The Art and Practice of Knitting in Kenya by Penina Tuwei

Knitting is the skillful art of making garments like blankets, socks, sweaters, and scarves. When knitting came into existence, socks were the first and only items to be made. Knitters, in their limited experience, didn’t know that they could knit different kinds of items. But as the world kept on advancing new ideas were formulated and more styles and products came into existence.

In Africa, knitting was at first only done by people from the west because Africans didn’t know about it. It was during the colonial period that the British women who visited or came as missionaries taught the Kenyan women

how to knit. In those days, you would never find a Kenyan man knitting. Kenyan men never engaged with women at work as they had separated chores. Knitting was considered a woman’s work and the men were left to do other things.

Slowly knitting found its way into the Kenyan school curriculum during the late 70’s. It was a topic primarily taught in home science. Pupils start to knit when they reached standard/grade 5. They usually begin with a scarf as it didn’t have a complicated pattern. They used a rib stitch pattern and color changing.  The interesting part is that many years ago there were no patterns to follow and students had to learn only by practicing. Most of the people who did knitting during that time didn’t know the terminologies used in knitting. They only know by looking and many people who fell in love with knitting those days never stopped and continued to knit with the little knowledge they had learned in primary school.

Once knitting was in the school system, many boys started doing it, and it was no longer only a woman’s task. Unfortunately though, it didn’t last because of the removal of home science from the primary curriculum. It was still in secondary schools, but knitting was not in the curriculum.

Today there are very few knitters in Kenya. Most of them are in their 30’s or older. Mostly women were lucky to have a grandmother or mother who were able to teach them. Still, they are not taught how to interpret a knitting pattern and it can be a challenge for them to use a knitting pattern from the internet.

Socks, sweaters, and scarves were the only hand knit patterns made back in the day. Knitting machines came to Kenya and made knitting much more diverse. Blankets and hats could be made in in quantities that made them marketable. The machines were very expensive and only big companies that spin their own yarns were able to have them. With time, smaller and more affordable knitting machines came to Kenya, but most knitters have a hard time operating them correctly. Blankets were one of the first things to be knit using the machines since it didn’t have a lot of curves, unlike sweaters which needs shaping for the arms and neck.

One of the most prominent custom knit products in Kenya are acrylic school sweaters. For the big knitting companies, they love this because they are sure to sell every year as new students are joining school.

Custom knit products are a rare thing in Kenya. Not many Kenyans value the art and effort that goes into knitting.  A person would request personalized knit blankets at a price that is not reasonable. Take for example 20 skeins of yarns were used and each one goes for $0.4.  The total used is $8, and you’ve not included the labor. Somebody may think charging $20 is a lot of money and would want to purchase it at $5 which would equate to a total loss. This is one of the reasons hand knitters in Kenya are not willing to sell their custom knits.

In the USA one can keep sheep and spin their own yarn. In Kenya, only the big wool companies are the ones who can spin yarns. Kenyans don’t have a lot of knowledge about spinning yarns, but some farmers do in fact keep Merino sheep. Cotton thread is not that popular in Kenya as the industry collapsed years ago, but in 2018 cotton agriculture is starting to be revived and there’s hope of having the cotton thread available locally. Acrylic yarn is the most popular and most of the yarn products are from made acrylic.   The knitting needles in Kenya are British, and it is a little different from the ones in the USA.

A major difference between knitting in Kenya and the USA is that almost everyone has access to the computer or smartphone in the USA where they can search for any pattern they would like. In Kenya, it’s a bit different. Quite a number have access to the internet, but there’s a problem in purchasing since not everybody in Kenya believes in online purchases or they don’t have the knowledge about how to do it.

In Kenya, there is a long history of knitting and the practice is based mostly on tradition.  However, as more people learn and technology improves, there is a great potential for industry to develop and for Kenyans to sell their custom knit and machine knit items all across the world.