Even before the invention of spinning and weaving, people were making cloth using early forms of knitting we call “nalbinding” or “sprang”, which used one needle to hook together short lengths of yarn. Probably people started this early knitting as a way to make fishing nets. There are scraps of loose nalbinding as far back as 6500 BC from Israel.
By around 1000 BC, people were nalbinding in a way that looks a lot like knitting, as in this wool beanie from Central Asia. In Peru, the Nazca people used nalbinding to decorate clothing in the 200s BC.
People really liked this nalbinding. Crafters in Roman Syria, at Dura-Europos, were using nalbinding before 300 AD. By the 900s, people wore nalbinding socks at York, in northern England, and by 1000 AD the Vikings had them in Sweden. Nalbinding probably also spread east to Abbasid Iran about the same time. Pueblo people in North America were also using a form of this early knitting to make cotton socks about 1100 AD.
Meanwhile, with nalbinding so popular, Egyptian knitters worked hard to find more efficient, faster ways to make socks so they could sell them cheaper. They invented knitting – it didn’t last as well as nalbinding, but it was a lot faster. By the 400s AD, Egyptians were knitting with two needles.
A scrap of patterned silk knitting, scarlet on a gold background, from about 800 AD shows that knitters quickly developed their skills. By 1000 AD, Fatimid knitters could make a sock that looks entirely modern.
The Fatimids spread knitting all across North Africa and into Islamic Spain. But as the Fatimids lost power to the Ayyubids, their textile factory system fell apart. By the 1200s, Italy and Northern Europe were taking over textile production instead, and they took over knitting too. About this time, European knitters also began to use five needles instead of two: this way you can knit a circular tube instead of a square, so it’s a faster way to make socks without a seam.
By the 1300s there was a knitting industry in England. At first only rich people had knitted gloves and socks, but knitted stockings were common in Paris by the late 1300s. Soon English knitters were exporting tens of thousands of pairs of knitted wool stockings every year, and by the 1400s they started using spinning wheels to get enough yarn. People were also knitting hats and then felting them so they would keep off the rain.
Indian and African traders across the Indian Ocean also brought knitting to Iraq and Iran and as far east as Tibet in the 1200s AD. In the Safavid period, after 1500 AD, knitting was common in Iran alongside the Persian carpet business.