I taught myself to knit from a pamphlet, sometime during my last year of high school. Dunno why I suddenly got the urge ... I'd been sewing for many years (that being pretty much the only way to get the kind of clothes I wanted rather than what the Sears catalogue said I should want), so maybe making my own fabric was the logical next step (and a pair of needles is so much cheaper and portable than a loom ***grin***). Or maybe it was an attempt at self-defense against my maternal grandmother's productions: the only knitter in the family I knew of, she couldn't follow patterns properly and regularly produced mutant mittens and vests designed for two-dimensional paper dolls rather than three-dimensional humans. For whatever reason, I mastered the two stitches (yes, there really ARE only two: knit and purl), discovered to my surprise that my mother knew how to knit** when I ran into grief trying to figure out ribbing (which is alternating knit and purl stitches, but you've got to move your yarn back and forth BEFORE you start each stitch, not after ... which turned out to be the mistake I was making that was putting all the extra loops on my needles). All I had available to me was an old scrap skein in ugly brown and one pair of needles that probably weren't the right size for the yarn, so I practiced and ripped out and practiced again. Knitting was not "cool" at this time, and it was hard to find materials and tools or how-to information.
Then off to college in a fairly large city and there, at least, was a Patons yarn store. And there I bought a soft-covered pattern book (the how-to info for fifty different sweaters for a mere $2.00!). The patterns did mention a mysterious thing called "tension" which I ignored because I didn't know what it meant ... I picked out a waist-buttoning cardigan (very fashionable then) with lace panels (there's an advantage to ignorance ... since I had no doomsayers around to tell me lace was "hard" ... it isn't, BTW ... I just did it), went back to the store and bought the appropriate yarn (Patons Astra, still being made today) and needles, and went at it, learning as I went. And through some miracle, I ended up with a perfectly fitting garment. (this really was miraculous ... the tension gods, who must be propitiated if a sweater is to be the right size, for some reason forebore to strike me down with something either Barbie- or elephant-sized. Doubly miraculous since I am a loose knitter and, now that I know what I'm doing, usually have to use smaller-than-recommended needles to get things right).
Giddy with success, for my next sweater I purchased richly dark rust-coloured, unlabeled yarn from a bargain bin in a department store. This is how I learned about the existance of dyelots ... my beautiful lacy batwing pullover that was knitted cuff-to-cuff drastically changed shades 2/3 of the way through (and as it was knitted in one piece and was thus all scrunched up, this little disaster wasn't noticeable until the garment was finished and off the needles). This DID discourage me for a while and I went back to sewing.
Then I got my first library job in the Rockies, moved out there with only the contents of a large suitcase, and, desperate for some entertainment besides reading my way through the library I was recataloguing (yes, if that's ALL you have to do, it can get to you after a while), discovered a fairly decent multi-craft magazine with some nice patterns at the grocery store and that the local hardware store had some needles and some bagged yarn in stock (it was Red Heart, which is basically the same is cutting up plastic shopping bags into strips and knitting with it, but the desperate can't afford to be choosy). I was still oblivious to the meaning of tension (aka "gauge"), so the jacket I produced was too small, but I became quite enamoured of one of the stitch patterns in it and used that to produce the first of what I tend to call my Arctic scarves (about a foot and a half wide, close to an inch thick, and just over nine feet long, able to be formed into a hood, neck and face wrapping and still have enough length that its own weight holds it in place without tying)
Then my mother splurged on a new sewing machine and passed her old two-ton monster on to me, I got a different job in a city college, which meant access to fabrics, theaters, and a greater variety of reading, and knitting fell by the wayside again. 'Twas still not a "cool" or popular hobby, so while there were somewhat better quality yarns available in specialized craft stores, and better books available (I finally learned what tension/gauge was, plus a few other tricks), lack of popularity meant there really wasn't a ton of choices.
