Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Knitting and public politics

Les Tricoteuses "Our local editor recently told us that the mayor of Rockland, Me., in a petulant moment, spoke in an unseemly manner to a lady member of the city council, suggesting she refrain from knitting as her activity distracted attention from serious business being considered. Our editor seemed to dismiss the matter as petty frivolity and faulty manners. I think not. I believe this is meaningful in our time. It is a good sign and shows what is going on." (src)

What is it about knitting in public that can be so unsettling? Are we afraid that someone knitting cannot, or worse yet does not wish to, engage with those around them? (Women have long gathered to knit and gossip.) Is it the intrusion of a private activity into public space that unsettles? (Like the laptop user at the local cafe, or the conference backchannel?)

My first exposure to the direct connection between women, knitting and politics came as a child when we learned about the French Revolution. French women of that time, I was taught, were so cruel and callous that they knit while watching public executions by guillotine. But were les tricoteuses cunningly crafty or simply handling stress by handling objects? Dickens seemed to believe the former. In the characters of Madame Defarge and her shadow The Vengeance, from A Tale of Two Cities, he memorably unites this ruthless revolutionary female spirit and knitting. Defarge is notoriously obsessive and vengeful in her knitting as she encodes in her stitches descriptions and names of enemies of the Revolution.

A subtle public politics always ran through the more affective dimensions of knitting. Knitting was encouraged as a means to treat hysteria and depression, as a means to give women a creative purpose, as a means to keep women productively occupied, and yet also as a means for women to be materially and socially expressive in ways that allowed them to exist, and persist, beyond the private realm. The social history of embroidery samplers is quite illustrative of this kind education and communication.

"With some women brain-work is impossible. It produces all sorts of diseases and makes them at once a nervous wreck.... The quiet, even, regular motion of the needles quiets the nerves and tranquilizes the mind and lets thought flow freely." (src)

Despite being handiwork or manual labour, knitters often discuss the mental benefits of their activity: "If the pattern isn't too taxing, and if there are no distractions while I'm knitting, I can sometimes enter a fluid state of thinking that is superior to my usual clunky, solid state of mind." (src)

Other descriptions evoke Madame Dafarge in their simultaneous sublimation and manifestation of inappropriate or unwanted female emotions: "The knitting puts up a small but substantial barricade between me and the rest of the world . . . Pretending to be absorbed in my knitting takes the edge off interacting with certain other people, too . . . I tighten my grip on my needles and grimace meaningfully at my last few stitches, pretending I've just made a mistake . . . It might be dangerous, though. I'm not a warm, fuzzy woman; I rely on my knitting to be warm and fuzzy for me. When I give something I've knitted to friends and relatives, there's genuine affection knitted into the baby sweater or hat or Christmas stocking, but I'm concerned that my thoughts would still betray me if anyone could decipher my knitting." (src)

Knitting can also involve a sense of mastery and control, it can be a source of pride, and a way of claiming space for oneself - a room of one's own in the larger world. "When I am stuck in a waiting room, or locked in a carpool line, or trapped watching something insipid on TV with my children, I might look glum. But as long as I have my knitting with me, I am more likely gleeful. I am supposedly wasting my time in those situations, yet for every row I finish, I snatch pleasure and satisfaction for myself." (src)

Perhaps this is where the public discomfort comes from? A woman knitting in public is self-possessed, she almost flaunts her ability to be productive when others can't, to create when others can only consume. From this emotional politics she can also claim moral righteousness, and in the multi-tasking dimension, she can claim superior skill and challenge the notion that public space is unitary or unified in process and product.

But women have also knitted for public spaces and for the public good, and this involves a different kind of public politics. For example, the Red Cross has a long tradition of war-time knitting, from distributing patterns suitable to the WWII environment to today's afghans for Afghans project, which is also completely fascinating in terms of culture and language.

"The November 24, 1941, cover story of the popular weekly magazine Life explained 'How To Knit.' Along with basic instructions and a pattern for a simple knitted vest, the article advised, 'To the great American question ‘What can I do to help the war effort?’ the commonest answer yet found is ‘Knit'.’ The article pointed out that hand-knitters were turning out garments for soldiers despite the fact that machine-knitting was more efficient. Knitting gave people at home a way to help.

