Knitting as Political Action, Building Power

Today finding myself again with time to knit, or time I wanted to knit with, I searched the Web for someplace needing hand knitted somethings—a place to donate whatever I knitted. What I found was more interesting: groups that were still knitting to build power. And that throughout history knitting as political action has been as the overt or covert objective of knitting at all.

I love to knit but as a person who is rarely cold, knitting for myself has its limits.   Knitting for friends and family is chancy — even when they choose the color and the yarn and the pattern. The final result is often never worn. I have bins of hats that I intend (intended?) to sell on Etsy but 100+ of them are still sitting under tables and hiding in cupboards.

The Women’s March in 2018 was an ideal time to knit because it was for The Resistance. People were even learning to knit to knit pink hats to defy Donald Trump and his oppressive narcissism being wielded unhinged upon the world. On the morning of the march, I was still knitting at 4 am and had blisters on my hands the next day. So many people were knitting pink hats that Amazon was the only place I could find pink yarn. Messages were flying around on the knitting groups’ email lists about where more pink had been spotted and where a new shipment had been delivered.

I ultimately knitted 20 hats, most of which were worn in the huge demonstration In Washington. People were still requesting them weeks later for sisters, brothers, mothers, daughters, even whole families.

History of knitting as power

Stitch by Stitch: A brief history of knitting as political action on PBS Newshour in 2017 included the Yarn Mission collective as part of a longer history of knitting and other needle arts as political activism. This is a history that I didn’t know and I’ve been knitting for almost 60 years. It’s perfectly logical that women used knitting in the service of power considering that women in the 18th century,  the age of the great revolutions, were constantly knitting. Knitting wasn’t an elite past time for ladies. It was necessary. It wasn’t only the soldiers at the front who won those wars.

There are also several new books on the history of knitting.  They picture Norwegian women walking down country roads knitting with small bags attached to their wrists that held one ball of yarn.  Women at home during the first WW knitting bandages, gloves, and socks. Prue’s Irish History Blog includes a brief history of knitting with a photograph of Franklin Roosevelt knitting  on a porch step and a poster of Eleanor knitting on a plane. Known as the “First Lady of Knitting,” she carried her knitting with her everywhere.

Franklin Roosevelt knitting as he sits on the porch steps with Eleanor.
Franklin Roosevelt knitting as he sits on the porch steps with Eleanor.

The Yarn Mission

Of the many groups knitting as a political action, this one stood out:  The Yarn Mission that knits in support of Black Liberation. Their website includes patterns as well as a blog on events and actions. Knitted articles are sold to support the group’s work. Surprisingly, the patterns include a number of lace projects for socks, boot tops, and fingerless gloves. They are detailed and would be challenging to knit. Others are simpler and more welcoming to new knitters. The Yarn Mission holds knitting circles and members knit everywhere.

Two women from the Yarn Mission knitting outdoors.

Short list of books that discuss knitting in history

Knitting America: A Glorious Heritage from Warm Socks to High Art by Susan S. Strawn.

From the forward: “Susan has placed the history of knitting within the context of American history, so we can clearly see how knitting is intertwined with such subjects as geography, migration, politics, economics, female emancipation, and evolving social mores.” —Melanie Falick

No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting by Anne L MacDonald.

Historian and lifelong knitter, Anne Macdonald tells how the necessity—and the pleasure—of knitting has shaped women’s lives. Assembled from articles in magazines, knitting brochures, newspaper clippings and other primary sources, and featuring reproductions of advertisements, illustrations, and photographs from each period.

Poems of Color: Knitting in the Bohus Tradition by Wendy Keele

A unique book about a unique knitting tradition. The story of a  community of women in Sweden who saved themselves and their families during the depression by knitting. They began knitting utilitarian pieces using handspun yarns in natural colors. After WW II  the women still needed to support their families, but such simple items were available from factories again. Organizer Emma Jacobssen realized that they could not earn enough money in the new market unless they developed a special, exclusive product. This they did with hand dyed yarns in exquisite colors knitted into intricate patterns of subtle color. One row might include 5 different colors. The sweaters were sold under the Bohus Stickning brand and became world-famous. Color Poems presents these patterns and highlights some of the knitters and the patterns they developed.

For Extra Credit: Subscribe to the Safety Pin Box

Not exactly about knitting, in fact not at all, but I found an interesting action plan at  the Safety Pin Box, a monthly subscription service, designed for white people striving to be allies in the fight for Black Liberation. Subscriptions are a way to financially support Black woman and femme freedom fighters while completing measurable tasks in the fight against white supremacy. Each month, tasks are sent to subscribers to execute.

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