Early knitters and spinners
Missionary women were the first knitters in New Zealand. While women were the main knitters, working-class men also knitted. Edward Ward noted in his diary that steerage passenger Robert Wilson knitted during the voyage to New Zealand alongside his wife Margaret.
Boys as well as girls from Scottish families learned the craft, and immigrants from the Shetland Islands were particularly well known for their knitting, which was an important source of income alongside fishing back home.
Socks, stockings, shawls, mufflers and baby clothes were the main items knitted in the early 19th century. Table linen and trimmings knitted from cotton yarn were a cheap substitute for lace. Even curtains and bed counterpanes were knitted.
Some settlers brought spinning wheels with them to New Zealand and new ones were built on arrival. People with spinning wheels were able to make their own yarn from sheep’s wool.
The origin of the jersey
Jerseys started out as undergarments for naval and military men. Sailors and whalers wore jerseys called guernseys to protect them from salt water. G. B. Earp’s Hand-book for intending emigrants to the southern settlement of New Zealand (1849) advised labouring men to bring two guernseys with them. Women and gentlemen were not similarly advised.
Knitted outer garments
Commercial knitting patterns for outer garments – sports jerseys for men and boys – were available from around 1895. Before this, patterns for knitted children’s sailor suits and the occasional adult vest or cardigan were published, but most were for undergarments, shawls and baby clothes. Jerseys soon made the leap from sports to everyday wear for men and by the First World War were accepted as women’s wear too – women now knitted jerseys and cardigans for themselves.
First World War knitting and spinning
During the First World War, women were urged to knit items such as socks, balaclavas, gloves and facecloths for New Zealand soldiers. New Zealand’s first knitting pattern book – Her excellency’s knitting book – was published in 1915 under the supervision of Lady Liverpool, the governor’s wife, as a fundraiser for hospital services. The number of knitted items produced was huge. In August 1916 alone, 130,047 items were made. This work popularised knitting and it became a major home craft alongside sewing.
Women were also encouraged to take up spinning and contribute yarn to the war effort. To this end, in 1915, Lady Liverpool ran a competition to design and build a spinning wheel. It was won by Wellington-based architect J. W. Chapman-Taylor, who subsequently produced and sold his wheels.
Inter-war knitting and spinning
As knitting became widespread, more complex patterns were published. Everything from dresses to swimsuits was knitted. The Women’s Institute and the Women’s Division of the New Zealand Farmers’ Union encouraged rural women to gather together in knitting circles. Girls and boys were taught to knit, though boys were usually confined to simple items like hot water bottle covers. Young women knitted for their boyfriends. Competitions for knitted garments were held at rural shows and church fairs.
Knitting skills were very valuable during the economic depression of the 1930s. Women sold knitting to support their families. Old garments were unravelled and the yarn used for new clothes.
Spinning wheels were rescued from sheds and attics or made anew with whatever materials were at hand. The yarn was knitted or woven. The short-lived New Zealand Guild of Weavers, Dyers and Spinners was formed in 1935.
Māori women devised a unique way of knitting yarn without spinning the wool first. Women working as fleece-os (gathering shorn wool) in shearing sheds would roll freshly shorn wool on their thighs and knit the resulting strands with needles made from fencing wire in a practice known as uruahipi. Revived in 1967 during the first Wairoa Wool Week, a local wool promotion event, this practice was called Kiwicraft.
Second World War knitting and spinning
Home knitting was again in demand during the Second World War. Yarn was distributed to volunteers by the National Patriotic Fund Board and knitted items destined for soldiers were sent to local Red Cross branches. By May 1945, 1,168,963 items had been knitted. Wool for personal use was in short supply, but it could be bought using clothing ration coupons. Fine wool used for baby clothes was rationed and reserved for pregnant women.
As they had been during the economic depression, spinning wheels were brought back into more widespread use.
The post-Second World War baby boom created significant demand for knitting yarn to clothe all those babies, and speciality shops flourished in the 1950s. However, the wider post-war demand for manufactured goods affected public perception of knitting – what was once a thrifty, sensible way of clothing families started to be seen as boringly suburban and second-best. Some feminists viewed knitting as the epitome of domestic servitude.
Knitted garments became fashionable again in the 1970s and patterns mimicking designer fashions were readily available. Knitting machines grew in popularity. In the mid-1980s, 70% of New Zealand households had a resident knitter. However, the advent of cheap, imported commercially machine-knitted clothing in the 1990s reduced knitting to a hobby, though it did become a popular one in the early 2000s in line with renewed interest in handcrafts.
Later spinning and weaving
Spinning and weaving remained a hobby for some women after the war and became increasingly popular. The Auckland-based Handweavers’ Guild was founded in 1953, followed by the New Zealand Spinning, Weaving and Woolcrafts Society in 1969.