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Knitting Fire and Fury

Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 20, Spring 2017. Illustration by Elena Skoreyko Wagner,used with kind permission.

Here’s to 2017! Last year has unanimously been called an annus horribilis. We lost a number of high-profile creative souls far too soon, and even more passed on at a ripe old age. David Bowie, Victoria Wood, Mohammed Ali, Prince, Phife Dawg and Carrie Fisher, to name but a few we collectively mourned last year.

In their creative and public lives these artists challenged the status quo and extended what was possible. They opened up avenues many of us struggled to walk alone and inspired us to speak up, sing out, laugh together, and dance a better world into being. At the same time, elections and referendums across the globe threw up results that removed the luxury of ignoring some disturbing realities. Many have become ‘woke’ to the need for vocal and creative action in their everyday lives. We entered 2017 with our eyes open, knowing we may need to stand up and stand together In new ways. Undoubtedly, difficult and uncomfortable confrontations lie ahead. Knitting will provide a solace, as it always does, but can it also provide the fire?

The meditative, mindful and therapeutic qualities of knitting are well established. Researchers have repeatedly shown that a hobby or a craft practice, and particularly one involving textiles (knitting especially), can provide relief from depression, anxiety and chronic pain. These activities tend to engender supportive communities and friendships, and crafting itself offers a focused pause in our increasingly complicated, fast-moving and busy lives. Intuitively, we know that beauty and its creation are powerful and important endeavours. Prominent figures like William Morris have also highlighted the social value of arts and crafts. Perhaps the role of knitting is to further this cause. But how can we ensure that we aren’t just sweeping our problems under a stunning hand-tufted carpet?

So much of what I currently read and listen to on crafting emphasises its ability to help process, relieve, control, and distract us from our stress and misery as an end in itself.
I firmly believe in the curative and transformative potential of making things, but among all this earnestness it can be hard to find a constructive voice and use for the fire and fury I also see at the heart of our crafting community.

For many handcrafting no longer plays a central role in the building of our homes and working lives. It is no longer essential to the production of furniture, tools, clothing and a roof over our heads. For the majority, knitting, crochet, quilting, pottery, spoon carving and sewing are now firmly ‘hobbies’. I say this not to belittle such endeavours in anyway; the world needs more hobbyists, hobbies and the time to engage in them.
But perhaps many of us crafters are still questing for a function, a focus to our passion. Of course, we can satisfy our generosity and desire to ‘do something’ with acts of charitable kindness like knitting for the homeless, premature babies or oil-slicked penguins. Though these are much needed and appreciated, where are the earth-shattering, life-changing actions we get to play an essential role in?

We regularly look longingly to times when the power of crafting seemed clearer. We study pamphlets and photography documenting knitting for the troops during both world wars, admire the way Land Girls dressed themselves in lean times, and find inspiration in the honesty of workwear from the interwar period. We look to Honsestrik, an act of rebellion against prescriptive, proprietary patterns in a time of economic downturn in Denmark in the 1970s. Whether historically correct or not, we love the gruesome tales of distinctive patterns knitted into fisherman’s sweaters to enable their bodies to be sent back to their villages should they be washed up on faraway beaches. All of these instances combine necessity, resourcefulness, and design in invaluable ways. As craft has ceased to be the main form of production, it seems unsurprising that our handiwork and focus has turned inwards to self-care and betterment. These are important, but without social necessity, can knitting provide anything on a wider scale? In these times of struggle, how will knitting answer today’s calls to action?

Crafting is undeniably used as a form of highly productive escapism. However, our current ideas of escape are curious. We like it when our knitwear models languish on fences or in fields, wistfully gazing off into the distance, cracking only a discrete smile if any. Pattern books, profiles and websites are typically populated by the slender, pale-skinned and able-bodied under titles like Perfect and Essentially Feminine Knits, Girly Knits and plenty of variations on ‘vintage’, ‘romantic’, ‘countryside’ and the like. Where are the alternative – or some might say, realistic – titles? Nasty Knitters? Cool Knits for Hot Flashes and the Furies that Accompany Them? Fault-Free Knitting for the Pedantic and Difficult? A Compendium of Colourwork in the Struggle for Racial Diversity?

I’m sure you can come up with a few more. We have Sweater Girls covered, but no ‘Sweaty Girls. ‘Knits for Nerds starts inching in the right direction. We get closer with Confessions of a Knitting Heretic, Knitting for Anarchists and of course, The Opinionated Knitter, yet cursory reads and common quotes from even these will soon throw up ‘gentle’ and ‘soothe’, rather than ‘focus’, ‘channel’ and ‘question’.

If knitting is so simpering, so demure, so well controlled, then why does “I knit so I don’t kill people” strike a chord with so many? So prevalent on t-shirts, sweatshirts, bags, pendants, stitch markers, badges, mugs and keyrings, it’s hard to know the exact origin of this phrase we like to utter with a chuckle. Perhaps its popularity arises from its ability to simultaneously function as an acknowledgement between knitters and a warning to the outside world: a warning that you are prepared to offer a deft kick in the teeth to anyone with the view that crafters aren’t badass.

We’ve all watched enough of the likes of Star Wars and Karate Kid to know that anger isn’t the way, but we certainly feel it and it’s never far away. “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned / Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned,” wrote William Congreve in his play The Mourning Bride in 1697. Often misquoted and misattributed to William Shakespeare, these words were written for a tragic tale of love and deception between people, but could just as easily describe the fury of a maker when their project goes awry. Though every WIP starts with desire, promise and excitement, it can quickly turn to confusion and dislike, then remorse and disdain, even hate. Many a frustrated beginner would gladly throw their work across the room because it’s just not turning out the way they imagined. More advanced knitters may experience deep dissatisfaction with the pattern description, knots or weakness in the yarn, the relationship between swatch and garment, the pilling, the size, the cast-on/off, the ethics, the interruptions, or the way the colours work together. All these can quickly spark flashes of intense anger.

A lot of this anger is focused on ourselves in our personal quests for perfectionism in life and craft. You may be familiar with the phrases: I’m not patient enough”; “I knew I should have frogged it way back when”; or “I should have known better.” These frustrations are personal reflections on ourselves and our projects, but our crusade for perfection can extend outward. Spending a little time on Ravelry forums, in the comments section after blog posts or on Twitter, will show that knitters are not always nicey-nicey or calm. Among skilled, intelligent, committed crafters with passionate opinions, forums can very quickly turn ugly. There’s usually a hefty dose of thinly-veiled judgement and passive aggressive camaraderie, but I do wonder: if our feistiness were laid bare, might it offer up more creative fuel? Instead of petty griping, what can we cast on to direct our anger towards agency and change?

What could such projects look like? One answer is Pussy Hats.

On January 21,2017 the Women’s March took place in Washington DC, with solidarity marches across the globe. Thanks to the beautifully worded call and proposal that kicked off the Pussy Hat Project, knitters, crocheters and assorted other crafters have been busy making hundreds of thousands of pink hats with feline ears to be worn in the streets on this day of dissent. The idea is for everyone present to have their heads kept warm by a handmade hat, whether made by the marcher’s own hands, a gift from a fellow marcher, or from someone unable to attend (as a representation of their commitment). Worn after the fact, these hats will continue to be emblems of solidarity, ignite conversations, identify allies, visualise dissent and bring beauty, laced with humour, to winters for years to come.

I hope we can create more such avenues to channel our anger in the coming days. With our wits and our skills we can turn our fear and despair into a positive collective strategy. So, what’s next? What else can we put our anger and our passion to…