Knitting entered China on the back of a camel. According to the academic Owen Lattimore, after the defeat of the White Army during the Russian Civil War, the monarchists retreated into China, where, as China fell into its own civil war, they were transported by camel to the eastern end of China. To pass the time, the Russian soldiers taught the Chinese camel pullers to knit.
That Russian soldiers were knitters should not perhaps be surprising when you consider that knitted stockings had been a uniform requirement since as early as 1630. By the 18th century, officers wore knitted silk sashes. While most of this knitting was done by hand knitters in the western provinces, it’s certainly possible and even likely that the soldiers themselves may have been doing some of the knitting and darning required to keep them in stockings and sashes.
In any case, the camel pullers took up knitting with a will. Lattimore observed that, “they would reach back to the first camel of the file they were leading, pluck a handful of hair from the neck, and roll it in their palms into the beginning of a length of yarn; a weight was attached to this, and given a twist to start it spinning, and the man went on feeding wool into the thread until he had spun enough yarn to continue his knitting.”
China already had a long history of extraordinary textile production, of course. Even before the opening of the Silk Road, which made trade between Europe and Asia a matter of routine, expensive silks and woolens had made their way West through complex trade organizations. Treadle looms had been in use in China from perhaps as early as 2000 B.C., creating fabrics that wouldn’t be possible to create in Europe until the 11th or 12th centuries.
Mary Thomas claims in her comprehensive Knitting Book that knitting came from the Arabian peninsula, so it seems odd that knitting would have avoided China until the early 20th century, considering the trade between China and the peninsula and the fact that early knitting seems to have been done with silk. However, within the same book, Thomas notes that there is no trace of knitting in China or India prior to European influence, and that perhaps with their own rich textile traditions, no need for knitted fabric was felt.
Though Lattimore’s romantic story of camel pullers knitting from the backs of their camels is very appealing, knitting had in fact been introduced to China prior to the Russian Civil War. China’s first hosiery factory was established in 1902, and by 1912, power driven knitting machines were being imported from the West. By 1913, the New York Times was reporting on the popularization of knitted stockings in China. Hand knitting, however, did not become widely popularized until after World War II.
The reason I found myself searching for traces of Chinese knitting past is that I’ve been trying to connect my loves of history, place, and knitting together recently. I live in California, in the San Francisco Bay Area, and unlike knitters in Shetland, or Turkey, or even parts of the Eastern United States, there is no unique knitting history associated with my part of the world.
I’m currently reading a very interesting book about California history, and, as in any book on the topic, I cannot help but notice how very much Asian influence has shaped San Francisco and its surrounding climes. The Chinese influx in California at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th was both deeply needed and deeply resented by the white Americans in California. Because of the racial tensions, there wasn’t originally much integration between communities. And I found myself wondering how this influx had influenced women in California.
Most of the women in the Bay Area during the mining boom were of Chinese origin, and many were slaves, sold or kidnapped into prostitution. By the time of the great San Francisco fire in 1906, the state was a state and had set restrictive limits on Chinese immigration. Ironically, the fire’s total destruction of Chinatown led to a greater openness in immigration policy. Since immigration laws limited immigration to those with family ties with Chinese relatives already in America, the complete loss of paper records meant that a booming business in “paper sons” was born.
I had assumed that this ebbing and flowing population might have brought with them some new traditions in handicrafts and perhaps introduced new knitting techniques to the location, but if the record I was able to find can be believed, knitting was still in its infancy in China at this period. I’m making the assumption that American Born Chinese were familiar with the tradition, but have been unable to find any connection to knitting history and the Bay Area as yet.
Dolores Bausum, Threading Time. Texas Christian University Press, 2001.
Antonia Finnane, Changing Clothes in China: Fashion, History, Nation. Columbia University Press, 2007.
Owen Lattimore, The Desert Road to Turkestan. originally published in 1929.
Mary Thomas, Mary Thomas’s Knitting Book. Dover Publications, reprinted in 1972.
David Wyatt, Five Fires: Race, Catastrophe, and the Shaping of California. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1999.