Swatch of the Month: The politics of knitting

Swatch of the Month: The politics of knitting

BY JESS SCHREIBSTEIN | The day after the 2017 presidential inauguration, as I joined many of you in the streets in protest, it struck me: I was maybe one of the few knitters at the Women’s March on Washington who hadn’t knitted a Pussyhat.

As a long-time knitter, it was both a little startling and thrilling to see nearly everyone rocking a handknit hat. The closest I’ve ever come to seeing handknits worn on that scale was at Rhinebeck, which really says something. The now-iconic pink hat with pointy ears, a project started by Kat Coyle, became a powerful visual sign of solidarity at the marches – splashed across all of the day’s news coverage and even making its way to the covers of both Time and The New Yorker.

I have my own reasons for not knitting a pussyhat (some good critiques of the project can be found here, here and here, but regardless of your politics, it feels safe to say that we may be at the cusp of a new wave of knitting activism.

KNITTING AND POLITICS

Knitting as political commentary or protest is nothing new. Like all art, knitting can serve as a platform for political and social critique. But unlike painting, music, writing or other male-dominated mediums, knitting serves, at its core, a functional purpose: making clothes that keep us warm.

For years, knitting was unpaid labor produced in the private home, not something that would be sold in a public market or valued beyond its functional purpose. Its historic ties to domestic labor and women’s work serve to undervalue its role as a creative art form, to a degree where we don’t even refer to it as art – we call it “craft.” Because of this, any use of knitting outside of its primary role could be perceived as inherently subversive and political.

Of course, all of us knitters know that art and functionality are not mutually exclusive. Like all artists, knitters are creative problem-solvers. We negotiate space, color, organic material, texture and tension in our work. We also know that clothing is a powerful symbol of both status and identity, a fact that many knitters have leveraged to create subtle, but impactful, statements through their designs. Consider the political origins of the Icelandic lopapeysa, or how the Aran Islands have seized upon the fishermen’s sweater as a marker of their local identity and heritage.

One of my favorite recent books about clothing and identity is the hefty compilation, Women in Clothes, which came out in 2014. Through a series of surveys, essays, interviews and photographs, over 600 women discuss why and how they present themselves through their clothes. In its early pages, Heidi Julavits writes:

“I don’t check out men on the street. I check out women. I am always checking out women because I love stories, and women in clothes tell stories. For years I watched other women to learn how I might someday be a woman with a story.”

I love that statement, and I love the idea that everything I wear has a story. But beyond that, I think about how my choice of clothing has its own narrative and can make its own statement in the world, particularly regarding my own commitment to slow fashion. For me, that means increasingly making my own clothes, either through knitting or sewing (I’m slowly learning), and supporting small, women-owned labels with ethical and safe labor and animal welfare practices. It means trying to know more about the origins of my clothing and the fibers I knit with, and the willingness to pay a pretty penny for fewer garments that will last.

There’s a lot to unpack here because “slow fashion” means a lot of things to a lot of different people, and thankfully Slow Fashion October and Slow Fashion Citizen dig into a lot of those conversations. But from my vantage point, the personal is political and our actions – however small – are a vote for the kind of world we want to live in.

Swatch of the Month: The politics of knitting

“CRAFTIVISM”

The word “craftivism” – an amalgamation of the words “craft” and “activism” – was coined by Betsy Greer in her book, Knitting for Good!: A Guide to Creating Personal, Social, and Political Change Stitch by Stitch. The term has been thrown around a lot lately, especially regarding the ubiquitous pussyhat. Greer defines it this way:

“Craftivism to me is way of looking at life where voicing opinions through creativity makes your voice stronger, your compassion deeper and your quest for justice more infinite.”

Her definition is pretty broad (perhaps intentionally so), but because of that remains squishy and, in some cases, problematic. Is this a term that can only be used to define politically liberal or progressive actions, and does that exclude other voices that fall outside that spectrum? How do we define “craft,” or “activism” for that matter?

Beyond questions of semantics, the creation of a word to talk about something that has been happening for generations – leveraging a traditionally domestic art form towards an overt political purpose – seems redundant and a little cute. Regardless of your feelings about the term, we can likely expect to see it a lot more craftivism in the future as more and more knitters explore using the medium to make their own political statements.

One of my favorite artists working in this way is Lisa Anne Auerbach, an L.A.-based knitter, photographer and cycling advocate. I first heard about Lisa from a friend who took her photography course at my alma mater, USC, although I’ve never met Lisa myself. She creates bold, irreverent sweaters (they’re machine-knit, not handknit) with political statements splashed across an otherwise traditional motif. During the final days of the 2016 presidential election, she also participated in the I-71 project, a billboard exhibition curated by the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. As part of that project, details of her sweaters that she created in 2008 were featured on billboards across Cincinnati.

