Why would a revolutionary socialist spend time knitting? Amy Gilligan writes on craft for production and pleasure, republished from Spectre magazine.
In the last few years I’ve become increasingly enthusiastic about knitting. From a simple garter stitch scarf, I’ve now progressed to jumpers in lace patterns. My collection of pattern books has steadily grown, and my yarn stash has now spilled over into two boxes. Most people seem happy for me to pursue this activity, although some seem quite bemused as to why a revolutionary socialist would want to spend so much time doing something that seems to be linked to the domestic role that women have played, and continue to play in society.
Knitting is a highly gendered activity. Recently at a knitting themed pub quiz, my housemate, who came along because we felt guilty about leaving him home alone, was the only man. He doesn’t knit. This is an anecdotal example demonstrating something that can be shown statistically. According to Google’s AdSense 83% of users of the knitting and crocheting social networking site Ravelry are women. This is a modern example, but knitting as an activity primarily practised by women had a long history.
Crafts such as knitting have been dominantly been practised in a domestic setting by women, and have a strong association with the privatised reproduction of labour power within the family. Looking back to the 1950s, and earlier, the image of a woman knitting is likely to be one making clothes for her husband and children. How skilfully she could make baby bonnets and bootees was seen as a sign of how good a housewife and mother she was. Women’s magazines from around this time included patterns to knit and sew. In schools, up until 1975, needlecrafts were an activity almost exclusively undertaken by girls, reflecting the way that what was taught in schools was often determined by what roles it was thought women should play in society.
It is not surprising that for some involved in the Women’s Liberation movement of the 1970s resisting roles imposed on them by society meant rejecting crafts. Their practice was seen to reinforce women’s oppression as they were linked to activities associated with women being the people responsible for looking after children and the home. This doesn’t, however tell the whole story. There were attempts to subvert the traditional forms that crafts took, challenging the ideal of domestic life and femininity they often depicted. Rozsika Parker, in her book The Subversive Stitch, describes how feminists in the 1970s took traditional embroidery patterns together with women’s symbols to highlight the double burden of women – working both in and outside of the home. There are also examples of women parodying the notions of chastity and purity that often went along embroidery, in one example spelling out ‘sex’ in a piece of work that was entirely white.
Embroidery has also been employed in political protests by women. Stitched banners, involving embroidery and appliqué were attached to the fences at Greenham Common in the 1980s by women in protests against Cruise missiles being stationed there. The use of craft techniques so clearly associated with women was used to emphasise that they were protesting as women. Using crafts in protest against nuclear weapons is continuing today. In August 2014 there are plans to stretch a 7 mile long knitted scarf from between the two Atomic Weapons Establishments in Berkshire in protest against the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system. This is not an women-only activity as some of the protests at Greenham were, however there is the stipulation that the pieces of the scarf that supporters knit should be pink (currently, a not very gender neutral colour) and nearly all those who have sent pieces in appear to be women. Using wool and fabric in protest seems to be a way of trying to ‘feminise’ the protest, contrasting it to ‘masculine’ war.
Yarn bombing actions, like the one proposed in protest against Trident replacement fit into a wider ‘craftivist’ movement that has developed over the last decade. The idea behind craftivism is to bring together craft activities and political protest or commentary, with the creativity of the craft being “a force to be reckoned with”. In protest to the war in Iraq the Danish artist Marianne Jorgensen covered a series of tanks with thousands of pink knitted squares donated by knitters from Denmark, elsewhere in Europe and the US. The use of pink was to “unarm” the tank, making it “[lose] its authority”. While some yarn bombing is officially sanctioned, much of it is seeking to “beautify public spaces”. Its often employed to comment on the nature of public space and the lack of control that we have over it.
In The Culture of Knitting Joanna Turney argues that “engagement in practical and creative activity such as knitting, acts as a tool for changing society”. If this is the case then as someone who wants to change the world, knitting would seem to be something I should be encouraging more of my fellow revolutionaries to take up. Nice as it would be to spend my evenings at home making jumpers, if we are actually going to get rid of capitalism and the crisis, war, poverty and environmental destruction that it brings, then practising crafts isn’t the way that we’re actually going to do it.
