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Take Back the Knit: A Feminist History of Knitting in the US

On a recent plane ride, I pulled out my knitting needles to finish the scarf I was making. Normally I am the only person on the plane knitting. But to my surprise, the college-age girl next to me was crocheting a toy snake and another young woman a few rows up was using chunky yarn and big needles to make a colorful shawl. We eyed each other with knowing looks, our secret bond solidified the moment we all took out our needles.

After my partner Clayton was murdered last year, I took up knitting as a way to relieve my constant panic and anxiety. I harnessed my restless unease into tangible projects with a beginning, middle, and end. Scientific studies have recently confirmed my personal experience, connecting knitting to reduced stress levels, cessation of smoking, and improved behaviors in eating disorder patients.

When I started knitting, I picked up the feminist knitting manifesto by Debbie Stoller (founder of the feminist magazine Bust), Stitch n’ Bitch: The Knitter’s Handbook. I also turned to my mother to show me the tricks of the trade. To become a knitting ninja, I needed the support of a community of knitters, both virtual and real. Interestingly enough, it was my grandfather (who learned from his mother) who taught my mother how to knit. Knitting is often seen as a feminine and “womanly” activity, so the fact that my grandfather was an integral purl in my family’s row caught my attention.

When Stoller began knitting in 1999, she found that many people viewed the activity as antiquated — and decidedly UN-feminist. As Stoller said, “If I had been learning karate, they would have said, ‘You go, girl, that’s so feminist of you,’ … the only reason knitting had such a bad rap was because it had traditionally been done by women.” But Stoller saw that across the country, young women were beginning to “take back the knit” by forming knitting groups. Stoller argued we needed to reclaim knitting as a feminine — and feminist — activity, placing value on a craft that historically had been disparaged for being part of the domestic sphere.1

(julie/Flickr | CC BY)
(julie/Flickr | CC BY)

Scholars have complicated Stoller’s act of re-appropriation, arguing that, in and of itself, celebrating a craft is not political or feminist. As Beth Ann Pentney posits, Stoller’s argument can be viewed as “merely an extension of a trend that supports individualistic, apolitical consumerism, as yarn prices certainly reflect a tendency to sell to upwardly mobile women with considerable disposable income.” Pentney argues that not everyone can take up knitting to relieve stress or build community; others depend on knitting for their economic livelihood. Yet she concludes by putting forth the idea of explicitly “‘feminist knitting practices’: active and purposeful knitting projects used in the spirit of feminist goals.”2

In other words, the idea of women simply taking back a traditionally feminine domain isn’t radical unless we also ask why these spaces have negative stigma in the first place. As Stoller herself describes, while young girls are now participating in activities once thought of as strictly masculine, men aren’t necessarily simultaneously crossing into feminine activities.3

But questioning masculine and feminine spheres doesn’t challenge the gender binary itself. That is to say, if crafts are only associated with femininity, self-proclaimed feminists (often female) becoming knitters won’t change the fact that it’s still considered a feminine activity. Rather, if we want to “disrupt the continued naturalization of a dualistic gender system,” we need to abolish rigid definitions of what is feminine and masculine. Here, the rise of male and queer knitters has demonstrated a “subversive potential” for destabilizing binary gender roles. Pentney suggests that “male, transgendered, and queer knitters [are] integral to this process,” as they throw into question the definitions of masculine and feminine.4 In other words, everyone who knits can challenge our views on what gender looks like in everyday life, and, in doing so, encourage us to be more accepting of people who identify as queer or trans.

Front cover of Rosey Grier’s Needlepoint for Men (1973).
Front cover of Rosey Grier’s Needlepoint for Men (1973).

And men do knit! The male inmates at Rio de Janeiro’s maximum security prison, Arisvaldo de Campos Pires, knit to reduce their prison sentence (an example of people taking up knitting not to reduce stress or create community but for economic survival). And of course there is Rosey Grier, one of the 1960s LA Rams’ Fearsome Foursome defensive line. While he is mainly a needlepoint aficionado, Grier also knits (just check out this awesome PSA on prostate cancer prevention). He even published a book titled Rosey Grier’s Needlepoint for Men. Grier demonstrates that knitting can — and does — cross gender and racial boundaries.