'The men hardly have time to grab their guns before their wives and sweethearts grab their needles and yarn,' claimed Time on July 21, 1940. Knitting provided warmth and comfort for the soldier and therapeutic distraction for the knitter ... [On January 22, 1942 The New York Times wrote] 'The propaganda effect of hand knitting cannot be estimated in terms of hard cash, but it is considerable. A sweater for a bluejacket. A helmet for a flying cadet, made by some devoted woman in a small town far from the war, is sure to arouse interest in the navy or Air Force among the friends of the woman doing the knitting. And she herself feels that she has an active part in this vast conflict; she is not useless, although she can do nothing else to help win the war'." (src)

After the war, knitting re-entered the predominantly private, female domain - despite the increased drive to turn middle-class women into consumers who buy things rather than make them. The state of knitting today draws on all the periods and attitudes described above to, ahem, stitch a new sense of public politics.

"Some see crafting as a stance against mass culture and consumerism: individuality triumphing over uniformity. And then there's the green perspective: better to turn old fabric into something original instead of contributing to landfill. There's the subversive, punk-rock DIY attitude...And then there's the feminist perspective, a re-think of the 1970s equation that domesticity equals oppression. Now that crafting is a choice rather than a necessity (mothers no longer having to knit just to clothe their kids) its association with drudgery has disappeared. Where many second-wave feminists saw crafts as synonymous with the kitchen sink, today's young feminists see them as a potent form of expression." (src)

Craftivism is based on the claim that "protest and dissent come in many different forms." The Revolutionary Knitting Circle is dedicated to "building community, and speeding forward the revolution, through knitting." microRevolt uses knitting and other needlework as means to "investigate the dawn of sweatshops in early industrial capitalism to inform the current crisis of global expansion and the feminization of labor." As Mike Press at craft research puts it: "This, it seems to me, follows the long historical role of craft which is a way of thinking and acting upon the world as a means of self-development, critical reflection, education and making culture."

In my view, it is this making of culture that is so important and valuable when it comes to public politics. Knitting's strongest contribution, then, is a persistent demonstration of the ability to craft culture materially, socially and ideologically. The question that most interests me at the end of the day is what kinds of culture and politics are being crafted, and by whom?


Blogger e-tat said...

Brilliant. Fucking brilliant. Top Form.

Anonymous Andrew said...

Excellent post, Anne. Is there an article on this in your future?

Have you seen Knitta please? Urban kninjas "tagging" stuff with knitted sleeves or covers. Check the Tag section for examples. Supposedly there are some of these in Seattle, but I've never seen them.

Anonymous jean said...

lovely piece of cultural studies scholarship anne - come over to the dark side!

And in regard to the politics of indie/urban/DIY aesthetics, allow me to quote a bit of my own writing that is typically suspicious of the cultural politics at work. (sadly all crafty matters have been demoted to footnote status in my thesis):

"The refusal at work in these DIY communities is not only a refusal of the affluent Western individual's interpelletation as the consumer of inauthentic, technologised and mass-produced artifacts; it is also avowedly a recuperation of everyday domestic labour and productive leisure - knitting, sewing - from their undervalued status in modernity. However, these practices are very often recuperated for hipness via the (sometimes post-feminist) differentiation of 'indie craft' from the middlebrow aesthetic of the mainstream 'craft store'."

So I'm interested in how these movements figure within other, equally problematic forms of urban cultural capital (or not), which can't be separated from a consideration of their articulation to particular feminisms.

Anonymous Craig said...

There was a woman in one of my PhD courses who insisted on knitting - but only for the two weeks we were reading parts of Hume's Treatise of Human Nature. I found it particularly annoying (I already didn't like her, this was just another reason!), mostly, I think, it was because knitting was rapidly entering the fad phase... someone likely lent her a copy of "Bust" or "Bitch" and Stitch & Bitch. I think my problem was that (1) she was too late to such a cool activity, (2) her participation in the activity indicated that it had jumped the shark, and (3) that she likely just learnt to knit on the weekend and really wanted to show off her ability to purl. The knitting lasted two weeks and then I never saw her with the needles again - and certainly she didn't wear that scarf to class.

Is there a comparable activity that is as man-ish as knitting is woman-ish? Tying flies!?

Anonymous anne said...

thanks e-tat & andrew - i do know about knitta and can't believe i forgot to include them in my post!

jean - thanks but i think i'll leave it to you and others who do it so much better... and it's funny you and craig mention the whole hipster-indie thing.

the article i was working on (yes, andrew ;)) is tentatively called "What Not to Make: Judging Craft" and it deals with DIY material culture and the politics of taste.

personally, i have nothing against anyone who picks up a copy of stitch'n bitch and brings their new project on the bus or to class - hell, i knit my first scarf while at conferences and it made for unexpected introductions and great conversation between papers.

and actually, i'm really pleased that someone hip came up with toilet paper roll covers that are sushi-shaped to complement the dolls and poodles i grew up with.

but check out ebay instead of etsy - you'll get a way different sense of what women like to make, and this makes me question what kind of cultural "recuperation" is actually happening in the DIY craft scene.

making craft cool again ("no tea cozies without irony") is a bit dodgy politically when you think of all the people for whom crafting is more mundane and less leisurely, or who simply enjoy the kinds of craft deemed tacky by the "crafty-and-sexy" set.

