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.
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.
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.
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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