So knitting as a feminist practice must be intentional. It must question gender, class, and racial hierarchies. And I see my knitting as subversive. I like the look on people’s faces when I pull out my knitting in a variety of settings. They see a young woman, passionate about feminism, who is not afraid to also engage in “traditionally” feminine activities in public, an act itself that can be dissident. As Zack Z. Bratich and Heidi M. Brush argue, knitting in public can cause other people discomfort: “Knitting in public is out of place [emphasis in original] … [it] rips open the enclosure of the domestic space to public consumption.”5 Bratich and Brush contend that the past denigration of knitting groups was part of the logic of capitalism: “from the perspective of capital and masculine value” these spaces were seen as a waste of time.6 Thus, public displays of knitting can disrupt capitalist logic by bringing the “home” into the public sphere, questioning that exact separation.

And feminist knitters are in the public sphere. Take the Snatchel Project, where knitters create uteruses and vaginas to send to their male representatives in Congress. Their motto? “Hands off my uterus! Here’s one of your own!” Feminists are also calling on knitters to send their knitted uteruses to Hobby Lobby Headquarters. So feminist knitters of the world — unite! Send out your uteruses, or whatever you have, to make a point.

Further Reading

Anne MacDonald. No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting. New York: Ballantine Books, 1988.

Debbie Stoller. Stitch ‘n Bitch Nation. New York: Workman Publishing, 2004.

Notes

  1. Stitch ‘N Bitch: The Knitter’s Handbook (New York: Workman Publishing, 2003), 6–7. Return to text.
  2. Beth Ann Pentney, “ Feminism, Activism, and Knitting: Are the Fibre Arts a Viable Mode for Feminist Political Action?,” Third Space: A Journal of Feminist Theory & Culture 8, no. 1 (Summer 2008).Return to text.
  3. Stitch ’N Bitch, 7. Return to text.
  4. Pentney, “Feminism, Activism, and Knitting.” Return to text.
  5. “Fabricating Activism: Craft-Work, Popular Culture, Gender,” Utopian Studies 22, no. 2 (2011): 237. Return to text.
  6. Ibid., 240. Return to text.

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7 Comments

L.D. Burnett

Cassia, I really enjoyed this post. What I have found particularly interesting about Rosey Grier’s public image as a “needlework practitioner” is the way that it played with gender stereotypes to subvert racial stereotypes, and vice versa, while in some ways reinscribing those very stereotypes. I posted about this a while back at the US Intellectual History blog. http://s-usih.org/2014/01/a-stitch-in-time.html

Cassia Roth

L.D. – Thank you for your insightful comments and the link to your own article, which makes the excellent point that in subverting racial and gender stereotypes, Grier’s image simultaneously reinforced them.

larafreidenfelds

The point about yarn prices is interesting, but it’s not the whole story. It depends where you buy your yarn. My grandmother crocheted with affordable yarn from discount stores, and she really enjoyed being able to give personalized, special gifts to her family and friends. I crochet, and I enjoy fancy yarn shops, but they certainly aren’t the only place to get your supplies. I enjoy buying and reading doily patterns because I think they can tie women together across lines of class and political persuasion. They are often written by women will less formal education than me, but much more experience and knowledge in this craft, and I am studying their work that I admire. People who do not identify as women can and do enjoy hand crafts, but what has always struck me as feminist about them is the fact that they are one of those surprise connections among women who do not explicitly share political values.

Cassia Roth (@MixmasterCass)

Dear Lara – You make several excellent points. You are absolutely right, after beginning to knit I have had surprising yet wonderful connections with women I would otherwise not have contact with.

Stephanie

Thank you for the piece, I think you hint at some of the wonderful feminist things about knitting and knitting communities, and also the continuation of gender stereotypes and the fetishization of the male knitter (Steven B and Steven West I’m looking at you).
The history of knitting as a hobby rather than a necessary part of clothing the family is an interesting and understudied one.
Academic women are notorious knitters, and there is a huge community of them on Ravelry. If you aren’t already a member, join us!

Cassia Roth

Stephanie – I had not heard of either Steven B or Steven West, so thank you for bringing that to my attention. Virtual communities is one great think about knitting in the age of the internet!

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