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