And then Kaffe Fassett happened, jumping from painting to fibre crafts, first needlework and then knitting, breaking rules left, right, and centre, and putting fun back into what had been somewhat stuffy and tradition-bound for decades. More books, more patterns, more yarn choices ... but most of the good yarns were imported and thus very expensive, plus pretty much anything non-synthetic had to be handwashed with great care to avoid felting or shrinking (not my favourite activity). However I consider this the first real "boom" in knitting ... a taste of popularity. And there were a few ups and downs over the years after that ... yarn companies like Noro appeared, experimenting with unusual combinations of fibres and colours (I own some early Noro ... a cashmere/silk/wool blend that's kitten-soft and cost a mint). But still ... having to use acrylics if you wanted to be able to machine wash or else having to cautiously handwash anything you made from natural fibres was a drawback ... the acrylics were plasticky and unbreathing and the natural fibres felted if you looked at them wrong.
And then two big changes happened to the knitting world ... the Internet and superwash. Yeah, the Internet's been around for a while, but knitting came to it late and relatively recently (we're talking within the last half-decade or so) ... and exploded. In a good way. Now there's a wealth of blogs and technique sites and communities, sharing knowledge and experience and sources. Online magazines like Knitty.com introduce new designers to the world, bypassing the old print-era catch-22 where you had to be established to be published and to be published to get established ... ditto for small scale spinners and dyers and specialist toolmakers. Online stores let them market their wares globally with minimal overhead.
And the last couple of years has seen the creation and rapid growth of the biggest online club of all ... Ravelry ... an encyclopedic resource where everybody contributes and pools information on their own collection of yarns, patterns and projects, plus personal notes and comments, so that others can benefit from previous experience. It's going to be interesting to see what effect this mega-community has on trends and preferences in knitting, crocheting and weaving, since any designer, book/magazine publisher, yarn maker can use it to get live and continuous feedback on which of their patterns/products are being made/used, by how many people, what errors in printing or fit or construction or quality they're finding; the smart ones will listen and learn and improve and thrive.
And superwash ... divine, wonderful, gift-of-the-gods superwash! Wools that have been treated so that they can be laundered without self destructing (anybody who knows anything about me would know that I certainly wasn't about to be washing my colourful new socks in the bathroom sink ***GRIN***). Now handknits that breath are practical, no-worry wear, instead of garments that are brought out of the closet with caution.
So yes, what was once an on-again, off-again activity has boomed in the last five years in a very good way. It's sorta the fibre equivalent of the legalization of same-sex marriage ... something that was underground has come into the light and become not only respectable but wildly popular and it ain't gonna go back into the dark again. Not ever. No more cycles of famine and feast ... I suspect knitting is in feast mode to stay this time. And I've got several lost decades to make up for. (Yeah, I'll calm down a little and start revisiting my other hobbies again in future ... just that right now it's an exciting big wave and I'm enjoying the ride)
And now, if you'll excuse me, I've got sticks'n'string calling me.
P.S. Why I didn't know my mother could knit ... because her mother, the mutant mitten maker, taught her and made it a miserable experience, making mom knit, and rip out and redo over and over and over, little practice squares and she wasn't to be allowed to try anything else until she had perfect stitches ... a bit rich and very hypocritical from a teacher who couldn't maintain consistent gauge if her life depended on it. All my mother wanted to do was make clothes for her dolls like all her cousins were doing, which is what a kid learning to knit SHOULD be doing ... not caring about the odd dropped stitch or weird increase out of nowhere. And so she had all these bad memories associated with the art and never picked up needles again. (Or rather, she did pick them up once as a young woman ... when she was expecting me she started making a baby sweater, which she says was a lovely, fancy, lacy work of art that she was enjoying doing ... until she accidentally forgot to take the half-finished project home with her after a visit to my grandparents and my grandmother, who had been driven twitchy crazy by my mother knitting happily in front of her, pounced on it and "finished" it. And I mean finished as in completed the garment her way and ruined it)
On the happy side, my mother thinks the trauma is far enough behind her (it's been nearly 50 years) that she's contemplating taking up knitting again. ;-)