As a creative form of protest yarn bombing is good for creating striking visual scenes, which can help to raise awareness about an issue. However, even if the identification of craft in protest with women isn’t shouted about, the ‘feminine’ nature of craft is still there below the surface, and used as a contrast to the ‘masculinity’ of war. I do, in some ways, find this problematic as it seems to reinforce the notion that it is an inherent characteristic of women to be soft and caring, and that wars, in part, are due to men’s aggressive tendencies. Clearly this isn’t the case. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister when Cruise missiles were being stationed at Greenham Common.
It is also worth considering, briefly, the way in which the ideas of homemade crafts have seen a growth in relation to the economic crisis and austerity of the last 5 years. In Britain, rhetoric has harked back to the austerity of the 1940s: we should make do and mend, that “we’re all in it together”. The image of the thrifty housewife knitting, sewing and baking is one that the Tories wouldn’t shy away from promoting as they dismantle the NHS, cut services and attack the pay and conditions of millions of workers. The emphasis on the private family as where care for the young and old should take place are an important part of their attempts to destroy the welfare state.
A plethora of books and TV shows have reinforced these ideas, and they have sold well. In 2009 sales of craft books were up 20% against a general decline in book sales of 1.2%, 6.3 million viewers tuned in the start of season 4 of the Great British Bake Off, and sales at Hobbycraft went up 12% in 2012. There is the idea that a little saving here and there, making your own Christmas presents, socks, cupcakes or whatever, will help ease the pain of pay cuts and unemployment. But this notion of ‘thrift’ is contradictory. The reality is that the materials needed for crafts are expensive, and while such activities can been very enjoyable, they are time consuming and labour intensive. A blanket I made recently cost around £100 in materials and I probably spent over 100 hours knitting, purling and stitching it together. Therefore the idea that austerity can be endured by participating in such activities is one that we shouldn’t buy into.
It is impossible to ignore the gendered nature of how crafts are both practised and presented in society, but I think some caution needs to be exercised in placing too much political value on either their practice or rejection. I find knitting a pleasurable activity, but don’t feel that by doing it I’m making a political statement – for me it is something I do in my spare time where other people might go kayaking, play computer games or write poetry.
Women’s oppression isn’t going to stop if we all stop knitting, and capitalism won’t be overthrown through stitching banners. I’m not really sure anyone seriously believes this to be the case. We do need to reject the idea that women should be the ones responsible for the reproduction of labour power in the private family, and that that women do in the home are of a lower status and level of skill than activity outside of the home. While we can fight in the sphere of reproduction, I’d agree with Tithi Bhattacharya when she argues that “we can only win against the system in the sphere of production”.
Allen, Katie, 2010 “Quilty Pleasures” The Bookseller
BBC Four, 2013 “Knitting’s Golden Age” Fabric of Britain (18 September, 21:00)
Bhattacharya, Tithi, 2013, “What is Social Reproduction Theory?”
Hermanson, Tove, 2012, “Subversive Knitting” Thread for Thought
Jorgensen, Marianne (2006) “Pink M.24 Chaffee”
Parker, Rozsika, 2010, The Subversive Stitch (2nd ed) (I.B.Tauris)
Sheppard, Emma, 2013, “‘It’s Not a Hobby, It’s a Post-apocalyptic Skill’: Space, Feminism, Queer, and Sticks and String” Bad Subjects
Turney, Joanne, 2009, The Culture of Knitting (Berg)
Wood, Zoe, 2012, “Austerity Britain turns to craft stores for a homemade Christmas” The Observer (2 December)
Note: This piece was published before rs21 was established as an independent organisation in January 2014. rs21 was founded by a group of people who had been in the opposition within the SWP and who left in response to its persistent mishandling of rape and sexual harassment allegations against a leading member.