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Raise Your Needles: In defence of public knitting

Image: Aleesha Paz

It was a triumph bagsing the last table on the busy rooftop bar, especially so late in the summer when half of Sydney was out making the most of the remaining warm nights. I guarded the table while my friend lined up at the bar. I could see from the length of the queue that she wouldn’t be served for a few minutes, so I pulled a half-finished beanie from my bag and was quickly consumed by the familiar motions my hands made, creating then slipping loops of wool from one needle to the other. When my friend returned, holding two gin and tonics, her eyes zeroed in on what I was holding. ‘Put that away,’ she demanded. ‘You’re in public!’

The line between public and private is a curious thing. Most of us cross this divide multiple times a day, moving between home and work or from one private space to another, passing through public areas to get there. By definition, the public and private are opposed – each space has its own distinct purposes and designated sets of behaviour. Performing what is considered a private act in a public place can have consequences – just look at how divisive the concept of breastfeeding in public is today.

Yet the line is moveable and certain behaviours have shifted from the domestic to the public sphere over time. Knitting is one such activity that has made this transition. The rise of knitting’s popularity over the last two decades is well documented. It’s a highly mobile craft, so it’s just as easy to carry around a ball of yarn and a pair of needles, as it is, say, a book. It’s more and more common to see people, young and old, women and men, knitting or crocheting in public places. It’s strange to think about it now, but when I first embraced knitting in public, my friends and family struggled with the idea that I might want to knit somewhere other than within the confines of my home. I know from scrolling through online forums that I wasn’t alone. The non-knitters of the world hadn’t quite realised we’d moved on to a new definition of knitting – to them, it was still something old-fashioned and embarrassing that firmly belonged within the privacy of the home.

Vladimir Nabokov would begin each semester by telling his students how he expected them to behave in his lecture theatre: ‘No talking, no smoking, no knitting, no newspaper reading, no sleeping, and for God’s sake take notes.’ ­I’m surprised, and charmed, that he felt the need to include knitting in his list of prohibited activities – obviously, knitting in public was so prevalent that he found it a problem equal to smoking (a behaviour which at one point was acceptable everywhere and is now banned from inside spaces and a considerable number of public spaces too). Nabokov’s quote captures one of the main complaints against knitting in public: that it’s rude to do so when others are around, whether it’s because the assumption is that the knitter isn’t paying attention, that it implies boredom, or that it’s distracting to others. This isn’t necessarily a modern perception; in seventeenth-century England, complaints were made against social knitters who would gather under hedges and annoy the general public with their knitting and laughing.

I’ve wondered how often others feel this way when they see me knitting in public. Most of my public knitting happens on the train or the bus during peak hour, so of course, the majority of the reactions I receive are of silent indifference. Sometimes I’ll catch curious fellow travellers watching me work; other times a conversation might begin with people who know how to knit and are delighted to be able to talk about it, or people who don’t know how to knit, and who approach me with a startled look of amusement: ‘Are you knitting?’ I might even spot another knitter, though this has only started to happen in the last couple of years.

There are two kinds of public knitting: incidental and intentional. The former refers to the kind of public knitting that is to do with passing the time, such as while on the bus to work or waiting at the doctor’s office. The latter is when the act of knitting in public is the point, for example, as a mindfulness exercise, a piece of performance art or protest, or as a social activity.

There are many reasons why I love to knit, but the most relevant one is that I have a strong aversion to wasting time. Watching TV, sitting on the train, having brunch with my friends, are all the more productive when my hands are busy working my needles. Knitting can be easily added to most public spaces, like public transport, sports games, airplanes, the cinema, the beach, cafes, bars, libraries, waiting rooms, the hairdresser, and lecture theatres (although I never had Nabokov as my professor). In fact, there aren’t many public places I wouldn’t knit (I draw the line at weddings).

Knitting belongs in public as much as it does in the home. Public spaces should be platforms for human expression and interaction, places where passions and ideas can be exchanged, and where we can be inspired by each other’s creativity and individuality. There’s power in the way we inhabit public space. The way we move through it, make use of it – fill it with our selves, our objects, our activities – shapes the overall identity of that space. When I walk through my local park on weekends I see joggers and muscly bodies on the outdoor gym equipment; everyday when I get off the train I see groups of Vietnamese men playing checkers on the public tables near the station; and every year I, along with hundreds of thousands of others, make the trek out to the east coast to see the Sculptures by the Sea exhibition. These unrelated activities and events result in communities that are more active, diverse, and creative.

