The Egyptian knit socks I outlined in the last post sure do seem to be the first known knit garments, like, a piece of clothing that is meant to cover your body. They’re certainly the first known ones that take advantage of knitting’s unique properties: of being stretchy, of being manufacturable in arbitrary shapes. The earliest knitting is… weirder.
This is a delightful dive into the history of knitting.
Those ancient Egyptian socks look like you could have picked them up at REI. Astonishing that our taste in patterns is consistent a thousand years later. (That museum listing is dishearteningly deficient for the curious. How did this sock survive 700-1000 years? Whose was it? Why does it say origin: Egypt/India? What is its story???) Also, how long after inventing knitting does it take to develop patterns? This sock has multiple patterns. Same generation as developing knitting, or multiple? Maybe people want decoration immediately?
Elizabeth Wayland Barber says this isn’t just knitting – she points to the spinning jenny and the power loom, both innovations in yarn production in general, that were invented recently by men despite thousands of previous years of women producing yarn. In Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, she writes:
“Women of all but the top social and economic classes were so busy just trying to get through what had to be done each day that they didn’t have excess time or materials to experiment with new ways of doing things.”
This speculates a kind of different mechanism of invention – sure, you need a reason to come up with or at least follow up on a discovery, but you also need the space to play. 90% of everything is crap, you need to be really sure that you can throw away (or unravel, or afford the time to re-make) 900 crappy garments before you hit upon the sock.