The gentle click-clack of the knitting needles, the rhythm of knit-purl-knit, counting stitches and the feel of soft wool – knitting has come to be regarded as a therapeutic craft that brings comfort and calm satisfaction.

At the height of lockdown, learning to knit was almost as much of a requirement as whipping up banana loaf and sourdough bread.

While for the more experienced, rising demand for handcrafted items means there is the chance to sell what they make or even launch businesses catering for demand from a new wave of knitters.

Now Glasgow-based researchers are digging into the underworld of the seemingly gentle craft of knitting to explore the gulf between those who knit for pleasure and the knitters behind Scotland’s textiles industry, often working at home with stressful, tight deadlines to meet and for piecemeal wages.

In contrast to knitting as a calming hobby, generations of home-based knitters employed by Scotland’s knitwear industry faced long hours of working often following fiddly patterns or carrying out intricate tasks in return for earnings which barely reflected the high levels of skills required.

Although today the nation’s knitted textile sector has shrunk from its peak of last century, it still employs home knitters who often work on designer garments which are then sold by luxury labels for eye-watering sums.

The research is part of a wider Glasgow University-led project, Fleece to Fashion, which examines knitting in Scotland both as a thriving craft in the grip of a major revival with high demand for tradition, heritage and traceability, and as a thriving luxury industry.

It will investigate knitting’s economic impact, links to heritage and culture, its effect on towns and villages as mechanised factories arrived and the demands made on employees’ skills and time.

One element involves a ‘citizen science’ project in which home knitters produce knitted samples using patterns created by Borders’ knitwear designer Margaret Klein.

Her husband was Bernat Klein, a painter, designer and textile manufacturer based in Galashiels, and whose textiles were highly sought out by haute couture designers in the 1960s and 1970s.

Although her name was ‘consumed’ by the brand, Margaret played a pivotal role in the family-run business designing commercial knitting patterns using Bernat Klein yarn, and in the 1980s-1990s employing hand-knitters to create garments which were sold worldwide.

The knitted samples and questionnaires will help researchers gauge the stress, time and concentration that went into producing her designs, building a picture of the pressures faced by home workers then as well as now.

The research and the citizen science knitting project will be discussed at a Royal Society of Edinburgh online event, 'Knitting for money, knitting from home', part of its Curious summer season of debates, presentations and outdoor events.

According to Professor Lynn Abrams, who is leading the research team, knitters with the highest level of skills can be among the sector’s less well paid.

“In the past and now, they would tend to be paid piecework paid per garment,” she says. “But what you are paid does not reflect the time that is put into knitting a garment, whether hand knitted or knitted on hand-operated machines.

“Employers are canny, they tend to pay a flat rate for a garment otherwise it would not be economic for them.”

Knitting in Scotland evolved from the mid-1800s as demand grew from well-heeled society and royals for finely knitted stockings and underwear.

Mechanised knitting machines saw large mills emerge, while fashion trends in the early 20th century for Scottish-made ‘sportswear’ sweaters and country-style knits led to high numbers of people employed in the industry.

Supporting the mills was a home-based army of knitters, whose tasks could be anything from adding hand-knitted intricately patterned Shetland and Fair Isle yokes to machine-knitted sweaters, or finishing garments by joining sleeves, tying in loose ends and repairing flaws.

One company alone, Shetland Fashions, launched in the late 1960s and produced up to 4,000 garments a week, using around 400 casual home workers.

It ceased in 1982, as the oil industry began to provide more lucrative work.

“For home knitters, whether working by hand or with machines, the scale of trying to deliver garments on time could be highly pressurised,” adds Prof Abrams.

“People talk about working all the hours god sends, machines in the corner of the room, piles of yarn and then piles of garments and machining for a day to keep turnover going.

“The whole family might be producing jumpers for knitwear companies, both to make sufficient money but more to meet their target.

“The same system more or less happens today.”

There is also a gender divide within the sector, she adds, with men typically employed in working with machinery while women take on highly skilled hand work.

“Even in the most highly automated knitwear factories, we find large numbers of mainly women carrying out all the finishing tasks that are only done by hand such as sewing the ends, mending any stitches that have been dropped by fantastically expensive machines, taking off any bobbles, linking and joining the collar and sleeves.

“Women have the skills but it’s fairly lowly paid,” she adds.

Knitting is part of a wider textiles industry worth £956 million to the Scottish economy and which is its seventh biggest contributor.

Almost 65% of Scottish textile production is for luxury export goods, with designers such as Chanel, which took over Borders-based cashmere knitwear firm Barrie Knitwear in 2012, producing items which can sell for thousands of pounds.

However, the researchers say it is often difficult to establish how many home-based knitters are employed, what they are paid or how they are paid.

Prof. Abrams added: “Knitting it’s a really important part of the Scottish economy.

“While handknitting is still fairly small and concentrated in particular parts of the market - particularly luxury - alongside that specialist product there is a massive revival of knitting, it has become a popular leisure activity and there is also a burgeoning number of small and medium-sized businesses women who are spinners, dyers, designers across the country.

“The idea of the research is to provide a new perspective on that industry by looking at all parts of it.”

The online discussion, 'Knitting for money, knitting from home', on August 4 is part of RSE's summer Curious programme which spans a wide range of topics and research. For details go to