People who craft in public wield the same transformative power – they turn sedentary spaces into places of creativity, productivity and mindfulness. In the program for the 2018 Sydney Craft Week, Megan Kalucy, the Sydney-based maker behind Shared Threads, wrote about the importance of such a festival taking place in our city:

The pleasures of engaging with other crafters or admirers of craft within and across communities is one of the highlights of the festival for many. To witness the vibrancy and richness of the local craft scene gives a great sense of belonging and legitimacy.

Historically, knitting wasn’t linked to any particular gender. This gendering only developed in the last couple of centuries, but ever since it became a women’s activity knitting has struggled to be recognised as valuable, skilled work. To knit in public is to cast off any shame associated with the craft, and seeing other members of your community engage in this transformative process legitimises knitting for the crafty individual and also normalises its presence in public places.

For a long time I didn’t know anyone who liked to knit, and so the only knitting I saw, apart from on YouTube, was the occasional glimpse on TV. Knitting so rarely features onscreen as anything more than mise en scene; it’s most often used as a way to contextualise films or shows set in the past (Little Women, Miss Marple), as a way of making the setting seem authentic. Films with more contemporary settings might include an eccentric knitting nanna (think the grandmother knitting during the wedding flashbacks in The Runaway Bride). Occasionally there might be a leading lady in a romantic comedy who picks up her needles, like Julia Roberts in America’s Sweethearts or Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Enough Said. In these cases, the knitting is a visual cue so the audience fully understands the female lead is sad and frumpy. Even the glamorous Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s only takes up knitting when she’s decided to give up her party days and get married.

It’s even rarer to see knitting in a film if that act of knitting occurs in a public place. In the 2002 film, Chicago, Renée Zellweger’s character is advised by her lawyer-cum-conman to knit baby clothes during her trial in order to convince the jury she is motherly and feminine and therefore not guilty of murder. She exploits the associations wider society makes between knitting and femininity to take back control in a patriarchal justice system where the odds are stacked against her gender. Brushing aside the point that she is acquitted of a murder she actually did commit, the problem is that her use of public knitting is not genuine – instead of challenging knitting stereotypes, she reaffirms them.

One of the more interesting representations of public knitting is in the 1943 film, Mr Lucky. Cary Grant plays Joe Adams, a gambler and conman, who steals a dead man’s identity in order to avoid going to war. As part of his scheme, he pretends to work with the American War Relief Society, an organisation completely run by women at every level, in order to cheat them out of donations. One of the volunteers is Dorothy Bryant, played by Lorraine Day, who, suspicious of Joe’s intentions, decides to test him by recruiting him to participate in one of the organisation’s propaganda schemes. With a sly smile, Dorothy asks Joe whether he knows how to knit. He is startled, repeating the word ‘knit?’ with an increasingly repulsed face in response to each of her questions, until finally he whips his hands from his hips into the air, insisting:

Joe: I don’t knit!
Dorothy: That’s exactly the attitude we’re trying to combat.
Joe: Now look here, I’m–
Dorothy: We want a group of obviously masculine men to take up knitting, do it perfectly casually in a public place.

By the second world war knitting was definitively women’s work, and the aims of the propaganda project go beyond encouraging people to knit for the war effort, but to actually shift gender stereotypes through combining knitting and the public sphere. The propaganda project is a genuine one (this part of the film might have been inspired by the true story of Natalie Latham, a British woman who created Bundles for Britain, a volunteer organisation that achieved overwhelming success using the visibility of public knitting) but neither Joe’s or Dorothy’s intentions are – they treat it as a game, a flirtatious joke.

Still, Joe agrees to learn how to knit, albeit reluctantly. Sitting beneath a large window through which we can see the footpath outside, Joe manages to knit one purl one under the supervision of an enthusiastic instructor. Unknown to him, a crowd of men gather by the window behind him, seemingly fascinated by the sight of a fellow man knitting. Joe’s henchman is aghast at seeing him in such a compromising situation. ‘Boss, people are watching,’ he tells Joe with alarm. ‘What do you want people to think?’

One of the reoccurring jokes of the film is that the henchman actually takes to knitting; Joe interrupts him several times while teaching other men how to knit. At one point Joe pushes past a group of men crowded around his car and finds his henchman sitting behind the wheel, demonstrating to his audience his new skill. Joe sticks his head into the window and exclaims: ‘You call that purling? You dropped a stitch!’

There is a single scene that might suggest that Joe too has developed an interest in knitting. It takes place after Joe tricks a man into giving him a $5000 cheque. As he leaves the man’s office, he spots a teapot cosy by the door and pauses. ‘That’s a nice piece of work. Regular needles?’ he asks.

This is a propaganda film, and part of the deal is that it should present ideal wartime behaviour and ways of thinking, but it seems the scriptwriter couldn’t quite decide whether to promote knitting or make fun of it, and the result is a bit of both. The other reason the premise of the film is fascinating to me, is that it depicts women and knitting moving into the public sphere concurrently. At some stage, knitting and women became inextricably linked and their histories have been entwined ever since.

