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The Knitwear Evolution


From needles and yarn to customisable software we take a look at the evolution of the knitting process over the centuries and the vital role that the right fiber plays in creating a sustainable, eco-friendly and high-quality knit product.

Knitting, the process of using needles to loop yarn or wool to create fabric or a garment, is an age-old production method that has been around since the 11th century. One of the oldest knitted items discovered by archeologists is a pair of socks made from cotton fibres that date back from 11th century Egypt. The fine gauge and purl stitch suggest that the process was already in development and is therefore a technique that is likely to date back even further.

Knitting’s origins are firmly rooted in the Middle East, and from there it continued to spread across Europe and the Americas. Numerous knitted items, such as garments, accessories and cushion covers dating back to mid-13th century have been found in monasteries and cathedral treasuries in Spain. 

Hand knitting with needles

These early examples were hand-knitted right up until the invention of the first mechanical knitting machine, or stocking frame, in 1589 by an English clergyman, William Lee. His machine-made wool stockings were rejected by Queen Elizabeth I, she thought they were too coarse and that the use of knitting machines would put people out of work. However, King Henry IV of France seized the opportunity and offered Lee financial support, resulting in the inventor setting up a stocking factory in Rouen. The knitting loom was born and this style of framework knitting machine rose in popularity throughout Europe.

By the 1920’s knitwear became fashionable with sweaters, pullovers and cardigans that combined tradition with new developments such as synthetic yarns and zip fastenings. Popularity in commercial machine knitting grew and by the 1930’s there was a noticeable transition towards fast production of cheaper machine knitted products.

Knitting machine close up

Textile and clothing manufacturing dramatically changed, and as mass production came to the fore so did the increase in synthetic fibers. In particular the introduction of acrylic, or nylon, heralded as a faster and cheaper alternative to natural, labour-intensive fibers such as cotton or wool. Cost aside synthetic yarns could cope with regular bouts in the washing machine, a big draw for everyday casual wear, and provided an affordable alternative for those allergic to wool. Despite the pro’s there was no escaping the chemical origins of acrylic and with sustainability moving to the top of every company’s agenda knitwear has steadily seen an increase in fibers derived from natural sources.

Mass production, cheaper yarns and advancements in technology saw ongoing development of vast industrial knitting machines. In recent years this has included seamless garment knitting whereby the complete garment can be created on a knitting machine without any pre-cutting or post-sewing.

Knits on display – Selfridges windows London

Heading into a new era and the development of knitwear has been transformed with customisable software and advancements in hardware. In 2017 sportswear giant Adidas opened a pop-up store in Berlin that allowed customers to get a 3-D scan of their bodies in order to create their own one-of-a-kind sweater design made from merino wool. Ready in just 4-hours at the cost of 200 euros Adidas stated that the pop-up experience was part of an ongoing quest to improve upon the brands manufacturing processes to develop products with speed, efficiency and personality.

A pioneer in computerised flat knitting solutions, Shima Seiki, now additionally provides a 3D “Total Fashion System” to provide comprehensive support of the apparel production process, whereby data for programming flat knitting machines is prepared simultaneously for smooth transition from design to production. Comprehensively equipped with dedicated functions specialising in the planning and design of fashion apparel and other textiles, APEX4 features state-of-the-art technology such as the latest AI functions for image searching for quick and accurate planning and design.

Real simulations, so realistic it can be mistaken for the real thing, allows the use of virtual samples to replace actual samples in evaluating design variations, thereby minimising the tremendous time, cost and material normally required with sample-making. Supporting lean manufacturing practices, the Total Fashion System maximises profit while achieving zero leftover stock, zero lost sales opportunity and most importantly zero waste through smart, speedy and sustainable production.

Image: Lenzing Group

Shima Seiki’s cutting edge WholeGarment® technology was recently combined with Lenzing Group’s TENCEL™ branded fibers for a capsule knitwear collection. The collaboration partnered innovative industrial science with textile sustainability. TENCEL ™ Lyocell fibers are the fiber of choice for knitwear, given they are highly suitable for flat knits and are known for their natural comfort and environmentally responsible closed loop production process.

Knitted garments typically consist of separate parts, body panels and sleeves, that are sewn together, however Shima Seiki’s WholeGarment® knitwear is produced in one entire piece, three-dimensionally, directly on the knitting machine. This process is therefore speedy and efficient requiring no post-production labour, only uses the amount of yarn that each garment requires. 

The development of creating a knitted garment has indeed come a long way over the centuries and as technologies become even more sophisticated, linking up the entire garment life cycle, the combination of sustainable materials provides that stamp of eco approval that today’s manufacturers desperately need.




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