in the 5th century.

While this is the popular belief among historians, the oldest known knitted artefacts found are from a much later period – 11th century Egypt. In addition, the history of knitting starts to become a bit clearer in the centuries that follow. For example, The Guild of Knitters is believed to have formed in Paris in 1268.

Knitting then became much more widespread in the 14th century. In fact, it was depicted in paintings that still hang in galleries today. People knitted a range of everyday items of clothing during this period, and it was practised by people across all sections of society.

Knitted clothing production was still slow, however, but this was speeded up dramatically in the 16th century with the introduction of knitting machines - the mechanical knitting machine was first used in 1589. These machines were in operation right up until the industrial revolution.

One of the central areas of production at this time was England and most of the people working as knitters were men. Then, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the knitting industry spread to Scotland and became a significant part of the economy. In fact, many of the pattern techniques we know today were developed at around this time in Scotland. Scottish knitters also started exporting their products to customers in Europe, growing the industry even further.

During this period, Scottish and English knitting companies produced lots of different types of clothing but the most commonly produced garments were stockings. The circular knitting loom, which was first introduced in 1816, made it easy to make knitted underwear so this also became increasingly popular.

In fact, the introduction of the circular knitting loom is just one example of how the 19th century was a significant period in knitwear history. This was the time that saw the rise of the fashion industry in middle-class Europe, particularly with the introduction of fashion magazines. This in turn led to a rise in the popularity of knitting at home. People also started producing a much wider selection of clothing types.

In addition, the knitwear industry was now large, both in Scotland and in England - there were more than 250 woollen mills in Scotland alone in the late 1800s – and knitwear we would recognise today was also being made. For example, the inventor of the jersey-knit, Eugene Rodier, opened his first textile factory in 1853.

The Development of the Modern Knitwear Era

While there were many exceptions, the knitwear of the 1800s was still largely underwear. This changed in the 20th century, though, as knitwear was marketed as clothing ideal for sporting activities and active lifestyles in general. This was because it was comfortable and also allowed the skin to breathe.

Then came 1916, a landmark year for knitwear in fashion. This was the year that Chanel launched its jersey dresses as well as a range of cardigans and jumpers. They were an instant hit and redefined knitwear as a fashion statement.

Fair Isle knitwear also became popular in the 1920s, not least because the then Prince of Wales wore a Fair Isle jumper while playing golf. In fact, the 1920s was a time when knitwear started to become mainstream fashion. It was also a time when more colourful garments and eye-catching patterns were introduced.

This continued into the 1930s, despite the tough economic times. For men, knitwear was primarily active clothing, worn when playing sport and doing other physical activities. This applied to women too, although dressy women's knitwear was also popular.

In the 1940s, people used knitwear differently, with new styles also being introduced. In terms of style, this was the time when more shaped, figure-hugging knitwear hit the shops. In terms of how people used knitwear, this was largely driven by the war. In fact, knitting played a significant role in World War II because people at home, primarily women, were encouraged to knit to help the war effort.

Even after the war, in the 1950s, knitting at home remained popular. This was also a time when Chanel introduced the famous knitted suit. Italian knitwear was becoming popular, too.

In addition, the industry was changing. New technologies reduced the cost of producing clothing on a large scale, and man-made fibres were becoming more and more popular because of their versatility and durability. Crucially, they were also easy to wash.

The 1960s then saw another significant event in the history of knitwear – the introduction of the knitted mini skirt. This and other styles made knitwear highly fashionable and trendy, including among young people.

The 1970s saw a move towards casual and comfortable knitwear. The 1980s, however, was a time of change, when clothing became bright and flashy, and more traditional knitwear fell out of fashion. Knitting at home also became much less popular as it was now cheaper to buy a commercially made jumper than to make one yourself.

The 21st century, however, has seen a positive shift towards knitted fashion, as well as a revival of craft knitting. One of the main drivers of the craft knitting craze is the internet, primarily because it makes it easy to share and access patterns as well as knitting tutorials, help and tips.

Styling for Real Women

One of the great advantages of knitwear is that it can look good on women of all shapes and sizes. This includes petite women, plus-size women and everything between. Today, more and more brands are starting to provide knitwear ranges for women of all sizes. This includes the big labels and stores creating attractive knitwear collections in the petite and plus-size ranges, as well as boutique brands focusing on knitwear.

Knitwear and Plus-Size Women

While it is worn by women of all sizes, knitwear is particularly popular with plus-size women because of its versatility. It can be dressy and classy but it can also be used for everyday wear. In addition, knitwear looks great with lots of different types of outfit. For example, you can wear a knitted top with jeans <link to jeans article – I couldn’t find it on the website> or a skirt, and you can get items that are suitable for wearing both at work and on a night out.

One of the main reasons that knitwear is so popular, however, is because it is super comfortable. Of course, this doesn’t just apply to plus-size women, although being comfortable and looking fantastic is not always easy when you have lots of curves.

Knitwear and Change

Knitwear is also good for layering, which is great in colder months – you can add additional layers when cold and then strip them off as it gets warmer. This also makes knitwear great when the seasons are changing and the weather is more unpredictable.

Knitwear is good during and after pregnancy, too, particularly as your body first expands and then (maybe) shrinks. Knitwear is forgiving in these situations and gives you much more fashion freedom, comfort and style choice.

Speaking of Style

Some people tend to focus on knitwear in the colder months but it can also be comfortable (and look great) when it is mild. You can use knitwear that is figure-hugging to show off your curves, or you can wear it oversized for a more relaxed look.

Another benefit of knitwear is that it can be timeless, particularly when you shop for brands like Joan Vass and Eileen Fisher. The latter actually has a philosophy connecting its styles across seasons and years. This means you can wear an Eileen Fisher top from today's range with a cardigan you bought 10 years ago, and the look will be fantastic.

Eileen Fisher calls this a layered approach to fashion design, but layering is also important when styling yourself with knitwear – layering up with different pieces can give you a completely different look.

If knitwear is something you have avoided in the past, it is worth giving it another try. It is one of the most versatile types of fashion available, particularly if you are a plus-size woman.

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