The History of Knitting: Egyptian Socks

As you’re working away on your knitting needles, do you ever wonder where knitting came from? Who figured out that you could take sharp sticks plus a piece of wool and make such beautiful things?

If you’ve ever tried to research the history of knitting, you’ll know that there’s no cut-and-dry story that tells you everything you need to know. It seems like knitting history is scattered in bits and pieces, and none of those bits and pieces seem to match up.

But there’s one thing I found in my research that I just had to share with you about the history of knitting: one of the first pairs of socks ever knitted looks nothing at all like the socks we wear today.
Knitting needles and knitted fabric

First known knitted item

Because fibers are so fragile, it’s easy to understand why knitted items didn’t survive thousands of years. Fibers break down very easily over time, which is part of the reason it’s so difficult to track down the true history of knitting.

But there’s one pretty famous pair of socks that stood the test of time. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London holds a pair of red socks that are believed to be from Egypt sometime between the 3rd and 5th centuries. According to the museum, the socks are knitted in stockinette stitch using a single-needle technique and three-ply wool.

What made me giggle about these socks is that if you look closely, you’ll see that they have a divided toe. Could you ever imagine that one of the earliest examples of knitting would look like that? They almost look like elf shoes! You can check out this photo to see the socks from another angle, making that divided toe look even stranger. According to the Victoria and Albert Museum, the socks were meant to be worn with sandals, which totally explains the divided toe.

Experts do not think the socks were actually knit using the same knitting techniques we know today. We use two needles, of course, but the technique used is a single-needle technique. You can see this technique demonstrated in this how-to created by the Petrie Museum in London.

And a little note: if you can’t make it to London to see all those knitted items in person, they have an online album you can browse.

Books for further research

If you’re interested in learning more about the history of knitting and more specifically the history of knitting socks, check out some of these books that came up again and again in my research. Happy reading!

Not up for a crazy Egyptian sock technique — or for socks with a divided toe? Hang out with Donna Druchunas in Knit Sock Workshop and you’ll learn how to make perfect socks featuring amazing colorwork that would make 3rd-century Egyptians pretty jealous.

Do you know anything about knitting  history? Share some of the trivia you know with us!

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