I’ve always been especially taken by Lisa’s work, and not necessarily because of her political statements. (To be clear, my sharing of her work is not an endorsement of her politics.) I appreciate her work because she does what all effective artists do – she makes us think. We’re free to agree or disagree with her, but her work forces us to ask tough questions and start a conversation, and I think that’s a good thing. The bigger questions – Does art make a difference? Does it change anything? – are open for debate, but taking a hard look at the challenges we face as a society is a place to start.

Swatch of the Month: The politics of knitting

THE SWATCH

With Lisa’s work in mind, I wanted to create something with a clear and simple statement that could be adopted and worn by many. Enter, the RESIST hat. I’m not really a fan of swatching in the round or swatching for a hat, so I skipped over the swatching part of this Swatch of the Month post (oops) and just went straight for the full design.

After sketching out the chart and playing with the math, I picked out a couple colors from my stash of Quince and Co Finch and started knitting. I’m a big fan of Finch (I wrote about it previously here), and it provided a crisp read of the lettering (important) and a light, smooth halo when blocked. And while I chose the colors Clay (main color) and Canvas (contrasting color) as a nod to the pussyhat (and also because I’m a sucker for that earthy pink color), one of my favorite things about Finch is that it comes in dozens of colors that let the knitter choose the mood and tone of his or her own RESIST hat.

Swatch of the Month: The politics of knitting

Yarn: Quince and Co. Finch in Clay and Canvas colorways
Needles: US2 / 2.75mm metal needles
Gauge: 33 stitches and 38 rows = 4″ in stranded colorwork pattern

M E T H O D

The pattern is my own and is currently in testing! Keep an eye on my Instagram for a release date this April.

Jess Schreibstein is a digital strategist, knitter and painter living in Baltimore, MD. Learn more about her work at jess-schreibstein.com or follow her on Instagram at @thekitchenwitch.

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37 thoughts on “Swatch of the Month: The politics of knitting

  1. It’s funny, I saw the first photo and thought, “Oh I like that hat, I hope there is a pattern!” And then when I realized that it was not just a patterned hat, I like it even more.

    I’m looking forward to the release of the pattern. Yours is lovely.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t made a pussyhat, either. I have so many other things I want to knit, and it’s beginning to get warmer, and I don’t go for cutesey stuff (I know it was meant to be ironic) — it just didn’t make sense. I didn’t feel weird at the women’s march here in Philly at all sans chapeau. This “resist” hat is a lot more compelling, though! thanks for your essay, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Someone has to say this – why not go back to the Playboy bunny costume? Only I believe this hat with the disgusting name is even worse? Who are these “women” who came up with that name. They obviously were not around in the 70’s when REAL women were not only marching but talking the talk when they returned home.
    One of my daughter’s walked with her daughter in Chicago and she told me that there was no organization, people were just roaming around the streets.
    Time this generation really grew up, stopped wearing genital hats and give back to the older society that made such a mess of their lives.

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    • Why is this necessary? Yes, feminism needs to change – to be more intersectional, to be more radical and demanding – but is making fun (which is what you are doing) of people who took the first step toward public action the way to push that change? I don’t think it is.

      Liked by 1 person

      • As one who entered the workforce in the 60s, I well remember what it was like to compete in a field dominated by men. I worked hard to make my place. Yes, I had to work harder. I had to prove that I could do the job. You know what made it more difficult? The so-called feminists – railing about rights for women and all that jazz. When they got Washington, D.C. to buy their message, they gave us quotas. What did this do for the women in the workplace? Very little. In fact, it was a negative in many ways. Why? Because women now not only had to prove they could do the job (and do it very well, thank you very much), they had to prove they were not a token and had earned their position.

        I opted to go into an area where there were no women and few younger men – computer services to the manufacturing arms of companies. I rejected being tagged as a feminist in the 60s and I still do. To me, they may mean well, but their strength comes from making women the victim. If the efforts had been put into teaching women how to negotiate for themselves, how to network, etc.; women would be better off. A woman should not get a job because they are a woman.

        If you fell you have not the power to gain what you want on your own merits, then, by all means, group together and protest. If you want to get together and celebrate being a woman, have at it. But learn your strengths and the powers you have. Women tend not to see these traits in themselves. I would hope more women could gather for a positive reason. Gather to brainstorm on how you can reach a specified goal and not protest because you have not.

