Knitting was for old ladies or dowdy ones when I was a child. My stepmother and her friends, or anyone with pretensions to chic would not have been seen dead with a pair of knitting needles in their hands… tapestry, petit- point, yes, but not knitting needles… while as for a crochet hook… that belonged to the dark ages along with that funny little thing even older ladies used for tatting.
But knitting has become a deliciously domestically subversive activity these days, the latest yarn storming being perpetrated by a wonderful group of women, who are using knitting as their medium of protest… knitting against racism and sexism… which just about covers most problems of the western world, since these words are an umbrella for any number of ills, from poverty, lack of equal pay, discrimination etc etc.
This group of imaginative and courageous women meet at a coffeehouse on the south side of St Louis, where they discuss how to knit, purl and dismantle white supremacy. They are The Yarn Mission, a collective formed in October 2014 in response to the violence and police brutality in nearby Ferguson, Missouri.
They aim to “use yarn to promote action and change to eradicate racism, sexism, and other systems of oppression”. Founded by CheyOnna Sewell, a PhD student in criminology, the group seeks to spark conversation about race and police brutality by engaging with curious passersby as they knit, all the while providing a comforting activity for beleaguered activists.
Their courage and their cause reminds me of the women of the Black Sash in South Africa… who though not knitters, wore a black sash to protest against apartheid for over twenty years, and who still work for the disadvantaged in their country. When meeting in groups was banned, these brave women stood alone with their banners and placards, lone figures of courage and conscience in a cruel world.
More recently, the KNAGs have evolved their own unique women’s protest. KNAG stands for Knitting Nanas against Gas, and they, through their knitting and demos are trying to preserve their Australian countryside against gas drilling and other threats to the land, the air and the water of their regions. Knitting grannies – against big business and environmental destruction – mothers and matriarchs – are the conscience of the country.
Over thirty years ago the very name of a Welsh group who called themselves Women for Life on Earth, gave me comfort when I felt isolated and as though I was mad in a farming community where hard- hearted practises towards animals and the earth were accepted as normal.
These women were the start of another unique women’s protest.
Women for Life on Earth evolved into the great woman’s peace protest at Greenham Common. In 1981, thirty six women and mothers protested against the US nuclear missile base at Greenham Common and were inevitably arrested. The following year, 30,000 women gathered to demonstrate peacefully against nuclear war, holding hands around the perimeter of the base. And the next year, 1983, 70,000 women came to hold hands along the fourteen- mile stretch of road between Greenham Common, the Aldermaston Nuclear site and Burghfield, the ordnance factory.
This peaceful women’s protest lasted for nineteen years, and during that time many women camped there for years… and were often arrested and frequently maligned in the media, parliament and everywhere else… Many mothers brought their baby’s booties and tied them on the wire around the camp. The tiny flower-like knitted baby shoes hanging on the wire symbolised that this was a protest by mothers, who wanted to protect their children and make the world safe for them.
It made me cry when I read about it. It was a very feminine protest, in that it evoked so many of the deepest feelings of women and of men who oppose violence… emotions like tenderness, sharing, caring, peacefulness , acceptance, and a deep connection to the planet being pillaged by the masculine energies of the world.
And when they weren’t linking hands around perimeter of cruise missile sites or getting arrested, what were these women doing? Knitting of course – a very centre-ing and meditative occupation when alone, and a very social one when in company. So it was fitting that a couple of years ago when a fourteen mile memorial march was made from Greenham Common past Aldermaston nuclear energy site to the ordnance factory site at Burghfield, it was marked by knitting.
For a year beforehand, knitters of the world, people from all over the globe had been knitting metre- long strips in pink wool, and on the day these strips were joined up the whole length of the march. Pink – the most gentle, peaceful colour in the spectrum, symbolising caring, feminine maternal energy.
In this subversive feminine warfare, wool against weapons, the colour pink has always played a role. In May 2006 in Copenhagen’s main square, a World War II tank was covered from cannon to caterpillar tracks with more than 4,000 pink squares, woven together from the handiwork of hundreds of knitters as a symbolic act of protest against Denmark’s involvement in the Iraq war, along with everyone else. Passersby stopped and helped sew the squares and cover the tank.
Knitting has had a long history of subversion… we all know about the fearsome Madame Defarge from ‘A Tale of Two Cities”, but in 1914 knitting also played a part in that war. Belgian officials encouraged elderly women to help in the war effort against the invading Germans.
BBC Radio 4 reported, “they would contact little old ladies who sat in their houses that happened to have windows that overlooked railway marshalling yards, and they would do their knitting and they’d drop one for a troop train, purl one for an artillery train and so and so on…” Because of this the official US and UK censors banned posted knitting patterns in the Second World War, in case they contained coded messages.
Even in my remote neck of the woods, we have our own yarn bombers, and even though their knitted graffiti is only fun, the fun police do their best to stamp it out. One Christmas, they knitted big red and white trimmed Santa hats for the two giant carved faces symbolising the sexes for the swept- up new public loos, only to have them whipped away the following day. But undeterred, the knitting subversives tried again, and this time their fun lasted a bit longer.
