A bi-annual gathering of knit enthusiasts and researchers
Last week I was delighted to be sitting in a lecture theatre at In the Loop. It is a bi-annual conference talking all things knitting. Over the years it has travelled to Glasgow and Shetland (which sadly I couldn’t make) but this year saw its return to the Winchester School of Art where I attended the very first conference in 2008. This venue has knitting significance as it has housed the knitting reference library since 1999 comprising the published works collected by Montse Stanley, Richard Rutt and Jane Waller.
10 Years On
I’ve got to admit that 10 years ago my first experience of an academic knitting conference was a little confusing. Back in 2008 I thought it was about designing and making something to wear, probably as quickly as possible, and hopefully for some financial reward. Since then my eyes have opened up to the possibilities and hidden depths of “making” by hand. A stitched textiles degree and a few years of teaching later I am now able to appreciate how academic papers can be submitted on subjects as wide ranging as knitting as an economic and cultural identity, through to knitting as sacred space, and on to knitting as a metaphor in children’s illustrated books.
A lot was covered in two days but a few discussions really stood out for me which I would like to share with you.
Knitting for wellbeing
We are hearing a lot at the moment about the health benefits of knitting and Rachael Matthews shared her thoughts about producing her book, “The Mindfulness in Knitting”. The advert for the book states:
Everyone can pick up a pair of needles and a ball of yarn. And everyone can be mindful.
This prompted a discussion about whether promoting knitting as a method of self care for people with money and time in this way, glosses over the fact that it is actually a neurologically challenging process. Rachael presented examples from her participative knitting events. She also discussed her experience of teaching knitwear design at degree level when presented with young enthusiastic designers embarking on a degree course who have never hand knitted before. Everyone might be able to pick up a pair of needles and a ball of yarn. But not everyone can knit competently.
Practice makes perfect
Knitting requires countless hours of practice to perfect and when faced with frustrated beginners in a class environment I often liken the physical process of knitting to playing the piano. It takes a lot of invested hours to produce a smooth and pleasant sound despite knowing where all the notes are from quite an early place in the learning process.
However, unlike playing the piano, there is a perception that knitting is low skill and everyone can do it. I have yet to encounter someone who can’t pick it up at all in my beginners classes, but some folks are definitely quicker to execute the motor skills required to manipulate two sticks and a piece of “string” into something evenly tensioned and fit for purpose.
As a slight aside but again an example of the neurological challenges presented by learning to knit by hand, I urge you to watch a TED talk by talented knit designer Kate Davies. It is called Handywoman: Making a Creative Life in which she explains the process of relearning how to knit after suffering from a stroke at the age of 36. I’ve linked to the video at the end of the post.
Knitting as memory
Jean Oberlander presented a paper about the the power of softness. She discussed how knitted items form connections to lost family members and how fixing and darning makes that garment (and hence the connection) eternal. Stains and smells of the creator might remain in an unwashed hand knitted gift (and probably quite a bit of dog hair in my case!). There was also a discussion about the Ugly Jumper where relations become strained through an unwanted gift that obviously took much time and love to create (we’ve probably all been on both ends of that scenario?).
Knitting as sacred space
Alison Hood visiting from a Canadian University presented a very interesting discussion about knitting as sacred space. For those who were not familiar with the term “sacred space” Alison defined it as communication with the “Divine” or “Other” (not necessarily a religious experience). It is a place of power and transformation and can be positive or negative. I think she summed it up very well with the statement “knitting isn’t just something you do, it is a place you can go….”.
From a personal perspective this applies to many other activities in my life including drawing, running, sitting looking at the sea in my favourite place. The ritual and the intent makes something sacred and for knitting this could include chairs, timings etc. Note the word “can” in “can go“. Chatting over a glass of wine at Stitch n’ Bitch probably isn’t included here but sitting down after work in your favourite armchair, putting on a loved piece of music, facing the garden, and picking up your knitting, might be.
How does Society value knitting?
The discussions above led to an interesting debate about whether and how we can make a living out of something that is often portrayed as being about love, nurturing, mindfulness and spirituality. Society doesn’t tend to value mindful in a monetary way.
These perceptions potentially ignore the fact that:
- knitting isn’t easy
- it takes time and practice (and financial investment)
- not everyone can do it
Knitting and wool in Norway
Dr Ingun Grimstad Klepp presented an interesting talk about knitting and the wool industry in her home country of Norway. Points of interest for me from her talk included:
- 43% of Norwegian women knit! Knit and drink groups are very popular social gatherings (what we call Knit and Natter in the UK and Stitch n’ Bitch in the US).
- Norway has twice as many knitters as other countries.
- Acrylic yarn doesn’t exist in Norway, only natural fibres.
- Underwear is the most popular wool garment in Norway.
- The traditional Norwegian sweater is called a Kofte and is worn with much pride on special occasions and festivals.
The key note speaker on the second day was Professor Jessica Hemmings who presented a paper on Challenging Knitting. Some of the artists who have used knitting to raise awareness of complex topics such as immigration, racism and violence were highlighted including Kate Just, Cat Mazza, Patricia Waller and Mary Sibande amongst others. The success or otherwise of this particular medium to invoke the intended response was also discussed and areas where the stereotypical view of knitting worked against the artist and not for them.
This was seen in the case of The Knitting Map Project directed by Jools Gilson where the allocation of public funding to create a knitted piece of art for public display was heavily criticised, as was the director personally. In an article in the Irish Examiner, 6 May 2015 Jools Gilson says of the project: “I think some of the controversy is good old-fashioned misogyny. The project is about women and the work they do and how it is not valued culturally. Knitting represents the domestic, the private and the female. This work tried to explore further meanings with women coming together and knitting collaboratively, making something that documented the life of a city in an important year.”
What is clear is that knitting is attractive. It draws people in and has the ability to shock and confuse with the subject matter and therefore can be used to great effect by artists. However Professor Hemmings warned us about the notion of Craftivism and romanticised powers of disruption. Is knitting a pink cosy for a lamp post or public sculpture during a spate of yarn bombing really bringing about change? Or is it just littering in a sweet, comforting, decorative and feminine way? We need to be careful of the language used around this ancient craft. Headlines and titles such as “Not your Grannies Knitting” are not helpful.
There is so much more I could discuss with you from these exciting two days of viewing knitting from many different angles. However, I fear this post is way too long already so thank you if you have made it this far. If you would like to find out a bit more about some of the items discussed in this post I have put a couple of links below. And if you don’t know what a Norwegian Kofte looks like there are many examples on Pinterest (sadly I didn’t have a licence free image to put in here).
Links and further reasearch
Handywoman: Making a Creative Life. TED talk by Kate Davies.