        Liked by 2 people

    • Before I say this, I want to emphasize that I understand why the pussyhat is not for everyone, and I LOVE seeing all the activism hats/knitted things that have cropped up since the election, including this one, Karen!! Love it.

      The pussyhat name, in my opinion, is a nod to our president’s use of it in a leaked video that surfaced during the 2016 presidential campaign. It is a way to “take back” the word, which, after all is just a word, why vilify it? The sea of pink hats during the marches was a very organized symbol of protest to the election. To say there was no organization for the marches across the country baffles me. There were hundreds of incredible sister marches all over the world, how is that not organized! I recommend paging through the NYT roundup of all the sister marches, I found it truly moving (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/01/21/world/womens-march-pictures.html).

      It is upsetting to me that your response to people gathering together to demonstrate is we need to “really grow up” and just because we are not being activists in the same way as the first generation of the womens’ movement, our actions are not valid and not pro-woman.

      Liked by 3 people

    • As an older person and an Australian I must correct the term ‘real woman’. This was a term hurled back at us as we took to our feet and protested against the status quo. Real women were the ones staying at home and not rocking the political establishment, nor burning their bra’s. It has always been a wonder tome that the major criticism of women as activists and political proponents, come from other women. Here in Australia our first female prime minister was hated as much by women as men.
      Any type of political action taken by women to protest hate and descrimination follows on from our the goals of the truly courageous mothers and grandmothers, the original suffragettes. Joss Bishop, Tasmania, Australia

      Liked by 2 people

    • Sadly this is nothing new. This women hating on women cycle.
      I can’t believe we fall for and repeat it.

      Marilyn, you are forgetting that there were also an older generation of women who found your generation’s burning of bras vulgar. Same with the flappers in the 20s and suffragettes before them. There has always been backlash about how women behave. Sadly, it comes from women as well as men.

      We should be lifting women up, not tearing them down because they don’t fit into your antiquated idea of what women should be (which is what men do to us already, right?)

      As long as we keep fighting amongst ourselves we will never reach our goal of equality.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful article…swatch or no swatch, it’s a compelling read. I will look forward to your pattern coming out and plan to make the resist hat! It’s a message that is as necessary in Canada (where I live) and other parts of the word as it is in the US.

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  5. So glad to see this hat, which I plan to knit as soon as the pattern is released. Pussy hats are a little too sexualized and, at the same time, too immature, for me. The word “resist” is, in my opinion, more thoughtful, purposeful, and muscular as well as less “in your face”- a sentiment I’ve never felt helps to engage people in discussion.

    Not your traditional swatch post, Karen, but enjoyed reading Jess’ thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for the great post! A colleague and I are doing research on the pussyhat phenomenon – you’ve captured a lot of the interesting tensions around them. Love the hat – it’s a great alternative for folks who want to wear their resistance, but who are uncomfortable/unhappy with the pussyhat option.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I love your thoughts! I want to get back into knitting for spring, but I don’t know what that I can make for warmer weather!! Any ideas? Thanks xxx

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  8. Thank you for this! I’m pretty uncomfortable with the trans-exclusionary nature of pussyhats, but I love the idea of knitting in activism. Love your pattern and can’t wait to knit it!

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  9. Now I don’t know how knitting evolved in the US but in Scandinavia it was in fact men who knitted and sold their knits. The ‘women’s craft’ and unpaid work is a 20th century development. There’s nothing traditional about knitting and the female sex, it’s really a contemporary thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I disagree with Bitch www as they say that having my vagina grabbed is not a problem, well as a nurse and having been a sexual health nurse and managed a women’s health service , vagina is the inner part of what we see externally as the labia. If someone grabbed my vagina , that is called sexual assault or rape , mind you grabbing a pussy is also sexual assault. But I do agree with their analysis that it is a disempowering to talk about women as described by pussyhat site in over stereotypical terminology

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  11. Thank you for taking the time to post about this, Karen. It’s such an important topic. I read the article about Pussy Hats on Bitch Media and the points resonated with me. I marched sans hat to our state’s capitol in January and felt extremely conflicted as I traipsed through low-income neighborhoods among thousands of expensively dressed, mostly white people – getting very much in the way of the people in their neighborhoods trying to do their grocery shopping or get to work.

    So much of what troubled me about the election process this time was the language of white nationalism. Narrative is powerful and that talk was pure evil. And we, the “women’s” marchers, I don’t think that we’ve found our groove in terms of narrative yet either… Thanks for bringing it up. I really want to have meaningful conversations around this topic with this community that I hold very dear.

