“In an age when so many of us sit in front of computers all day long, we may feel the desire to create, to touch, to make something tactile with our hands. And in these uncertain, anxious times, warm handmade scarves and cozy sweaters feel protective and comforting. Of course, this last discovery we can’t claim for ourselves – it’s something our grandmothers have always known.”
– Debbie Stoller, Stitch ‛n Bitch
After a downswing that lasted about twenty years, the twin arts of knitting and crochet started becoming popular again in the late Nineties. Once again you could see women working with yarn on the subway, comparing patterns and projects in online crafting communities, and gathering in “stitch and bitch” groups in public places. The popularity of these crafts is still growing as I write this: yarn shops are opening up all over, while the few LYSes that managed to remain open through the Eighties and early Nineties are doing better than ever. It’s also worth noting that there are more and more men knitting and crocheting these days. It does occasionally seem that knitting is the trendy new thing to do, sort of like blogging and sharing playlists, and will probably go back to being an obscure hobby in another few years when we all come to our senses.
But the newness of the phenomenon is an illusion. Dispelling this illusion is as easy as finding a woman who remembers 1956. Find one, and ask her if she ever knitted. Chances are very good that even if she didn’t knit as a hobby, she at least learned how, either from her mother or in summer camp. Fifty years ago, knitting was one of the very, very mainstream women’s hobbies. Boys played baseball, girls knitted and sewed. You didn’t absolutely have to do it, but it was the rule rather than the exception.
A hundred years ago every woman knitted, and crocheted, and sewed. Knitting wasn’t even a hobby in 1906. It was a mandatory skill for all but the richest women, and even they were expected to know it as one of the basic womanly arts. If you were a mother, you damn well knitted socks for your family, amongst other things. Crochet was a mere hobby, but it, too, was almost universal. Asking a woman of 1906 if she knew how to knit or crochet would be like asking a citizen of 2006 if she knew how to drive, or ever watched movies.
The big difference between then and now is that the crafters of today knit by choice. We don’t have to supply our families with sweaters or socks. We live in a society that gives us everything. There’s a Gap and a Victoria’s Secret in every mall in America, working as hard as they can to make sure no woman ever has to knit another sweater or crochet her own lacy unmentionables. They’d very much prefer that we didn’t, just like Sony and PepsiCo would prefer that we forgot how to tell stories and cook our own food.
And so, of course, we choose to knit.
We choose to knit because our mothers did, and our mothers’ mothers, and our mothers’ mothers’ mothers and every other woman born in the last millennium. We feel their memories in the rhythms of our hands. We share their secrets in patterns passed down through generations, as simple as an Irish Rose or as complicated as an Aran sweater. In doing so, we celebrate their craftwork and the lives they spent churning out these creations, both the practical and the fabulous. We tell their ghosts that they are not forgotten.
We choose to knit because we reject the passive role in the Gap-Sony-PepsiCo world, the world where we do nothing but consume, the latest sweater in this season’s colours, the hottest DVD with exclusive Collector’s Edition commentaries and behind the scenes with the special effects teams. We want to make our own special effects. We want last winter’s colours, or next summer’s. We want to create it ourselves.
We gather together as knitters and hookers, because today’s world is a lonely one, where neighbours are strangers and extended families are something you see every ten years at the big reunion. There is a deeply social bond created in a group that crafts together. We share our patterns and our secrets, we help each other with big projects none of us would complete on our own, and while we stitch and bitch we become a community with a shared purpose. Quilting bees and corn shuckings were not just ways to get tedious jobs done quickly. They were the glue that held small communities together.
We knit because there is no satisfaction as fulfilling as the satisfaction we get from making something with our own hands. We like the thrill of learning a new stitch, seeing a series of increases form a perfectly curved skullcap, watching colour changes sketch a picture in binary, following a sequence of arcane maneuvers to produce a delicate cable on a sweater, and mastering a medium we never tried before. We giggle as we pull massive crochet hooks through loops of tough hemp cord and tug, tug at that bastard again and again until we have blisters on both hands and suddenly, magically, our tired hands are holding a pair of actual shoes. Later on we act all cool and nonchalant about it, but inside we are still smiling and still yup, that’s right, I made that.
Some might argue that instead of sitting around playing with needles and hooks, we should be out storming the World Bank, the WHO and the WTF, protesting the latest oil war, protesting everything to create a better future. I say that change starts at home, and the future won’t be worth protecting if we forget all the traditional small crafts like knitting and crochet before it gets here.
Lest ye be misled by prejudice and my use of the word “we”, let it be known that I am in fact a triple minority in the yarn craft community: a left-handed man who mostly crochets. “We” means we knitters, not we women.