Historians have turned their gaze to the domestic sphere, and so we now better understand the roles of women and knitting throughout history. The way knitting most fiercely moves into the public eye is when it’s used to engage with politics. The most famous, and perhaps the first recorded, example is Les Tricoteuses (French for ‘knitting women’) who have achieved an almost mythical status, helped by Charles Dickens who immortalised them in A Tale of Two Cities. There are many accounts of these women, some conflicting, but the story goes that following a successful march led by market women demanding more access to food, women were banned from gathering in public for political reasons. As a way to get around the ban, women gathered in the last public place available to them: guillotine executions, where they would knit Liberty caps, the red woollen hats that came to symbolise the French Revolution.

New Zealand has a unique history that blends the political with knitting. There is a wonderful anecdote of a woman called Connie who campaigned for equal pay and maternity leave during the 1950s. She would sit in the front row of Wellington Town Hall, and if the men said anything she disagreed with she would promptly begin knitting to show that she was angry or bored with the discussions. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the wives of MPs were allowed to attend parliament hearings by sitting in the Ladies’ Gallery. There was a strong tradition of needlework amongst these women, possibly because it wouldn’t do to be seen with idle hands. It’s been reported that during the years when female suffrage was debated the Ladies’ Gallery was unusually full – the women would knit and sew as they anxiously listened to their rights being discussed.

Back in Australia, in 2017, Liberal MP Peter Dutton told business leaders who supported marriage equality to ‘stick to their knitting’. In response to this infuriating phrase (no matter which way you twist it, it strips knitting of value and skill), Greens MP Janet Rice earned my admiration forever when, a few days after Dutton’s remarks, she pulled out needles and a few balls of brightly coloured yarn and began knitting a rainbow scarf right there in the middle of federal parliament.

I was, and still am, overwhelmed by the sheer brilliance and magnitude of the 2017 Women’s March. Overnight, the Pussy Hat, that pink hand-knitted beanie with cat ears, became a symbol of defiance against the dangerous misogyny that was sworn into office in Washington. The provocatively named Pussy Hat is of course a reference to the infamous ‘grab em’ by the pussy’ line that horrified so many. The fact that a hand-knitted object was chosen as the symbol of the Women’s March holds a tremendous amount of meaning. A craft that for so long was synonymous with subservient, domestic women – so much so that even the feminists of the 1970s and 1980s rejected it as being a tool for women’s oppression – was suddenly at the heart of the movement.

The march was a global sensation; though women had used knitting across different countries and centuries as a way to engage with politics, never had knitting achieved such strong visibility. Reflecting on the aftermath of the march, I can’t help but think about Melbourne artist, Casey Jenkins, whose performance piece titled ‘Casting Off My Womb’ went viral in 2013. For twenty-eight days she sat naked from the waist down in the middle of a room, knitting from a skein of wool that she put into her vagina. As she knit, the wool unravelled from inside her, sometimes stained brown and red with period blood.

Jenkins’ performance viscerally connected the female body and the art of knitting, arguing against the idea that both should be restricted to the private sphere. The vitriolic response she received was overwhelming. The performance inspired anger and disgust for putting a female body on display not for the sexual gratification of the audience. This public response is fascinating to me, especially post the Pussy Hat movement: how different would our response have been today? It’s clear that the way we interpret knitting is changing. Even half a century ago, it would have been natural to assume a woman knitting was a sign that she was feminine, a dedicated wife or daughter. But today when someone spots a woman knitting, their first thought may be ‘she’s an activist’.

In any case, nobody tells me to put away my knitting anymore. This is probably more a sign that the people around me have grown accustomed to my habits, but I think too that the face of knitting has changed an incredible amount over the last few years. On a recent trip on the Skybus from Melbourne airport into the city I pulled out a lace shawl – chosen for being complex enough that I wouldn’t finish it in the few days I would be away, and small enough to carry around with me in my bag. ‘It’s good to see somebody knitting,’ a man said to me as we climbed out of the bus. ‘Although I guess there is a bit of a revolution at the moment, huh?’ He was young and he was smiling and he surprised me by adding ‘I’ve just finished a scarf – couldn’t get the edges to be straight!’

Mostly when I knit in public I’m trying to carve out a moment all to myself despite being surrounded by others. But the great joy of knitting in public is these brief interactions with strangers, sharing something as simple and time-old as knitting, before going on with my day.

Works cited

Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature, ed. Fredson Bowers, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.

Heather Nicholson, The Loving Stitch: A History of Knitting and Spinning in New Zealand, Auckland University Pres, 2013.