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  12. I made pussyhats for everyone in my family – me, my husband, my daughter, my son – and you know which one of us continued to wear the hat every day it was after the march? My 11yo son.

    I understand how people feel conflicted about the design and name of the hats, but to see the sea of pink in aerial photos of marches in city after city…that was pretty powerful. If you overthink anything, you’ll find a problem with it. Personally, I’m not into cutesy stuff and I don’t really like pink, but the solidarity I felt when I marched downtown in my home city with 100,000 other people totally dwarfed whatever personal objection I might have had about that particular hat design. And when it comes down to it, I think my energy is better spent finding productive ways to resist and work for good than to argue about whether a pussyhat is a good thing or not.

    Don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees, you know?

    Liked by 2 people

    • To be fair, the trees here are an entire class of women: many trans women felt excluded by how quickly the pussyhat movement turned from a vagina-centric locus of resistance in response to a specific comment to a broad category equating womanhood with genitalia. No movement is perfect. But considering how we do the work better next time isn’t a small part of the battle, it’s a hefty portion.

      Not to get all gender theory here or anything. Everyone’s intentions are good, but intent is very different from impact.

      Like

  13. Thanks for writing this Jess! I hit Baltimore’s small action, also hatless because of conflicted feelings though I won’t deny the power in both the making and the wearing for a lot of people. Some of them are brand new to activism, and I hope that making and/or wearing a hat is the first step on a long and fruitful journey.

    Stuff Mom Never Told You did a great episode on knitting, and the show notes have tons of information. http://www.stuffmomnevertoldyou.com/podcasts/knitting.htm

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  14. Chiming in to echo Sabina to say that the history of knitting, and its commercial vs “domestic” status, is much more complex than the simple “women’s domestic work, not intended for use outside the home” narrative. That picture of knitting is indeed pretty darn recent, even though it claims a vague “down the generations” traditionalism. And the degree of “femininity” associated with knitting has shifted through time as the activity’s role has been understood in different ways.

    So I vote for more columns that maybe delve into that fascinating, often surprising-to-modern-knitters history. I’ve learned only a wee bit myself (thanks to a range of authors in the historical knitting orbit), but the more I learn, the more I feel my connection to the art and craft of knitting deepens.

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  15. What a well written and thought out post. I love the conversations that the Women’s March has sparked, as well as the way it has made us reflect deeper on the traditional role of women in knitting. And I love your beautiful hat pattern as well! As always, it’s important to try and see every issue from more than one side, so thanks for including the many links that show ‘the other side’ of the pussy hat debate.

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  17. I also did not knit a Pussy hat, not because I was against the sentiment, but because I was going to be marching in L.A. where it was going to be pretty warm. Instead, I made a burgundy baseball hat with pink sequin letters that spelled out RESIST. So I am glad to see so many people interested in knitting RESIST hats (as well as other sentiments that can be found on Ravelry). Just like the posters exhibited a lot of creativity, so should the clothing!
    One article of clothing spotted at the L.A. march was an American Flag sweater that had been purposely shredded. A powerful statement.

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    • “One article of clothing spotted at the L.A. march was an American Flag sweater that had been purposely shredded. A powerful statement.” A double negative! If one respects this country and values the flag then they NEVER wear the flag other than a flag patch or flag period. It is never to be made into the Stars and Stripes. EVER! Second, when a flag is destroyed, it is done so with respect — preferably by burning. One does Inot shred it — EVER! (I know, it was not a real flag but it was made to represent the real thing. Both are sorely lacking respect and treat the flag in a mocking way. “A powerful statement”? Yes — of how to mock the flag, the country and all it represents. Flag etiquette is another of those things we used to learn in grade school. I suspect many who show lack of respect for the flag are not mocking the flag but have never been taught flag etiquette.

      I know all is not good with our country. That is true of about everything in this world touched by humans. We should strive to be the best we can be. However, it is important to have realistic expectations. Understand what you are working toward and where you are in the process. Don’t ever stoop to mock others as a way to make a point. IMO, the biggest problem we have today is the lack of respect we have for others and the over-emphasis on how righteous our position is. We have come to the point where we don’t take time to listen or understand the views of others. Democracy is not for the faint of heart.

      It is actually possible to made one’s point without insulting, taunting, being disrespectful. In fact, I would argue that one’s opinion is more likely to be heard if one is treating those listening with respect. We are loosing the art of sincere discussion and debate today. Sad.

      Like

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