I caused raised eyebrows thirty years ago when I took my crochet into a long drawn out Royal Commission of Enquiry. I was using up scraps of wool, not on crochet squares but on one square which got bigger and bigger as the months went by. I watched with furtive amusement the veiled horror on the faces of the three judges on the first day as I sat among grave police and scientific experts, flaunting my coloured wools, and plying my crochet hook, and knew that most of the men were itching to tell me to take it away… they never dared try !
I was intrigued to discover a traditional knitting pattern in the English Guardian newspaper, entitled,’ Knit your own purse grenade’. At the end of the bona fide instructions it tells the knitter how to assemble the pieces, ending with: “you are now ready to throw your grenade”.
So knitting is not all it seems – it is much more than it seems, and a wonderful, wickedly mischievous way of making a stand. It’s a potent protest against all the ills that plague us; perhaps most satisfyingly of all, it annoys the politically correct… because the subversive quality of knitting is so hard to pin down. What IS so wicked about knitting?
PS An ironic tail piece. My subversive uncle and aunt used to set up a soup stall and sell soup to the CND anti- nuclear disarmament marchers whose annual protest march passed their door. Over the years with the money they earned, they were able to subsidise a new women’s wing at the local hospital, which the Queen Mother opened, and unwittingly congratulated my aunt on her fund-raising.
Food for threadbare gourmets
Two beloved grandsons with hollow legs for lunch today. Not having much time to prepare I did a quick and easy pudding… ice-cream with hot chocolate sauce. I couldn’t lay my hands on my Mrs Beeton cook book recipe with my infallible hot choc sauce, so I improvised with this hot chocolate fudge sauce.
Place in a heavy- bottomed saucepan two ounces or so of butter, four heaped tablespoons of brown sugar and about half a cup of cream. Bring this to the boil and add two chopped up Mars Bar, or squares of black chocolate, a teaspoon of vanilla, and boil stirring all the time until the chocolate is melted. Let it boil a little longer stirring all the time and just re-heat when you want it… easy-peasy! I’ve also used Toblerone bars for this… just as good, and I would think some rum would be good for the right audience!
Food for thought
Our spiritual destiny is to be in the Right place at the Right time. Anon
30 responses to “What IS so wicked about knitting?”
My son is a mining engineer. In 1990 we went over to stay with them at Phalbora next to Kruger Park where we could hear the lions roaring at night. I have a beautiful memory of looking out the window early one morning to see one of the local women walking to her job as a maid. She was wearing a bright pink frock, with a big pink hand bag on her head and she was knitting as she walked along the path! We all try to multi task and she certainly had it in hand!
LikeLiked by 2 people
What a simply gorgeous image, thank you so much for commenting and sharing sch a little gem !!!
I have an idea the Queen Mother was subversive enough to enjoy the story of how the funds were raised to open the Women’s Wing. I have often said there would be less wars if women ruled the world. They seem to appreciate more that we should treasure the life of our children rather than send them off to die. Not that fathers are less caring, but they do seem to look at war in a different light and the term ‘Duty’ comes to the fore when in fact saving our children should be the prime duty.
I always admired the women of Greenham Common as well as the men that joined them and in my time I have campaigned against war too. I’d rather have Hugs between the different nations that bullets.
xx Massive Hugs xxx
LikeLiked by 1 person
Hello David – back on air then ?
know what you mean about the Queen Mother, but her subversiveness was quite a front… in her letters, i have a thick book of published ones, she seems very conservative, and establishment…not quite the cuddly darling persona she projected… though her charm and kindness were infinite…
yes, hugs before bullets.. I gather that the women of Greenham Common discussed men joining them, but felt that it was in essence mother and women against war, so men didn’t become part of the protest there…
LikeLiked by 3 people
I rather think I like your statement…hugs before bullets!
I always take my knitting or crochet to meetings and courses – the repetitive action generates alpha waves in the brain, making one more creative and receptive to new concepts, which are then likely to be assimilated better. In addition, if the meeting is pointless, at least you’ve got a tangible output at the end! I know that doing this drives some people mad – two particular chairs (both older men) at meetings I used to attend regularly hated my knitting with a passion, which made me even more determined to do it! When I go on a course these days, I explain to the tutor that I’m going to knit and why and most of them are positive about it, not to say interested in the benefits.
I simply love the name of your blog,… and I simply love snails ( wrote a blog called ‘Snails have feelings too’ !!!)
I hadn’t realised the alpha waves in the brains were activated, even though I’ve always been conscious what a meditative activity knitting is… I always love a tinge of scientific accuracy to my theories, so thank you for that information !!!
Communicating always makes a difference.. telling them you;re going to knit… but I think thirty years ago, that might have been the opportunity for objectors to become doctrinaire.. I have a vague memory of an MP here, taking her knitting to parliament and it being condemned as bringing parliamentary procedures into dis-repute !