Anonymous jean said...

i think the 'ebay or etsy' question is right on the money (so to speak), and I share the same ambivalences as you - not just in craft, but across a range of domains. I'd love to see that article when it's finished btw...

Anonymous jean said...

PS It struck me on the ride into work that 'no cooking without irony' doesn't quite have the same ring to it - why? Tempting to reduce it to the gendering of 'private' labor (and have you seen http://www.whatscookinggrandma.net/?)...then again there must be more to it.

Anonymous anne said...

jean - i was going to ask for your feedback, so stay tuned! and the cooking bit is interesting... i think cooking is more fundamental (is that the word?) to people.

in the practice of everyday life vol 2, luce giard writes about "doing cooking" - or what she calls the "nourishing arts" - as "ordinary culture". she connects cooking to time, or matters of life and death, which places cooking in a different category than even housekeeping which can also be a matter of health. but the practice of recipes is quite similar to that of needlework patterns - they mark the foods that are "reserved, authorised and preferred" by particular cultures...

Blogger institute.of.zombie.studies said...

Perhaps, the "lady" was trying to distract everyone and her knitting was in fact a means of subverting public politics (maybe she voted Nader and is quite upset). Your analysis was interesting, but never gets back to the initial question of whether or not she is being rude to others. Would someone playing their nintendo ds (which is in a way productive to the individual, creating a sense of accomplishment) be considered in the same way as this woman knitting? I hardly think so.

Anonymous anne said...

i.o.z.s. - are you saying that doing needlework gets more respect than playing videogames? because i think you're probably right despite most people acknowledging they are each productive in their own ways. and if she *was* trying to subvert things, can public knitting only disrupt at the level of etiquette?

Blogger institute.of.zombie.studies said...

Absolutely not, she probably has hidden messages in her knitting. Its just a shame that the congress won't be able to ban knitting as un-American before it will be too late...but seriously, as craig pointed out these people who knit (and other activities which we find infuriating i.e: looking at pictures of your cat on your emac during a lecture) create fault lines within the social environment. And eventually "wars" will be faught over them. Yelling, screaming, the tearing of sleeves in grief and so on.

Anonymous Craig said...

There was this guy in another seminar who insisted on bringing his Playstation with him to class. At least the volume was off, but still! Is it that hard to not play video games for two and a half hours? At least the woman likely got a scarf, toque or mitts out the deal - what'd the guy get? A high score and sore thumbs?

Blogger regiknits said...

Wow. I have too much to say. I understand your suspicion of 'hip knitting'. Yet I cannot easily distinguish your reaction to a shibori shrug on etsy from a hipster's reaction to a christmas sweater on ebay. The rhetorical power of antielitism is incredible seductive, but it easily creates flimsy 'identities' that obscure real power differences.

Blogger sopranospinner said...

To some of the commenters: There is empirical evidence that doing repetitive handwork, such as knitting, improves concentration on other things going on, such as lectures. I know it improves MY concentration. Just because you don't have anything productive and enjoyable to do that improves the functioning of YOUR brain, doesn't mean you should be able to be the behavior police for ME.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed the article and look forward to finding ways of pursuing "craftivism" myself.

Anonymous Mary said...

Is it possible that she was just knitting? Maybe she was on a roll with the sweater, scarf or whatever and did not want to set it down?

I knit on my commute because that's prime "down time" for me to do it. It's the only reason. Not to make a statement of any kind.

Also, guy with the annoyance at the lady knitting in class? Did Knitting Lady get her degree, or not? Did you?

Anonymous Anonymous said...


Blogger Alexandra said...

Loved this. And for the guy who was so critical of his classmate's knitting. Wow, do you know how to project, or what? I hope your thesis was more insightful than your analysis of this woman's motives.

Blogger Robin said...

I am hosting a knitters for Obama get together for women who want to aid the campaign.I was researching the connection between knitting and politics and this was the first article I found. The ideas were a confirmation of knitting as both a private and community activity. I am trying to use this knitting group to create a network/and or projects that could reach other women and generate interest/ and discussion of the candidates and the stakes of this upcoming election. I am interested in hearing about anyone who has used knitting as a way to organize political activism.

Blogger Jill said...

At work yesterday, I got to a meeting early and was knitting. My boss came in and looked across the table and said, "Jill, put that away." So I did, and then watched as others tapped away on their Blackberries throughout the meeting...

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