LikeLiked by 1 person
Of course, the obvious answer to your question in the heading is the bad press Dickens gave to the tricoteuses and Madame Dafarge, who knitted while enjoying the spectacle of heads rolling at the guillotine. Although, I did tell my wife in the early days of our courtship, ‘If ever a girl is that I want to moider, then that is the one who will sit and embroider’. She was addicted to that!
However, you give a far better image to those who keep their hands busy in such ways – certainly far from being knit-witted!
Oh the power of a soup stall and the power of knitting. I love subversive actions. The fun part is that when knitting was important to economies men were the knitters. When it became less important economically it was ‘downgraded’ to women’s work. (That’s my theory!) Now women are putting back the power that once was invested in knitting. Which may make some men uneasy. Also, apparently Madame Defarge represents the Fates, making the thread of life, measuring it and ready to snip it at any time. 😉 Most knitters, even subversive ones, today would be more interested in the yarn creating life or continuity, I would say, but associating knitting with the Fates gives knitting additional powerful symbolism. The Women for Life on Earth movement dovetails well with my current reading, No Surrender by Constance Maud, about the suffragettes in the UK and how they developed their movement. I don’t believe I have come upon any knitting in the story but many in the movement were working the looms, another thread based activity.
Bootees, I think not booties? Interesting post, especially for the thoughts on nonviolent protest.
Glad you enjoyed the post…. I’ve checked on the spelling of booties versus bootees, but can’t find any references to your spelling.. maybe yours is a local variation????
What an interesting post, Valerie. Who would have thought knitting could be so subversive an activity? Occasionally I see some knitting installations around Alice Springs, which I enjoy. I tried to learn knitting when I was young but the aunt who tried to teach me lived far enough away that the lessons were too few and far between. Every winter I think I might see if I can find someone to teach me, but honestly, I already have so many interests, I think I might have to enjoy the results of others who knit.
I also wanted to say, aren’t women the most wonderful creatures? Their peaceful manner and tenacity for asserting their views is so admirable. Our lives are truly lived on the shoulders of such courageous women.
Male knitters are even more subversive. This man knit his way out of homelessness: https://madmanknitting.wordpress.com/
Thank you Stuart, belated thought my reply is, I immediately looked up the post you directed me to ( and another blogger did later, too) and found it so inspiring and so touching… another testament to the imagination and resilience of the human spirit
I love this post and found it fascinating. You may remember reading of my participating in the 7 mile Peace Scarf last year! The image of the knitting walker above is a very evocative one. Have you read the blog, Mad man Knitting? He was homeless and tookto knitting teddy bears to sell to make a living and he is now doing really well. I think you would like to read his story. A ll the best to you 🙂
I read the top comments and just saw as mine was posted that Stuart has given you the link to madmanknitting! 🙂
What marvellously rich history you manage to unearth. I enjoyed reading about the subversive knitters. Thank you Valerie.
What a coincidence! This article is in our paper, The guardian http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/aug/06/ferguson-radical-knitters-talk-justice-race-issues
Thank you for your messages Sally – not coping at the moment, hence my tardy rely !!!
Sorry to hear that. Just sending love in your direction. 🙂
It’s wonderful when something considered so pedestrian and ‘feminine’ becomes subversive and a tool for change.
You make such a splendid case for knitting, I feel almost compelled to give it yet another go…almost. But I am, alas, inept at the craft. Two long pointy dull weapons–that’s what they become in my klutzy hands. And the yarn…well, that’s another ball of trouble all its own! 😉
Years ago someone taught me to crochet, they didn’t teach me well. I never had the patience to learn to make anything but long big squares. What I learned though is the relaxing, meditative nature of make them. Huge, beautiful afghans big enough to fit on beds. Not square, not shaped properly at all in fact. Just colorful and made out of my need for quite.
Loved this, loved the stories of subversion.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I love the image of you knitting…
Coincidentally, I was thinking, only moments before visiting this post that I would take up knitting this winter. I end up watching TV in the evenings, but why only do one thing!? I can only knit scarves. That’s okay.
When I was young, I learned how to knit from my mother who made yards and yards of bandages (thin cotton) to send off to people ridden with leprosy. This reminded me that in those days, (collectively), people called them lepers and they were relegated to leper colonies. As barbaric as it is, there is still one remaining leper colony (The last existing leper colony in Europe is Tichilești in Romania) and about 180,000 total with the affliction world wide. We have come so far, yet not quite far enough. Cheers to the women who care and dare to make a dent in lifting humanity.
I should have replied to your wonderful comment a long time ago… forgive me… life is somewhat overwhelming at the moment and my blog housekeeping a bit erratic !
I hadn’t realised that we still had leprosy in Europe… the Romanian colony was news to me.. what a heart-break… I must google to see if we have a cure yet…
And yes indeed, cheers to all who care and dare to help suffering humanity… lovely to hear from you..
LikeLiked by 1 person
Amazing! I didn’t know most of this. Thank you for posting~
The joy of working together to make a difference. Wonderful post, Valerie!!!